It was midnight when Susruta was awakened by a frantic knocking at the door.
“Who’s out there?” asked the aged doctor, taking a lighted torch from its socket in the wall and approaching the door.
“I’m a traveler, by revered Susruta,” was the anguished reply. “A tragedy has befallen me. I need your help…”
Susruta opened the door. What he saw was a man kneeling before him, tears flowing from his eyes and blood from his disfigured nose.
“Get up, my son, and come in,” said Susruta. “Everything will be all right. But be quiet, now.”
He led the stranger to a neat and clean room, with surgical instruments on its walls. Unfolding a mattress he asked him to sit on it after taking off his robe and washing his face with water and the juice of a medicinal plant. Susruta then offered the traveler a mug of wine and began preparing for the operation.
With a large leaf of creeper brought from the garden, he measured the size of the stranger’s nose. Taking a knife and forceps from the wall, he held them over a flam and cut a strip of flesh from the stranger’s cheek. The man moaned, but the wine had numbed his senses.
After banding the cut in the cheek, Susruta cautiously inserted two pipes into the stranger’s nostrils and transplanted the flesh to the disfigured nose. Moulding the flesh into shape he dusted the nose with powdered liquorice, red sandalwood and extract of Indian barberry. He then enveloped the nose in cotton, sprinkled some refined oil of sesame on it and finally put a bandage. Before the traveler left, he was given instructions on what to do and what not to and a list of medicines and herbs he was to take regularly. He was also asked to come back after a few weeks to be examined.
In this manner did Susruta mend a nose some 26 centuries ago. And what he did is not greatly different from what a plastic surgeon would do today. In fact, Susruta is today recognized as the father of plastic surgery all over the world. His treatise, Susrutasamhita, has considerable medical knowledge of relevance even today. It indicates that India was far ahead of the rest of the world in medical knowledge. In the eighth century A.D. Susrutasamhita was translated into Arabic as Kitab-Shaw Shoon-a-Hindi and Kitab-i-Susrud.
Born in the sixth century B.C., Susruta was a descendant of the Vedic sage Visvamitra. He learnt surgery and medicine at the feet of Divodasa Dhanvantari in his hermitage at Varanasi. Later, he became an authority in not only surgery but other branches of medicine.
He was the first physician to advocate what is today known as the “caesarean” operation. He was also expert in removing urinary stones, locating and treating fractures and doing eye operations for cataract. Several centuries before Joseph Lister, he put forth the concept of asepsis. His suggestion to give wine to patients about to be operated upon makes him also the father of anaesthesia.
In his treatise, Susruta lists 101 types of instruments. His Samdamsa yantras are the first forms of the modern surgeon’s spring forceps and dissection and dressing forceps. In fact, his system of naming surgical tools after the animals or birds they resemble in shape, for example crocodile forceps, hawkbill forceps, is adopted even today.
Susruta was also an excellent teacher. He told his pupils that one could become a good physician only if one knew both theory and practice. He advised his pupils to use carcases and models for practice before surgery.
In addition to classifying worms that infect the human body, leeches for bloodletting, medicinal herbs, alkalis and metals, Susruta gave a vague classification of animals.