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The Badass History of Barber-Surgeons (and Why We Might Want Them Back)

That is, as long as we can ditch the practices of cleaning hair with urine and drilling gigantic holes in the skull

One of the oldest photos of me depicts my very first haircut. A friendly-looking older barber wields a gleaming pair of scissors, and I’m bawling in the chair — even though he hasn’t cut a single hair yet. I don’t remember this moment except for the certainty that getting your hair trimmed had to hurt. How could having part of yourself snipped off be painless?

Now I wonder if my fear of the barber (I still find haircuts uncomfortably intimate at times) is a kind of genetic memory. Because for hundreds of years, the profession encompassed much more than personal grooming, and not all of their services were as benign.

You see vestiges of this weird history today. In Palisades Park, New Jersey, not 20 miles from where I was traumatized by those giant scissors as a kid, a barbershop owner named Young Hwan Choi was arrested last week for allegedly botching a laser treatment on a customer’s face. He faces “charges of aggravated assault and the unlicensed practice of medicine and surgery.” As late as the 1950s, a barber in Melbourne, Australia, would gladly pull a tooth for you — without anesthetic.

Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans had barber-surgeons, as did China. The indigenous people of the Americas were performing successful brain surgeries a thousand years ago, though if you survived, you spent the rest of your life with a giant hole in your skull. For generations and across cultures, such traumatic and invasive procedures were considered separate from and lower than proper “medicine,” and physicians shied away from it. The Hippocratic Oath includes this phrase: “I will not cut persons laboring under the stone, but will leave this to be done by men who are practitioners of this work.” That is to say, doctors had no business performing surgery on those suffering from kidney stones, bladder stones or gallstones — this job was reserved for a different professional class. Barbers, who kept clean, sharp tools and knew how to use them, filled this and similar needs but often had no formal education, learning the trade through an apprenticeship, as with many other kinds of skilled labor.

They also had some pretty interesting ideas about how to make your hair look its best:  

Among their many specialties in the Medieval era, barber-surgeons would ride into battle with armies to treat the war wounded, perform bloodletting with leeches, lance boils and abscesses, carry out “cupping” therapy and even do full amputations. The goriness of the work contributed to the sense that “there [was] no more science in surgery than in butchering” and no doubt led to the popular tale (or urban legend, as it sometimes was in Victorian London) of Sweeney Todd, a fictional barber who was said to slice up customers, giving their bodies to an accomplice who turned them into meat pies she then sold to the public. Added bonus: They couldn’t leave a bad Yelp review.    

Still, you can almost see the appeal, right? While the pretentious, aloof physician was off hanging out in some noble family’s castle, developing harebrained theories on which of the four humors causes gout, you could go see a possibly illiterate barber-surgeon — someone nonetheless able, with hands-on anatomical know-how, to pop your shoulder back into its socket for a minor fee. With the healthcare system being what it is in the United States, this sounds way better than a trip to the emergency room. Just head down the block and look for a barber pole, the white and red of which suggests the blood and bandages of the barber-surgeon’s profession, and ask them to stitch you up. Hell, you could get your mustache and sideburns styled, too. You’ve earned it!  

I mean, also, is your general practitioner inventing badass iron prosthetics? Nope.

Sadly, history had other plans. Although England’s King Henry VIII famously merged the guilds of surgeons and barbers in 1540, as if to forever cement the association of these arts, by 1745 the medical community had decided that surgery was their area of expertise after all, and the surgeons broke away. In 1800 their guild became the snooty-sounding Royal College of Surgeons, while barbers were left to deal with hair and other cosmetic concerns. No longer are they expected to address your health.

But people want to change that. Last year, a few blocks away from my West Hollywood apartment, a business called Barber Surgeons Guild opened its doors. Billed in part as a “medical spa,” they cater to L.A.’s wellness culture, offering fat removal, facials, Botox, laser tattoo removals and even “robotic hair regeneration.”

They have a chief medical officer — a plastic and hair-restoration surgeon — and claim to have a substantial celebrity clientele. On the less bougie side, and more in line with the barber-surgeon’s traditional role in underserved communities, the late Dr. Ronald Victor, a hypertension specialist, conducted a fascinating study intended to challenge the issue of medical elitism. His data showed that black men who had their blood pressure taken by barbers and were then referred to a pharmacist for medication enjoyed better health outcomes than those whose barbers simply encouraged them to modify their lifestyles or see a doctor. Victor’s colleague, Dr. Milton Packer, wrote that this was a brilliant fix where confidence in the medical establishment has been eroded: “Now, barbers are stepping up again as trusted members of the community to link people to essential treatments that they would be reluctant to take if prescribed by a physician,” he concluded.

Makes sense to me. And hey, I’m way more scared of doctors these days than I was of the barber in that old photo. In fact, next time I’m at the shop for a trim, I’ll ask the barber if they can check out this weird mole in my armpit. Can’t hurt, right?