6 Terrifying Surgical Instruments You’ll be Glad aren’t Used Today!

History of Surgery
It’s difficult to imagine a time before we could reach for an aspirin to relieve a nagging headache or antibiotics for a sinus infection.  Not that long ago, treatment of a patient was often the best opportunity for doctors to research and practice incredibly dangerous and painful procedures, even for fairly minor complaints.  Up to 1822 it was regular practice to operate on patients whilst on the ward, which must have been terrifying for the other patients…let only the poor individual who was being operated on without any form of anaesthesia! 

Excruciatingly painful, intrusive procedures, public viewing galleries & barbaric practices – this is what you could expect if you required the assistance of a doctor prior to the 1830s and even after that, your chances weren’t much better.

Here are some examples of surgical instruments from history – Warning: these may make you wince!


Stricture DivulsorIf a male patient had problem passing urine, a Stricture Divulsor would be used by his doctor to dilate the restricted urethra.  This would require the insertion of this scary instrument into the tip of the patient’s penis and pushed into the urethra.  When in the correct position the blades were then expanded to ‘stretch’ the urethra as much as possible.  It seems that Doctors thought that if the patient bled, the procedure was a success!


Tobacco Smoke EnemaDuring the 1700s, doctors would use a tobacco smoke enema for a variety of complaints but most commonly this remedy was thought to be the best medical help for drowning victims.  It was thought that the warm smoke had an effect on respiration and could bring people back to life.  This was such a popular idea at the time, that this type of ‘fumigator’ equipment was the first thing you would look to use on someone who had been retrieved from falling into the river! It’s also where the term to "blow smoke up one’s ass” originated as a means of flattering one’s ego.

Tonsil_GuillotineThe tonsil guillotine reduced the likelihood of a doctor being bitten whilst trying to remove his patient's tonsils.  Remember, there was no anaesthetic and having a doctor with his hands in your mouth trying to cut out infected flesh at the back of your throat would have been terribly painful.  With the tonsil guillotine, the doctor would be able to spear the tonsil and sever the tissue with the guillotine’s blade.  By the late 19th century, doctors had started to use cocaine as a form of sedative and anaesthetic but infected tonsils were still a potentially life-threatening illness as there were no antibiotics to treat subsequent infections.

The Osteotome looks rather like a medieval chain saw and was used to cut sections out of a patients skull.  Trepanning was the procedure of drilling or scraping a human skull to expose the dura mater to treat a variety of health related problems.  Sometimes it was sufficient to drill a small hole but on other occasions it was necessary to cut out a round piece of skull bone.  Trepanning was regularly used throughout history as a treatment for epilepsy, migraines, depression, circulatory problems and chronic fatigue.


Without the luxury of treatment creams that we have today, haemorrhoids could only be treated surgically.  The doctor would use ligation or amputation to reduce or remove the problem.  This instrument would grip the external haemorrhoid so that it would be deprived of blood supply and it would then be cut off.  If internal haemorrhoids were the problem, they would be fished out with dangerous looking hooks and then snipped off with scissors.


Cervicaldilator2-300x224As if childbirth wasn’t dangerous enough before the advent of safe maternity care, the cervical dilator was used to dilate a woman’s cervix during labor.  Eventually these became unpopular and phased out of use because of the alarming frequency they caused the cervix to tear.

But without these surgical pioneers, and their long-suffering patients, it's unlikely that our current surgical instruments and knowledge would have become so advanced.  

Today's surgeons can perform the most delicate neurosurgery with 'cutting-edge' science, medical robots and knowledge that has amassed over centuries.  Keyhole surgery and micro-surgery can now be used to minimise the possibilities of infection and patient trauma.  From a time when surgery was often only the last resort, we have become a society that is used to safe, painless & reliable surgical procedures.  So much so that elective or cosmetic procedures are commonplace – what would our ancestors have thought about face-lifts and tummy tucks?

Let us know your thoughts on the past, present and future of surgery by leaving a comment below or getting in touch with us on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

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