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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The first barbers were blood

If you go to a barber you'll see a barber poll.  Three colors revolve: red, white and blue.  The red white and blue represent blood and bones.  Why blood and bones?  Because your friendly neighbohood barber used to do more than just cut hair:  he performed surgery.

In Ancient Mesopotamia, say around 1750 B.C. and even earlier, there were various types of physicians, with one type being the barber.  This was the time when the Code of Hammurabi was written, and the gallabu, the barber, was mentioned.

In Mesopotamia the barber was one of many types of physicians.  Even back then, when the profession was in it's infancy, the medical profession was broken down into specialties.  One such specialty was the gallabu.  His functions were as follows:
  1. Cut hair and shave
  2. Perform minor surgery
  3. Brand slaves
  4. Extracted teeth
It's interesting to note that the surgical instrument, the lancet, was called the "barber's knife."

The Code mentions the gallabu because he needed to be protected, and his patients needed to be protected from him.  Unsuccessful treatment meant the loss of the dentist's hands.  Yet if he succeeded he was paid well. 

During medieval times barbers performed surgeries, but they were most famous for blood letting.  This is where they purposefully, and with your willing participation, slit your skin with a blade and let out some blood.  This was done to balance the humor (bodily fluids), because they believed an imballance resulted in disease.  When you were sick, therefore, you needed balance and you'd see a barber.  Another method of bleeding was by placing leeches on your skin.

As a matter of fact, the original poll has a brass wash basin at the top and bottom.  The basin on top represented the container the leeches were in, and the bottom the container that cought blood.  The pole represented the staff the patinet held during the procedure to encourage flow of blood to balance the humors.

Some nations had a poll that was wrapped in the bloody bandages to represent the roll of bleeding, or to advertise that you could be bleed to cure your ailments at this barber shop. 

Around 1163 some laws forced the separation of barbers and surgeons, and some countries ruled that barbers have a blue and white pole and surgeons have a red poll.  Either way, in modern times the surgeon and barber are two separate professions.

In America most barbers place a barber poll of red, white and blue colors outside their shops.  Some speculate this may be representative of national colors.  Yet others speculate the colors represent the surgical aspect of the old dental profession.  Red represents arterial blood, blue represents venous blood, and white represents bone and bandages.


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