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Surgeons amputating a man's leg, 1793.

Surgeons amputating a man's leg, 1793.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Surgical amputations date back to Hippocrates and were for many years one of the main functions of the surgeon. Limbs were amputated most frequently because of war injuries or accidents. One of the major problems associated with amputation is the loss of blood.

In the 1500s French military surgeon Ambroise Paré rediscovered the use of ligatures, using a thread-like or wire material to constrict a patient’s blood vessels. This surgical technique, which stops the flow of blood from a severed vein, greatly reduces the patient's chances of losing too much blood. The introduction of the tourniquet in 1674 further advanced the practice of surgical amputation, as the blood flow could be severely restricted and the patient would not die as a result of blood loss.

Pain and infection were other complications which impacted on the success of amputations. The last war to see amputation on a vast scale was the First World War, where 42,000 amputations were carried out. Amputation is still performed to save lives, but it is not practised in anything like the numbers it was in earlier centuries and during the First World War.


R Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (London: HarperCollins, 1997)



A thread or string for tying the blood vessels, particularly the arteries, to prevent bleeding. The word ‘ligature’ can also refer to the action or result of binding or tying, e.g. the ligature of an artery.


An apparatus designed for the compression of the vessels of the limb. A loosely applied tourniquet can reduce venous blood flow out of a limb. A tightly applied tourniquet can lessen arterial blood flow into it.