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Television Reviews : Surgery Goes Under the Knife on PBS' 'Nova'

September 06, 1988|BILL STEIGERWALD

After 15 seasons, the PBS series "Nova" seems to have the art of making an excellent documentary down to a science.

Kicking off season No. 16 is "Pioneers of Surgery" (tonight at 8 on Channels 28 and 15, tonight at 9 on Channel 50), a four-part history of how surgeons have leaped from the crude, death-dealing slashers and cauterizers of 150 years ago to today's heroic, high-tech lifesavers. Based on tonight's segment, "The Brutal Craft," the surgery series looks like another dose of what viewers have come to take for granted from "Nova"--intelligent, interesting and totally satisfying educational TV.

Using such things as film footage of early 1930s brain tumor operations (during which pioneering surgeon Harvey Cushing reduced his death rate from 70% to 4%) and grainy re-enactments of great moments of operating room history, the hour traces the gruesome evolution of modern surgery and how it solved its triad of patient-killing problems--unbearable pain and massive blood loss during surgery and infection afterward.

It's an amazing tale of medical progress, often propelled by surgeons' daring experimentation, by lessons learned from failures and by the bloody demands of modern warfare. In addition to such fun footnotes as how a love affair between a famous surgeon and his head nurse led to the development of rubber surgical gloves, we're told why Oct. 16, 1846, was one of the greatest dates in the history of medicine.

That was the day a small cyst was removed from the neck of a 17-year-old at Boston Hospital. Although it was a simple operation, when it ended the huge audience of medical experts went wild--mainly because the patient had not screamed when he was first cut.

It was the first time ether was used to put a surgery patient to sleep and the operation kicked off the age of peace and quiet in surgery, relates Harold Ellis, professor of surgery at Guy's Hospital in London.

Ellis' charming, witty lecture detailing the primitive butchery that passed for surgery in the 1830s makes him something of a "star" of "Pioneers of Surgery," which was produced to typically high "Nova" standards by Jon Palfreman for Boston station WGBH.

Next week's segment "Into the Heart," about the pioneers of open-heart surgery, will be followed by "New Organs for Old" and "Beyond the Knife," which looks at some excesses of modern surgery.

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