The Barber pole is a legacy that has transcended generations and is still seen in front of every barber shop around. The red and white stripes are thought to represent the blood (red stripe), dripping down the body (the pole). There is some controversy about the origin of the blue stripe – some believe it was the USA making it more patriotic while others believe it represented the vein (which is typically are represented by blue lines in anatomy). The history of the barber in medical practice goes way back to at least the 12th century. It was the “barber-surgeon” who was chosen to perform many operations, which are quite hazardous to our health now-a-days…blood-letting being one of them. This odd procedure consisted of cutting a vein open of the “patient” and “letting” out almost all of the patient’s blood to try and release the “infection.” It was used for illnesses such as the plague and sore throats. The barber was chosen because he was proficient with a blade. He was what they called a “barber-surgeon.” They actually belonged to the same guild as surgeons until the mid-1700’s. Blood letting was discontinued around the 19th century, however there are some situations in which removing blood is useful – think of it as a new-age blood-letting if you will. We call it “therapeutic phlebotomy.” This is usually used for conditions where the blood is thick or contains too much iron such as polycythemia, hemochromatosis or iron-overload syndrome.
Interestingly, surgeons in England are not called surgeons at all. They are called “Mister or Miss.,” (as in Mr. or Ms. Smith). This is thought to pay homage to the barber-surgeons who performed blade-laden procedures, but didn’t have a medical degree. Remember, don’t call them “Dr.,” they don’t like that very much. Then who’s a “Dr.?” The ones who aren’t surgeons. Get it?