This paper introduces simulation-based re-enactment (SBR) as a novel method of documenting and studying the recent history of surgical practice. SBR aims to capture ways of surgical working that remain within living memory but have been superseded due to technical advances and changes in working patterns. Inspired by broader efforts in historical re-enactment and the use of simulation within surgical education, SBR seeks to overcome some of the weaknesses associated with text-based, surgeon-centred approaches to the history of surgery. The paper describes how we applied SBR to a previously common operation that is now rarely performed due to the introduction of keyhole surgery: open cholecystectomy or removal of the gall bladder. Key aspects of a 1980s operating theatre were recreated, and retired surgical teams (comprising surgeon, anaesthetist and theatre nurse) invited to re-enact, and educate surgical trainees in this procedure. Video recording, supplemented by pre- and post-re-enactment interviews, enabled the teams’ conduct of this operation to be placed on the historical record. These recordings were then used to derive insights into the social and technical nature of surgical expertise, its distribution throughout the surgical team, and the members’ tacit and frequently sub-conscious ways of working. While acknowledging some of the limitations of SBR, we argue that its utility to historians – as well as surgeons – merits its more extensive application.
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