10 terrifying medical devices from history

It’s normal to get anxious before going to the doctor or dentist, but in the days before modern medicine, you had every right to be absolutely terrified…


1) Osteotome, 19th century

Before general anaesthetics were around, amputations were incredibly painful and incredibly dangerous. Bones were often splintered and the tissue around them damaged by the harsh impact of a hammer and chisel or the jolts of a saw. Surgeons needed to find a way to speed up the procedure and reduce the risk of complications. The solution came in the form of the osteotome – a device with a chain and sharp cutting teeth that was cranked manually. What it was, in fact, was the first ever chainsaw.



2) Trepan, 18th century

These days, if we have a headache we can take an aspirin, have a glass of water, and it usually disappears within an hour or two. But before the 20th century, the cure was a lot more gruesome. A hole was cut in the skull of the patient to expose the dura mater – the brain’s tough outer layer. This was done using a trepan, which was essentially a hand-operated drill. In some parts of the globe, trepanning is still used today to treat mental disorders.



3) Iron Lung, 1920s

These were one of the first life-support machines, and became famous for saving the lives of polio victims whose breathing muscles had been paralysed by the disease. They consisted of an airtight chamber connected to an air pump. Air was sucked in and out of the chamber, causing the patient’s lungs to contract and expand and allowing them to breathe. Many polio patients recovered after spending only minutes inside an iron lung, whereas other less fortunate victims spent their entire lives looking at the world through a mirror attached to the top of the machine.

polio-national museum of health and med


4) Lithotome, 19th century

This long, claw-like instrument was inserted up the urethra and into the bladder. The surgeon would then use it to grip onto small bladder stones and pull them out, or use the blade to cut up larger ones so they could be weed out. This all happened while the patient was awake… and undoubtedly in a lot of pain. The surgeon also had to make sure they didn’t slice the bladder in the process, or the patient may have bled to death.



5) Reduction device, 5th century BCE

Hippocrates is considered the father of western medicine, and detailed the oldest known method for treating a dislocated shoulder. He developed a ladder-like device, across which the injured arm was slung and then pulled downwards with significant force. In the 16th Century, French royal surgeon Ambroise Pare reintroduced Hippocrate’s method, and it is still used today.



6) Speculum, 1st century CE

Though the eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed the lives of thousands of Roman people, the artifacts recovered from the ash-covered city of Pompeii provide a never-before-seen insight into the lives they led. This includes medicine. Several surgical instruments have been found here, including this terrifying looking speculum. Roman gynecology was relatively primitive, and physicians even believed that a woman’s womb could ‘wander’ around the body, wreaking havoc on her internal organs and causing hysteria.



7) Bullet extractor, 16th century

The introduction of firearms to the battlefield in the early 1200s changed the face of warfare. Until the invention of this revolutionary device, only bullets close to the surface of the skin could be removed. This bullet extractor allowed surgeons to dig much deeper. It consisted of a hollow rod containing a screw, which could be lengthened or shortened using the handle at the top. The instrument was placed in the wound and the screw lengthened in order to pierce the bullet and remove it.



8) Dental key, 19th century

If you’re scared of the dentist, just thank your lucky stars you weren’t born in the 19th century! Rather than treat a simple toothache with antibiotics, infected teeth would have to be pulled out using a dental key like this one. The ‘claw’ would be tightened around the tooth, and then rotated as if the user were turning a key in a lock. This procedure would have been extremely painful without the use of anesthetics, and patients often had to be restrained.



9) Circumcision scissors, 10th/11th century

Medieval surgeon Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi transformed circumcision from a religious ritual to a surgical procedure. He invented several medical instruments, and is believed to have been the first to use scissors in surgery. He favoured these over the use of knives in circumcision, as he said they made the cut more even.



10) Tonsil guillotine, 19th century

This device was invented in 1828, and became the standard tool for removing tonsils. However, by the 19th century surgeons used a scalpel and forceps instead as the guillotine often caused heavy bleeding and left parts of the tonsil behind.



You can read more Top 10s in the latest issue of All About History, available now from all good newsagents or from the Imagine Shop