Skull drill set from the 18th century

Back in the early 1990s, I wrote an article for our old-school bOING bOING Web site about trepanation -- the ancient practice of drilling holes in your skull -- and its modern practitioners. Here's the article, titled "Head Like A Hole." Ever since researching that piece, I've continued to be fascinated with the history of this medical procedure. Over the years, I've spotted many trephination tools at various antique scientifica dealers. But this complete set is by far the most stately I've ever seen. No wonder it's in London's Wellcome Collection on display as part of their current Brains exhibition. From the Wellcome:

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Trephination set

Wood, leather, brass, metal, textile; Sirhenry, Paris, 1771-1830

Among the trephines themselves, with their cylindrical blades, are a large brace to hold the trephines during drilling, two rugines to remove connective tissue from bones, two lenticulars to depress brain material during surgery and a brush to remove fine fragments of bone. The styling of the instruments and their box reflects a long tradition of producing surgical and scientific instruments as finely crafted, gentlemanly possessions.

Trephination set


  1. Many people don’t know the derivation of the word “trepanation,” but it could be used in a sentence thusly: “It was with a great deal of trepanation that I agreed to allow the doctor to DRILL HOLES IN MY FUCKING HEAD.”

    1. It started in prehistory. If you’re a witch doctor, and someone complains of constant pressure in their head, and herbs and twigs aren’t helping, what else are you gonna do except open it up to relieve the pressure? And remember, a tribal member disabled by headaches isn’t doing tribal work, so you may as well open him up!

  2. I just wrote a piece called “TREPANNING” – you can listen to it here:  – – – it has lots of Trepanning noises!! (or at least, what I think it would sound like to be trepanned…) – – – complete album, called “12”, is here: – – – it’s a name your price download on bandcamp… have a listen! Thanks. John Garden. p.s. @noctilucent_studios  I think the origins can be traced partly to Inuit cultures, possibly in the belief that removing the upper part of the skull enabled a better connection to the spirit world. However, I think the usage in the Victorian era was more geared towards relieving mental distress etc…

  3. Sorry; paid no attention to the article, due to excessive fun rootin’ around in the “old” bOING bOING. It’s a wonder how much antique data hangs around (where “antique” >10 years old)…even the ads on the trepanation article page and the old Tribes page look appropriate to the year (8-bit GIFs suitably sized for dial-up transmission). Net Chick Funhouse is still there, albeit reduced in value with the retirement of the Magic 8 Bra cgi script. Love the old “” contact address! And check out the stats for the BB “Salon” — a record 43 comments in November, 2001 (and p’bly only a couple of those were spam ;-)

    Also enjoy the look back into last-century page design such as the old About page. Classic “eternal September” shepherding, delivered snark-free. (“If you want help, you’ll have to get in line behind this dumb, stinky green monkey…. He hasn’t figured out that he can click on the blue and pink buttons at the top of the window to navigate through the shiny bOING bOING Web site. Isn’t he stupid?”) Let ‘Adobe Pagemill 2.0 Win’ wrap it all up in a table, and publish!

    The pistol-packin’ “Tradin’ Post,” the “Old Stuff” page (Exclusive interview! Pauly Shore in Bio Dome.), the proto-Submitterator form (Name, Subject, Your email address, What do you want?)…pure gold. Thanx for inviting the kids to play in your collective’s closets, David. (And retro-kudos to Mark!)

  4. So nice of them to throw in a churchkey so that you (and possibly the trepanee) can have a nice cold one after (or during?) the procedure.

  5. If there isn’t a death metal band called Trepanation, someone needs to start one now.

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