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The Barber Surgeon was one of the most common medical practitioners of medieval Europe – generally charged with looking after soldiers during or after a battle. In this era, surgery was not generally conducted by physicians, but by barbers.
In the British Isles in the Middle Ages
Formal recognition of their skills (in England at least) goes back to 1540, when the Fellowship of Surgeons (who existed as a distinct profession, but were still not "Doctors/Physicians" for reasons including that, as a trade, they were trained by apprenticeship rather than academically) merged with the Company of Barbers, a London livery company, to form the Company of Barber-Surgeons. However, the trade was gradually put under pressure by the medical profession and in 1745, the surgeons split from the Barbers' Company (which still exists) to form the Company of Surgeons. In 1800 a Royal Charter was granted to this company and the Royal College of Surgeons in London came into being (later it was renamed to cover all of England – equivalent Colleges exist for Scotland and Ireland as well as many of the old UK colonies, e.g. Canada).
The last vestige of barbers' links with the surgical side of the medical profession is probably the traditional red and white barber's pole, or a modified instrument from a blacksmith, which is said to represent the blood and bandages associated with their older role. Another link is the British use of the title "Mr" rather than "Dr" by surgeons (when they become qualified as surgeons by e.g. the award of an MRCS or FRCS diploma). This dates back to the days when surgeons did not have a university education (let alone a doctorate); this link with the past is still retained despite the fact that all surgeons now have to gain a basic medical degree and doctorate (as well as undergoing several more years training in surgery) – they no longer perform haircuts, a task the barbers have retained.
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The TV series Children of the Stones featured an enigmatic character described as a Barber-Surgeon (portrayed by Freddie Jones), who had been mysteriously crushed by a fallen stone in the fictional Milbury stone circle.
In the animated series The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, a recurring character named Dr. Barber is shown to offer both hair cuts and surgery.
In the musical Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote and his assistant Sancho Panza encounter a Barber-Surgeon, who boasts of his abilities to not only give a good shave, but bandage up any mishaps his straight razor might inflict.
The Turkish/Kurdish film Yol (1982) depicts a contemporary rural barber performing an emergency dental operation.
The TV series Saturday Night Live, episode 18 of season 3 featured a skit titled Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber with comedian/actor Steve Martin as the title character, Theodoric. Theodoric performs a number of bloodlettings and other procedures that produce less than ideal results leading him to question his practice: "Wait a minute. Perhaps she's right. Perhaps I've been wrong to blindly follow the medical traditions and superstitions of past centuries. Maybe we barbers should test these assumptions analytically, through experimentation and a 'scientific method'. Maybe this scientific method could be extended to other fields of learning: the natural sciences, art, architecture, navigation. Perhaps I could lead the way to a new age, an age of rebirth, a Renaissance! [ thinks for a minute ] Naaaaaahhh!"
A barber surgeon was a person who could perform minor surgical procedures such as bloodletting, cupping therapy or pulling teeth. Barbers could also bathe, cut hair, shave or trim facial hair, and give enemas. The surgeon came with the army at war but could also be used by individuals in peacetime.
- Gross, Dominik, Arnold Schlegel (1850–1924) and the Agony of the Barber-Surgeons as a Profession, Gesnerus – Swiss Journal of the History of Medicine and Sciences 53/1-2, 1996, pp. 67–86
- Gross, Dominik, Marriage Strategies, Social prestige and Property of Barber-Surgeons in 19th-century Württemberg: An Evaluation of Marriage- and Probate Inventories, Historical Social Research 23/4, 1998, pp. 94–108
- Sven Med Tidskr. (2007). "From barber to surgeon- the process of professionalization". Svensk medicinhistorisk tidskrift 11 (1): 69–87. PMID 18548946.
- "Upplandia.se -En webbplats om Uppland - Begrepp yrken & titlar". Upplandia.se. 10 February 2011. Retrieved 22 September 2013.