106: Surgery in a Tavern

Episode 106: The Garrison Commander

title card
source:  Starz

The opening of The Garrison Commander finds Claire trying to assure the chivalrous Lieutenant Jeremy Foster that she is indeed a guest of the Clan MacKenzie and in no danger. Alas, he doesn’t seem fully convinced and informs Claire that she must accompany him to speak with his commander.

travelling party wide 2
source:  Starz

The Red Coats, Claire, and Dougal arrive in the village which Red Coats have occupied and Claire finds herself feeling some relief, sitting at a lovely meal of venison and charming her countrymen with lively conversation.

meal with countrymen
source:  Starz

Her momentary relief is interrupted first by Captain Jack Randall (more to come) and then by a soldier who rushes in to inform the commander of an attack. Three enlisted men have been fired upon just outside of the camp. One man is dead, two are wounded, one severely, and no one can find the surgeon!

can't find the surgeon
source:  Starz

Claire, of course, is on her feet and ready to help.

Downstairs in the tavern, the wounded soldier is carried to a tavern table. His arm is significantly injured and Claire realizes it cannot be saved. The arm will need to be amputated. Claire takes charge, applying a tourniquet above the wound and instructing the men to bring boiling water and clean cloth.

onto the table
source:  Starz

The surgeon arrives and asks Claire whether she is going to faint when he begins to sew. He clearly doesn’t know our Claire. She assures him that she has seen worse and she directs the other soldiers to hold down the wounded man.

claire takes charge
source:  Starz

The surgeon hands Claire a vial of opium to administer to the wounded soldier. He is given a stick to bite and told to “bite until your teeth crack.”

wood to bite
source:  Starz

Having administered all available methods of anesthesia, the surgeon begins to saw.
The injured soldier is screaming, onlooking soldiers are sprayed with blood and in the corner, patrons of the tavern are still casually enjoying their ale.

tavern onlookers
source:  Starz


starting to saw
The gruesome work begins / source:  Starz
amputation tools
Sharp, Samuel. (1761). A treatise on the operations of surgery, with a description and representation of the instruments used in performing them: to which is prefix’d an introduction on the nature and treatment of wounds, abscesses, and ulcers. London: J and L Tonson.  (source)


This tavern is far from the sterile operating rooms of today. Surgeries then took place often on kitchen tables with unwashed bare hands, dirty floors and tools that may have at most been wiped with a rag after their last use. It wouldn’t be until the second half of the 19th century that the work of Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, Robert Koch and others would revolutionize infection control.

Amputations in the 18th century. / source

In 1862, French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur published his findings on the germ theory of infection, challenging the thinking of the time that infections were the result of “bad air” arising from rotting organic matter. In 1867, English physician Joseph Lister demonstrated a reduced mortality rate in his patients by using a carbolic acid on the tools and hands of the operating team as well as in the surgical wound.

Dr. William Stewart Halsted, surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, adopted carbolic acid for antisepsis but it soon became clear that carbolic acid was quite rough on the hands of the surgical staff. In 1889 or 1890, Caroline Hampton, Halsted’s chief operating nurse, developed dermatitis on her hands from contact with the disinfectant. Halsted, who she would marry shortly thereafter, requested the Goodyear Rubber Company make her a pair of thin rubber gloves with gauntlets. They were such a success that within 10 years, surgeons and nurses alike were wearing them.  Dr. Joseph Bloodgood, a protege of Halsted, published a report of a nearly 100% drop in infection rate from data on 450 hernia surgeries after he began routinely wearing surgical gloves.

In 1881, Robert Koch developed sterilization processes using steam and hot air and soon after, sterilization by boiling was introduced. Everything used during an operation from the tools to dressing and gowns were boiled.

These advances led to a marked decrease in post surgical infection and mortality. Prior to the introduction of aseptic techniques, most surgical wounds became infected and drainage of pus was actually expected. In fact, finding “laudable pus” – creamy yellow ooze – on a wound within the first 4 days was considered a sign of good healing. Mortality of surgical infections reached 70 percent. Today, with aseptic techniques in surgery and the use of antibiotics, the incidence of surgical site infection ranges from 2-7% with significantly lower rates of mortality.



It is unimaginable the pain these brave patients would have endured in these invasive surgeries with just a swig of opium and a bite block, if that.

Ancient methods of anesthesia for surgery included ingestion of opium or wine and herb mixtures, inhalation of opium and herbs from a sponge held near the nostrils and even application of cocaine by which Incan shamans chewed cocoa leaves and vegetable ash and let their cocaine-laden saliva drip into the wounds of their patients. It wasn’t until the 1800s that significant progress was made toward adequate anesthesia for surgery.

“Die Operation” by Gaspare Traversi, 1753. / source


Nitrous oxide was first discovered in 1772 by English Scientist Joseph Priestly when he tested it on himself, discovering that the gas made him laugh and would have possible anesthetic properties. In 1844, dentist Horace Wells volunteered to have one of his own teeth extracted under nitrous oxide. He then used it successfully over a dozen more times, and was invited by Dr. John Collins Warren at Massachusetts General Hospital to perform a public demonstration of its use for Warren’s students in 1845. Unfortunately, the gas was administered improperly and the patient cried out in pain and Wells was humiliated, ultimately committing suicide.

Dr. Warren, however, then invited Dr. William TG Morton to demonstrate the use of ether (diethyl ether gas, historically called “sweet vitriol”) to anesthetize a patient as he excised a small neck tumor.  The patient remained unconscious throughout the procedure to the amazement of the audience. Thereafter, the use of inhaled anesthetics spread and evolved so that now, the 18 gauge needle used to start an IV in the pre-op holding area might be the most painful part of a surgery!


Later in the episode, Claire is alone with Black Jack Randall. A long discussion could be had about his psychiatric condition, but for today, we’ll discuss the brutal punch he gave Claire and the kicks that he ordered Corproral Hawkins to administer to Claire.  Hit directly in the abdomen, Claire has suffered diaphragm spasm, or more commonly, she had the wind knocked out of her.

source:  Starz

When we inhale, the diaphragm contracts, drawing the lungs down and expanding the rib cage. A temporary vacuum is created and air is pulled through the nose and mouth into the lungs. In exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes, the lungs deflate, and air is expelled out of the mouth and nose. A strong kick to the abdomen causes the diaphragm muscles to spasm, unable to contract and relax normally and thus leaving the victim unable to draw a breath. While it is terrifying and panic inducing, having the wind knocked out of you is not life threatening, and resolves on its own in a few moments.


Caitriona Balfe is an amazingly gifted actress and this scene is painful to watch. Claire’s gasping, panicked breaths are heartbreakingly realistic.

gasping for air
source:  Starz

Dougal rushes in and saves Claire, leaving Randall under the impression that Claire will be delivered to Fort William before sundown tomorrow.

After proving she is not a spy when her gizzards are not burned out at St. Ninian’s spring, Dougal presents to Claire his plan for keeping her out of the hands of the English.  The episode ends with Claire downing a bottle of whisky as she considers the prospect of marrying a strapping young Scot.

claire takes the bottle from dougal
source:  Starz

Hopefully she has stocked her traveling medical kit with plenty of willow bark to ease the hangover she’ll no doubt have tomorrow!



Pruitt, BA. (2006). Combat Casualty Care and Surgical Process. Ann Surg. 243(6): 715-729.

A brief history of sterilization