“Just a little off the top,” the barber directed.
His apprentice dipped a sponge into the pot of egg yolk, rose oil, and turpentine. He dragged it across the surface of the mixture, picking up the floating vital portions.
“Is this enough?” he asked, holding it up to his tutor.
Ambroise looked helplessly over at the empty pot smoking in the coals. “Damn it, how could we have run out of oil?!”
Ambroise grabbed the dripping clump and rubbed it across the open pink flesh of the soldier on the stretcher beside him. He did the same for a dozen more that were brought to him in the mobile hospital, all victims of the new smoothbore rifles.
On March 31st, 1537, the Spanish and French were battling for control of Northern Italy. For months, the barber had been treating the poisonous arquebus wounds with the commonly-accepted medical procedure of the day, by cauterizing them with a boiling solution of elder oil. Ambroise believed wholly in its effectiveness, despite the additional agony that it caused.
When he was relieved for the night, he fell heavily into his bed. But he couldn’t sleep. The thought of those dozen men incorrectly-treated weighed heavily upon him. He could occasionally hear screams of pain issuing from the hospital. He lay awake all night. He expected to find those last patients mad with pain and infection in the morning.
At dawn, his apprentice ushered him to the cot of the first soldier he had treated with the new salve. He was sitting up, smiling. Across from him was another soldier, the last one he treated with the burning oil. He was writhing in pain.
The lack of “proper” supplies led Ambroise Paré, barber-surgeon, on a humane path that revolutionized the previously barbarous practice of battlefield medicine.