Edging the Competition: Surgical Instruments in the 18th-Century

As I’ve written about in other posts about razors and posture devices, in the second half of the eighteenth century, the introduction of cast steel transformed products for the body. Steel had many physical properties that rendered it very useful across a range of instruments. Unlike its predecessor, blister or shear steel, which was of uneven quality and could be brittle, cast steel was durable and capable of carrying a very sharp edge. It could also be polished to a mirror-like shine, making it very attractive to wear as ‘brilliant’s – imitation diamonds.

Many of the instruments I’ve written about, from razors to spectacles, were things that people bought to use upon their own bodies. But there was another group of instruments that was transformed, but one which people generally did their best to avoid – surgical instruments.

The surgeon’s knife held something of an ambiguous position within medicine. For patients the briefest glimpse of a scalpel or, worse, an amputation knife, was enough to send them into a swoon. Some surgeons argued that people would much rather subject themselves to the dubious ministrations of the quack than to the slice of the blade. Surgeon’s instruments also suffered from the taint of the manual craft. It was argued that almost anyone could wield a knife or a saw, without any need for theoretical knowledge of the body. As such, surgical instruments were little more than tradesmen’s tools.

Nevertheless there was an increasing demand for instruments in Britain in the later eighteenth century. Across Europe numbers of medical students were swelling. In France the numbers of surgeons nearly tripled between 1700 and 1789. By the early years of the nineteenth century, around 300 students per year were enrolling in London hospitals, as well as Edinburgh and Glasgow. As well as the increasing numbers, medical education was changing, especially in the matter of dissection. Before the 1750s, anatomisation was generally a theatrical event where the dissection was carried out by a surgeon, watched over by a crowd of enthralled and doubtless, sometimes, nauseated crowd.

But changes in medical education meant that trainee surgeons were increasingly given access and encouraged to get their hands dirty. Reading books about anatomy was fine as far as it went, but could never replace empirical observation and experience. This was also an age where views of the body were changing, and the human form was likened to a machine. As Thomson’s The Art of Dissecting the Human Body, in a plain, easy and compendious method dissection manual put it, there were only two possible ways to discover the workings of a machine. One was to be taught by its creator…difficult in this case! The other was simply to take it to bits and put it back together again.

Surgical manuals began to set out the requisite kit for the gentleman surgeon. One was to purchase a set of pocket instruments containing the most commonly-used items. The German anatomist Lorenz Heister advocated a pocket set including lancets for opening veins and abcesses, straight and crooked scissors, forceps, probes, a razor and needles. A similar kit was popular in London, containing knives ‘made of best steel’, lancets and scissors, as well as a salvatory and plaster box. Clearly some surgeons were apt to keep buying until they had amassed a huge number of instruments. The surgeon and author Benjamin Bell cautioned against such acquisitiveness, arguing that too many instruments confounded the surgeon under the pressure of the operation.

Image from http://collectmedicalantiques.com/gallery/cased-surgical-sets
Image from http://collectmedicalantiques.com/gallery/cased-surgical-sets

The increasing demand for instruments opened up a range of new opportunities for the makers of instruments. Traditionally cutlers had been the mainstay of surgical instrument manufacture. With their experience in making edged tools and of tempering metals to exact requirements, they were the best qualified. But by 1763 the Universal Director, a directory of London trades, was describing surgical instrument manufacture as ‘a distinct branch from the common cutler’. By 1800 the first dedicated surgeon’s instrument catalogues were being produced by prominent makers such as J.H. Savigny of the Strand in London. Savigny’s catalogue contained a wide variety of different instruments from knives and saws to catheters, tourniquets and even apparatus for the recovery of the apparently dead!

Image from Savigny's instrument catalogue, 1800
Image from Savigny’s instrument catalogue, 1800

Surgical instrument makers were also keen to puff their products in newspapers. The market for these products was fairly narrow and specialised; these were not items marketed for the public. Nevertheless it is noticeable that makers did their best to clothe their advertisements in the language of polite commerce, and include popular and elegant designs in their trade cards. The language of advertisements was all polite puffery. The tone of advertisements for ‘Thurgood’s Surgeon’s-Instrument Manufactory’ in Fenchurch Street was deferential, seeking to reassure ‘any professional gentlemen’ that ‘nothing shall be wanting on his (Thurgood’s) part to render full satisfaction’. Many other adverts were targeting ‘gentlemen of the faculty’ and seeking to encourage their business.

Advertising also offered opportunities for illustration. The trade card of John Chasson of London depicts a variety of amputation knives, saws and other instruments set against an elegant rococo surround. The razor and surgical instrument maker Henry Patten’s card shows a range of instruments, including lancets, hanging from branches of its elaborate frame. Given their associations with manual trades, it is noticeable that advertisements began to pay attention to the form as well as the function of instruments. John Chasson’s instrument cases, for example, could be bought in elegant boxes covered in fashionable shagreen (sharkskin). The handles of knives and saws began to change from traditional wood and bone to more exotic and expensive products like ebony, ivory and tortoiseshell.

M0015899 Surgical instrument maker's trade card, 18th century.

