Wilhelm Fabricius Hildanus

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Wilhelm Fabricius Hildanus


German Surgeon

Fabricius Hildanus was the "Father of German Surgery." He was the first to use magnets to extract iron slivers from the eye, the first to operate successfully for gallstones, and among the first to use tourniquets and ligatures to control bleeding. He improved amputation techniques and introduced many new surgical instruments.

Born Wilhelm Drees in Hilden, near Düsseldorf, Germany, on June 25, 1560, he is known variously as Wilhelm Fabry von Hilden, Wilhelm Fabricius von Hilden, Guilhelmus (or Guilielmus) Fabricius Hildanus, Wilhelm Fabricius Hildanus, or sometimes just as Fabricius Hildanus. He is not to be confused with the other great "Fabricius" of medicine, Italian anatomist Girolamo Fabrizio, known as Hieronymus Fabricius ab Aquapendente (1537-1619).

Although orphaned at a young age, Fabricius Hildanus received an excellent humanistic classical education, and became fluent in Latin. He was apprenticed to several barber-surgeons and military surgeons, including Jean Griffon in Geneva, Switzerland. After studying in Switzerland, France, and Italy, he practiced in Switzerland and Germany.

In 1587 he married Marie Colinet, the daughter of a printer in Geneva. She was already an accomplished midwife and surgeon. He taught her additional surgical skills and they practiced surgery together in Bern, Switzerland. If he was the Father of German Surgery, then she was its Mother. When a patient presented with a piece of steel in his eye in 1624, using a magnet to get it out was her idea. She wrote and published several books, all literary or religious, none medical or surgical. Yet her surgical insights permeated her husband's works, and he acknowledged that she surpassed him in orthopedics, ophthalmological surgery, cancer surgery, and several other kinds of surgery. She successfully performed caesarian section 40 times in an era when it was nearly always fatal to the pregnant woman.

Fabricius Hildanus was known for his skill and speed in operating, his conservative surgical theory, and his preference for ancient medical and surgical authors. He invented the otoscope, or aural speculum, a device for examining the entire ear canal, and improved the drug kit for battlefield surgery.

He either rejected or was ignorant of new techniques, advanced by Ambroise Paré (1510-1590), for the treatment of wounds. Fabricius Hildanus continued to rely on medieval treatments in military and trauma surgery, such as the so-called "weapon salve," a form of sympathetic magic in which lotions, herbs, or oils are applied to the weapon that caused the wound in the belief that it could heal the wound, even if the wounded person was miles away. Sympathetic magic is to perform an action on one object while intending another object to receive the effect of that action. Some examples are dancing to generate rain, shooting at mock animals to ensure a good hunt, and causing human illness by sticking pins in voodoo dolls.

In De gangraena et sphacelo (On gangrene and sloughing), published in 1593, Fabricius Hildanus recommended amputation for gangrene, high above the infected part. His greatest work was the six-volume Observationum et curationum chirurgicarum centuriae (Six hundred surgical observations and treatments), published in 1606-1641, to which Marie contributed immeasurably. In his 1607 De combustionibus (On burns), one of the earliest books to deal exclusively with injuries caused by heat and fire, he categorized burns in a practical, systematic way. His other works include: De vulnere quodam gravissimo et periculoso (On the most grave and dangerous wounds), 1614; New Feldt Arztny Buch von Kranckheiten und Schäden (New book of field medicine for illnesses and wounds), 1615; De dysenteria (On dysentery), 1616; Anatomiae praestantia et utilitas (The superiority and usefulness of anatomy), 1624; Schatzkämmerlein der Gesundheit (Little treasury of health), 1628; Lithotomia vesicae (Lithotomy in the bladder), 1628; Consilium in quo de conservanda valetudine (Consultation on the preservation of health), 1629; and Cheirurgia militaris (Military surgery), 1634.