1800s surgical kit unboxed

Medgadget unboxed a beautiful and horrifying 1800s surgical kit, owned by "Dr. Geo L. Shearer (an ancient relative of one of your editors), who practiced medicine in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania from 1825 to 1878."

The set contains the basic surgical tools which would have been needed to perform emergency surgery by way of amputation and this is not an uncommon configuration. The essential tools for this would usually comprise of a Liston knife or knives which had long straight razor sharp blades polished steel blades for cutting through the muscle. A capital saw (the large one) was for sawing through weight bearing bones. The forceps and smaller knives would have been used for trimming the muscle and skin in such a way as to produce flap. The needles were used to sew the flap of skin and muscle in place over the bone stump. There would also have been a tourniquet for applying pressure around the limb to temporarily cutting off the blood supply.

In addition to these surgical tools the set also contains two hand trephines and other instruments used for trepanation. These would often come separately in their own case and so this set represents a "compendium" if you like. Other examples of sets which combined instruments for different purposes were carried on board ships. These were grand compendia with comprehensive collections of tools to manage all eventualities, including general surgical, orthopaedic, urological, ophthalmological and dental instruments.

1800s Surgical Kit - Unboxing


  1. Ah, the good old days. When routine medicine required hacksaws, flensing knives, and a convenient way to put holes in skulls.

  2. Ouch! I don’t see much for pain killers in that box either. The article mentions anesthesia wasn’t introduced until 1846 so this could have been used before that.

  3. No flask of whiskey? Leather strap to bite down on? Mallet to knock the patient unconscious?

  4. Yeah, the big knives are definitely just for going ahead and flaying the flesh right off the bone. Num num num.

  5. A retired physician in Owensboro, KY has an excellent collection of 1800s-era medical equipment including everything from amputation sets, portable pharmaceutical kits, and a case of glass eyes. He even used to get expired units of blood from the blood bank to feed the live leeches he kept in an antique glass bowl in the display case. It’s truly a wonderful display and really shows both how far we’ve come in terms of medical equipment and how little some things have changed.

  6. Sheesh! And people complain about water boarding! All we needed to do was dig up a slew of doctors from the 1800’s to tend to the wounds of our prisoners.

    “Ah I see you have an infection with that cut on your leg. I have just the thing to fix that. Now where did I put my saw?”

  7. most of this has changed remarkably little in terms of conventional surgeries.

    The basic premise of many of these hasn’t even chaned much for microsurgeries, other than the size. (Laser surgery, obviously, doesn’t fall under this)

    I’ve seen some of the surgical instruments that come back after knee and hip replacements (hammers, saws, etc – much like those photos!)– scares the living hell out of you to think of what the surgeon must have done to bend and break stainless-steel surgical tools.

    You just have to put your mind to the fact that they were dropped, or you’d go bananas.

  8. Yep, surgery was pretty awful in those days. Particularly on the battlefield; not only did you have to get the injured limb off quickly in order to avoid infection from the wound, you also had to do it before the patient died of shock–successful amputations took seconds. Descriptions of the medical tents at, say, Shiloh include phrases like “limbs stacked like cordwood”. Look away, indeed.

  9. Wow this looks eerily like a combination of the top and bottom drawers in my kitchen. The top is day-to-day cutlery, and the bottom is called the “hammer drawer” – it is full of small hand tools and hardware for minor household repairs.

    I once made a splint for a sprained finger and considered self-repairing a ganglion cyst with a hammer and a small block of wood from that drawer, but beyond that I call in the pros to fix me up.

  10. I read some where that in pre-lister days, that is before washing your hands and instruments was seen as a good thing, surgical tools were a great source of infection. And ironically the wealthier a surgeon got the fancier and more ornate the tools he was able to buy and hence more nooks and crannies for bits of flesh and bacteria to gather in, a poor surgeon just starting out would only be able to afford the plainest of instrument – but yet unknown to all actually the safest.

  11. I was wondering what purpose the little brush served. Oh, to brush away bone fragments. That’s uh, going to haunt me for a while.

  12. and then there was the ship’s surgeon who heated his saws and knives in a brazier – because he thought hot steel less agonizing than cold. “A-sailing we will go! We’ll stay no more on England’s shore….”

  13. Even with Lister and Pasteur, sterilization didn’t become common until the late 19th century. A lot of surgeons refused to accept the evidence until they were forced to. You have to wonder if that surgeon who practiced from 1825 to 1878 was one of them and how many patients he killed with dirty instruments.

  14. nanuq: Sir Frederick Treves is one of those most responsible for getting surgeons to wash prior to surgery: and this was a mere hundred years ago.


    The history of medicine is a fascinating study.
    As to the comments above re: torture and old-time surgery, it ought to be remembered how Cleopatra tested her poisons (on condemned prisoners) – and that the ancient texts contain dark hints of vivisection, carried out as anatomical studies, upon condemned prisoners, in the medical centers of Ancient Egypt.

    It ought perhaps also to be remembered (particularly by those ‘born again’) that, thanks to backsliding during the 1500-year Christian Era of Europe, the practice of medicine did not regain the heights that it had achieved in Ancient times until the 18th or 19th Centuries.


  15. The Liston knives were the work of Robert Liston, a famously arrogant but brilliant Scottish surgeon and the fastest knife in Europe:


    He is also reputed to have performed the only recorded operation with a 300% mortality rate – during an amputation of a leg he also cut his assistant’s fingers and sliced through the clothing of an observer as he threw his knife to change for a saw. The patient and assistant died of infected wounds and the (uninjured) observer had a heart attack, believing himself stabbed.

    1. He is also reputed to have performed the only recorded operation with a 300% mortality rate

      He’s kind of a looker, though.

  16. …..uhhhhhhh, any explanation for the cervical vert? Looks like the “compendium” also included a neck bone.

  17. #27..No idea why there’s a cervical vert in the kit! It’s got a bored center, so presumably it was part of an anatomical model. ~Sean from medgadget.com

  18. used with a cord through the bored hole and looped over the natural prominences as a tourniquet

  19. For any ‘Trekkers’ that didn’t know this, Cap’n. Kirk called McCoy “Bones” because doctors were once known as ‘Sawbones’. Like that was their main job.
    My dad used to call them Sawbones. He was a sailor, but wanted to be a doctor. All our dogs got peglegs. My sister Peggy too.

  20. “For any ‘Trekkers’ that didn’t know this, Cap’n. Kirk called McCoy “Bones” because doctors were once known as ‘Sawbones”

    I take it you haven’t seen the new movie which has a different explanation for the “Bones” name (think divorce settlement).

  21. This kit, minus the lined box, might not be out of place in many rural medical practices today. I ran across similar limited sets while interviewing rural medical practitioners only 120 or so KM outside of Chennai in Tamil Nadu. It’s less the gear than the lack of either sterilization or disposables that’s problematic.

    A few pics of the rural surgery gear: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pastrami44/2404983725

  22. As a surgical nurse, I can say that not a lot of things changed since the 1800 as far as the basic instruments. Of course there is a lot of new gadgets to play with, but the main instruments look a lot like the picture (except for the saw of course, we are using power tools now :)

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