18. Even after barber-surgeons were barred from performing most procedures, surgeons were often the richest men rather than the most-capable.
It was only towards the very end of the Victorian era that surgeons became respected medical professionals. Prior to this, they were seen more as butchers than as learned physicians – and understandably so, given the techniques many employed to ‘cure’ their patients. However, contrary to popular belief, barbers were no longer permitted to perform surgical procedures, bar tooth-pulling and bloodletting. In England, surgery was recognized as distinct from working as a barber in 1745, with King George II establishing the Royal College of Surgery soon after. This was the first major step towards recognizing surgeons as the elite of the medical world.
However, that doesn’t mean that all Victorian-era surgeons were intellectually smart and professionally competent. Very often they were neither. At that time, entry to the best universities and colleges was limited to the upper classes. Connections and family wealth were often more important than academic ability. As a result, many of the era’s surgeons were relative simpletons attracted to the profession by the blood and guts nature of the work rather than by the intellectual challenge.