This article explores the ways in which risk and responsibility were conceptualised in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by surgeons, their patients and the lay public. By this point surgery could be seen, simultaneously, as safe (due to developments in surgical science) and increasingly risky (because such progress allowed for greater experimentation). With the glorification of the heroic surgeon in the late Victorian and early Edwardian period came a corresponding, if grudging, recognition that successful surgery was supported by a team of ancillary professionals. In theory, therefore, blame for mistakes could be shared amongst the team; in practice, this was not always the case. Opening with an examination of the May Thorne negligence case of 1904, I will also, in the latter third of this piece, focus on surgical risks encountered by women surgeons, themselves still relatively new and, therefore, potentially risky individuals. A brief case study of the ways in which one female-run institution, the New Hospital for Women, dealt with debates surrounding risk and responsibility concludes this article. The origin of the risks perceived and the ways in which responsibility was taken (or not) for risky procedures will provide ways of conceptualising what ‘surgical anxiety’ meant in the 1890s and 1900s.
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