Department of Surgery
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Surgery in Malta pre-dated the coming of the Knights of St John when surgeons and physicians, at times Jewish, were recruited in medieval times, from neighbouring Sicily, and at times, from Spain, to see to the needs of the albeit small population inhabiting the Maltese islands. An example was the fifteenth century Jewish surgeon, Xema Girbi. Corsairing was already then an occupation and no galley or sailing ship left the islands’ shores without a barber surgeon on board. The Knights, being a hospitaller order besides a military one, soon established their first hospital in Birgu after settling in Malta, and manned it with the surgeons who had followed them from Rhodes. Not surprisingly, traumatic surgery occupied pride of place, as wounded men were never in short supply owing to their fighting seafaring activities in the Mediterranean. Their hospital in Valletta, over the years, acquired a good international reputation. Not only did Maltese surgeons finish their training abroad, mainly at Salerno and Paris, but there were surgeons who came from neighbouring countries to improve their surgical skills at the Order’s hospital. Surgeons had to spend time on the Order’s galleys before being able to secure a position in the hospital. Surgeons had to show their competence by carrying out, among other operations, amputations, successfully removing cataracts, and cutting for the stone, lithotomy performed to remove bladder stones, then a fairly common condition. The two leading surgeons of the eighteenth century were Gabriele Hennin and his student Michelangelo Grima. Both had spent time training in Florence at the Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova. Grima had previously studied Medicine at Pisa and afterwards went to Paris for further training. Prior to his return to Malta Grima had worked as a military surgeon in Cassel, Germany, during the Seven Years War. They both published their work abroad, and Grima, following research work on dogs, proposed a new way of suturing a damaged intestine. Other Maltese surgeons whose names are recorded with a sense of pride are Dr Gavino Patrizio Portelli, Professor of Anatomy and Surgery (1824-1838), who was Samuel Cooper’s assistant during the British campaign in Holland of 1813-1814; Dr Charles Galland, also Professor of Anatomy and Surgery (1839-1858), who was the first to operate for squint in Malta, Dr Luigi Pisani, a fine surgeon, and his son Professor Salvatore L. Pisani (1828-1908), who having qualified in Malta obtained an M.D. from the University of Edinburgh, and worked as a surgeon, alongside Florence Nightingale at Scutari. He occupied the Chair of Surgery between 1869 and 1885. Dr Giorgio L. Engerer had preceded Pisani to the Chair of Surgery in 1858 and had held it for 11 years. Teodoro Bonnici (1856-1899) who qualified in medicine in 1877, trained in surgery in London and later occupied the Chair of Surgery between 1885 and 1899. In 1888 he was one of the founding members of the Malta Branch of the British Medical Association. He was followed by Professor Salvo Cassar. The First World War, when Malta was described as the Nurse of the Mediterranean, saw some of Britain’s finest surgeons working in Malta. Among these was Sir Charles Alfred Ballance (1856-1936). Young Maltese surgeons worked alongside them. A young, bright Maltese doctor, later to become Malta’s leading twentieth century surgeon, was Peter Paul Debono (1890-1958). Through the efforts of Professor Sir Temi Zammit (1864-1935) and the intervention of Professor Sir Archibald Garrod (1857-1936), Debono secured an important professorial training post at St Bartholomew’s Hospital and soon passed the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, at the end of 1920, the first civilian Maltese doctor to do so. After the Second World War the Chair of Surgery was filled by the late Professor Alfred John Craig (1909-1970), between 1951 and 1969, and later by Professor Victor G. Griffiths, followed by Professor Joseph Muscat and Professor Lino Cutajar. Surgery in Malta never looked back and moved from strength to strength. The island can rightly boast of highly skilled surgeons and the latest advanced surgical facilities now available at the new Mater Dei Hospital.