Wilhelm Fabry – Surgeon, Inventor, and Publicist

A Founder of Modern Surgery

August 13, 2010

Before academic education for medical practitioners became the norm, barber-surgeons treated wounds and performed minor operations as members of the tradesmen’s guild as late as the end of the 16th century. The surgeon Wilhelm Fabry, born in Hilden in 1560, Germany, was not content with this classification of his profession, however. With a thirst for life-long learning, meticulous observation, and continual involvement with the medical sciences, he advanced from being a barber’s apprentice in Neuss to Surgeon of the City of Berne. Throughout his medical career he published a description of 600 cases in German and Latin, including methods of treatment. He also developed various progressive surgical techniques and instruments. All his life, Wilhelm Fabry campaigned for more importance to be ascribed to the knowledge of anatomy in surgery. For all these reasons he is considered one of the founders of modern surgery. The town of Hilden now celebrates the 450th birthday of its famous son with over 140 events and projects.

Significance of anatomy

"Fabry’s enthusiasm for anatomy may have been triggered by his survival of the plague as a child", reports Dr. Wolfgang Antweiler, Head of the Wilhelm Fabry Museum in Hilden. After his apprenticeship as a barber, the former grammar school pupil worked as an assistant for highly reputed court surgeon Cosmas Slot in Düsseldorf. "There he acquired the necessary knowledge of human anatomy. Fabry adopted Slot’s conviction that all surgery should be based on a thorough knowledge of anatomy", recounts Antweiler.

After the death of his master, Fabry moved to Geneva, as the French-speaking part of Switzerland had a reputation at that time for the number of outstanding physicians working there. Geneva was also the place where he met his wife, Marie Colinet, who he married in 1587. Marie Colinet helped her husband treat patients. “She herself developed the method of extracting metal from a patient’s eye with a magnet. She also helped women with particularly difficult births,” says Antweiler. Fabry practiced from 1602 to 1615 as a surgeon in the towns of Payerne and Lausanne. The climax of his career was his appointment as Surgeon of the City of Berne in 1615, a position he held until his death in 1634.

Oil painting of Wilhelm Fabry, ca. 1620, attributed to Bartholomäus Sarburgh
Copperplate engraving from the French edition of "Observationes" of 1641 according to Matthaeus Merian 1627

Progressive methods of surgery

Wilhelm Fabry’s progressive mind perpetually drove him in his search for new knowledge. "He was a highly educated person who was interested in religious topics and the ancient world", reports Antweiler. "He traveled a great deal and corresponded regularly with physicians and theologists. It was always his endeavor to see more and know more." The complete edition of his medical publications, entitled "opera quae extant omnia", printed posthumously in 1646, contained 600 case studies with descriptions of the methods used to treat them. The work was referenced by physicians for over 150 years. He also made a valuable contribution to the development of surgical techniques. "Many of Fabry’s surgical techniques are still used in a relatively similar form today", says Dr. Hans Bayer-Helms, Medical Director of Trauma Surgery at St. Josef’s Hospital in Hilden. "Fabry lived at the time of the Thirty Years’ War. Amputations due to comminuted fractures were the order of the day. To stop bleeding from blood vessels, he used a red-hot iron. Nowadays vessels are closed by heat induced by electricity. For gangrene amputations, Fabry introduced the ground-breaking method of operating on a healthy area and pulling the skin during surgery to enable proper closure of the stump afterward."

Time of fundamental change

Wilhelm Fabry’s 450th birthday is being be celebrated on June 25, 2010. A wide variety of events and projects – 140 altogether – commemorate the famous son of Hilden until the end of 2010. Antweiler says, "We have compiled a program of events that have a connection to Fabry, to medicine or to his era. Fabry lived in a time of fundamental change. His contemporaries included Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, and Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen." So there should be something for every interest in the many exhibitions, readings, concerts, and plays. There is a particularly wide range of lectures held by speakers from all over Germany and Switzerland, ranging from Wilhelm Fabry’s relationship with constipation through the history of venereal diseases to the lecture, “Surgery Through the Ages – From Wound Healers to Modern Trauma Surgery."

Wilhelm Fabry Museum


Dr. Wolfgang Antweiler
Wilhelm Fabry Museum
e-Mail: Wolfgang.Antweiler@hilden.de
www.wilhelm-fabry-museum.de/ (German only)

Orthopedic instrument
Lifting of a depressed skull
Patient with eye tumor (was successfully removed)

Preparing a patient for amputation of the lower leg. An assistant holds the patient, who is conscious. The amputation saw rests on the floor and herbs (stinging nettles) are heated in a pot to cauterize the stump. While the surgeon removes the limb, the patient, held by assistants, prays and is on the verge of losing consciousness (Copyright for all photos: Stadtarchiv Hilden)

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