Thursday, April 5, 2012

They Used Chainsaws in the Civil War?

     I get quite a few questions about Civil War surgical instruments so I thought I’d write about some of them.  Today I’ll focus on the ones which used chains. 

     Chain saws were used to cut, or resect, bones.  The saw consists of a flexible chain blade with detachable handles.  The chain could be positioned by using a carrier needle and thread tied to one end of the chain to draw it behind the bone.  The handles were then attached and the surgeon pulled the handles back and forth rapidly until the bone was cut in half.  It may sound a bit barbaric, but it was quite effective.

Here is the chain portion of a chain saw. The small links allow the chain to flex and conform to a variety of shapes. Though it’s difficult to see here, the links also have sharp teeth along one edge for cutting through bone.

This is one of a pair of wooden chain saw handles. You can see the hook where it can be attached to the chain.

     Now let’s look at another chain from the Civil War.  The item in the photo below looks pretty wicked!  What do you think it is?  People tend to guess that they are fishing hooks, but I can assure you that this is actually a medical item.  Fortunately though, it is not an item you should see in your doctor’s office!

This is a post-mortem retraction chain, which was used to hold back tissue during an autopsy. These could found in surgical kits and post-mortem kits.

     The next instrument looks a bit like a chain saw, but it was not intended to cut through bones.  It is called a Chassaignac's Ecraseur and it was originally designed for removing hemorrhoids!  It also was used for removing uterine tumors or polyps.  Notice that the links are larger than the ones on the chain saw and that they don’t have teeth.  It functioned by gradually crushing the tissue, which resulted in less blood loss than if the tissue had been cut. 
The handle of the ecraseur could be turned to lower the chain through the metal loop at the end of the instrument. The chain could then be placed around the hemorrhoid or tumor and tightened by turning the handle in the opposite direction until the tissue was severed. 

     It’s ok if you are wincing now - I’ll save the rest of the surgical instruments for other posts!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

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