Image courtesy of Wellcome Images
Image courtesy of Wellcome Images

Perhaps the most surprising claim made by some makers, however, was that their products lessened pain and improved the experience of patients. In 1778, J. Savigny advertised his newly-invented lancets to the faculty. Stressing his metallurgical skills, Savigny argued that they were ‘wrought to such a degree of accuracy, as will greatly lessen the pain of the patient, and totally remove all apprehension of disappointment in the operator’. In another, he argued that the ‘extraordinary degree of accuracy’ in their edge would lead to the ‘approbation of the patient and reputation of the phlebotomist’. It’s interesting to note that the patient comes first. Many surgeons agreed that speed was of the essence in any surgical technique, and that this could only be achieved by keeping instruments maintained since, as Benjamin Bell noted, they were ‘injured with every use.


The late eighteenth century, then, was something of a golden age in the manufacture of surgical instruments. As the medical faculty sought desperately to separate itself from accusations of quackery and establish itself as an learned profession, the need for new instruments, based on the latest scientific and philosophical principles, was key. Likewise, with an expanding market and greater opportunities to promote their products, surgical instrument makers were continually engaged in developing and refining their products. Whether it would be of any comfort to a poor patient to know that the knife about to saw their leg off was made of the latest cast steel, however, is a moot point!

Bloodletting in Medicine: The return of the Leech

B0008649 A small leech (Glossiphonia), stained preparation.

According to a report on BBC news last week, a Welsh company is now the leading producer of medicinal leeches. The company, based near Swansea, produces over 60,000 leeches for use in hospitals around Britain which, although it pales into insignificance next to the 40 million or so farmed in the 19th century, still represents something of a comeback. So why haleeches endured in the practice of medicine for over four millennia?

We perhaps most associate leeches with the Tudor and Stuart period and they have, rather unfairly, become associated with quack medicine and ‘olde worlde’ quaintness. Think of the scene in Blackadder where a physician apologies for one of his leeches who is “an absolute hog”. In fact, though, leeches were an important part of the early modern health ‘regimen’, as well as being a key tool in the treatment of illness. Far from being magical or ‘folkloric’ they were actually cutting edge!

L0057179 Pharmacy leech jar,blue gilt earthenware, English 1831-1859

Bloodletting was a central part of early modern medicine. To get rid of excess blood (as well as other bodily products!) was to rid the body of potentially harmful substances. One means of doing this was by visiting a barber-surgeon who would open a vein and take a few ounces. The ideal amount would see the patient light-headed and nearly fainting, but not actually unconscious – a state known as syncope! But lancets were potentially dangerous; be careless with the instrument, hit the wrong vein or artery, use a dirty or infected instrument and your patient was in trouble.

Leeches, by contrast, with their 300 tiny teeth, were incredibly effective without much discomfort or danger to the subject. Leeches had the added advantage of simply dropping off when they had gorged themselves, but also left a ‘thank you’ gift in the form of a coagulant that helped to close the wound. Staunching the cut made from a lancet could be difficult, as well as introducing undesirable matter into the open wound.

Neither were leeches a poor man’s treatment – in fact quite the opposite, as they were relatively expensive. Unlike other sorts of medicines, people did not routinely keep their own leeches, and it is rare to see them in remedy collections. Instead they were the domain of the doctor and would be applied under his supervision. In fact, so inextricably linked to medical practice were they, that physicians were sometimes even referred to as ‘leeches’.

L0023265 Leeches. Histoires Prodigieuses, Pierrie Boaistuau


What sorts of treatments were they used for? Apart from taking blood, leeches might also be deployed to suck the pus out of boils! Depending on the condition being treated they might be applied to various parts of the body – even to eyes. What it felt like to sit in a chair while a leech sucked blood through your pupils is perhaps best not dwelt upon but, in general, people seem to have borne their treatments with stoicism. One patient from the late 18th century reported that “this day I have felt such relief from being bled, having amused half a dozen leeches on my forehead yesterday without much effect”.

Because of their strong associations with the 17th century, it might be easy to assume that leeches simply disappeared with the advent of new scientific approaches through the eighteenth century. But they didn’t. In fact, if anything, their popularity increased. Indeed, how long they were a part of ‘official’ medicine is often most surprising.

In the 19th century leeches were ordered in vast numbers by hospitals, including the major London institutions as well as local infirmaries. The account books of hospitals sometimes include specific entries for leeches, as did the Aberystwyth infirmary in 1836, who ordered 50 shillings’ worth of leeches – a not insubstantial stock! Even as late as 1896 some hospitals were still ordering in stocks of leeches, and they continued to be used in some parts up until the Second World War.

And now leeches are back…if they ever really went away. Today the value of these amazing little creatures has been recognised across a range of surgical uses. They are, for example, used in microsurgery, especially in preventing necrosis (tissue death) after limb transplant. The substances they inject into the body have also been found to aid blood circulation, helping to increase blood flow to the newly transplanted parts.

After centuries of emphasis upon medical progress, and the ignorance of patients and practitioners in the past, it is interesting to see the ways in which past practices and beliefs are again beginning to find their way into orthodox medicine. Over the coming years it will be fascinating to see what other remnants of pre-modern medicine make a return to prominence. Let’s hope that purging isn’t among them!

(This post has recently appeared on the University of Exeter’s blog http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/exeterblog/ – apologies for cross-posting)