The surgical procedure done to deliver a baby through an incision in a woman’s abdomen and uterus is called a cesarean section, but how did it get that name?
Lots of body parts are named for people, like the Fallopian and Eustachian tubes, which are named after the anatomists who described them, Gabriele Fallopio and Bartolomeo Eustachi, respectively. There are a few types of procedures that are named for the people who developed them, like the Heimlich maneuver, named for Henry Heimlich. But the cesarean section doesn’t fall into either case.
The most common theory is that cesarean sections are named after Julius Caesar because it was said that he had been born in this manner. But, although it seems like a good fit, this idea is probably not true. The link between cesarean sections and Julius Caesar comes from writings by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder and in a Byzantine encyclopedia published in the 10th century. The encyclopedia says that Caesar’s mother, Aurelia, died in the ninth month of the pregnancy and that she was cut open so that he could be born. The problem with this idea is that Aurelia was known to have lived well into Julius Caesar’s adulthood.
In Rome, even before Caesar was born, there was a law that required that when a woman died in childbirth, the baby was removed from her body so that it could have a separate burial and was also done as a last resort to save the baby’s life after the mother had died. Therefore, it might not have been unheard of for a baby to survive the mother’s death.
So, how did Caesar get associated with a surgical delivery of a baby? One possibility is that an ancestor of Caesar’s was born in that manner and that the family name was associated with that earlier birth. Pliny mentions that a Caesar was born in that way, but does not specifically name Julius.
However, Caesar and his family may have had nothing to do with the name of the procedure. There is a word in Latin, caedare, which means “to cut” and the past participle is caesus, thus leading to calling a procedure that cuts into the uterus as a caesarean or cesarean section. (By the way, either spelling is correct.)
Cesarean section births have become commonplace in modern times because of anesthesia and antibiotics. Through most of human history the surgically removal of the baby from the mother was done only if the mother had already died; It was considered as a last resort.
But there were accounts of women who lived after they had a cesarean section in ancient history in many cultures around the world. There are many references to cesarean sections in ancient Hindu, Egyptian, Grecian, and Roman medical texts, and in European folklore. There are ancient Chinese etchings that show the procedure being done on women who appear to be still alive.
So, we can separate Caesar from cesarean section, but why is it called a section rather than a surgery or a procedure? The word section is used in medicine to describe the act of cutting. The word is also used to describe a very thin slice of tissue used in microscopic examinations and in radiology to describe images of a view through the body as if the body has been sliced, such as a sagittal section, which divides the body into right and left halves. Despite this root of the word, very few other surgical operations use the term section.