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Tools of the Trade: Amputation Saws

by Laura Collum (12/29/08).

You know, if you read my blog on amputation sets, that amputations were the surgical procedures most performed during the Civil War. Resection was a procedure performed then as well, but it took a long time and it was a fact that soldiers had a better chance of survival the quicker the operation.

The earliest known amputation saw is about 4,000 years old and was used by the Egyptians. It was made of flint chips imbedded wood. Later, saws were made of bronze. It wasn’t until in about 200 B.C. that the Romans developed the precursor of the modern saw. It was made of iron and had two shapes: a bow saw that looks like today’s hacksaw; and the tenon saw, much like a carpenter’s saw. Both styles, with little change, were used into the late 20th century.

This is a mid-19th-century medical chain saw with checkered ebony handles.

This is a mid-19th-century medical chain saw with checkered ebony handles.

Chain saws were developed in the 18th century, and also used well into the 20th century. Chain saws are what they sound like; a chain with T-shaped detachable handles that made it possible for the chain can be introduced around the bone, it is reattached and the bone quickly sawed through.

This small bow, or metacarpal saw, has a smooth ebony handle.

This small bow, or metacarpal saw, has a smooth ebony handle.

This is an unusual tenon-style amputation saw with a very decorative brass handle and spine, circa.1850.

This is an unusual tenon-style amputation saw with a very decorative brass handle and spine, circa.1850.

The following examples are from the mid nineteenth century and later: The small bow saw, a metacarpal saw, is for fingers and toes, (maker unknown). The fancy saw with the brass handle and spine is unusual for this time since the saw handles were almost always wood, (maker unknown).

This amputation saw was found with the tin "scabbard" protecting the blade, circa 1860.

This amputation saw was found with the tin "scabbard" protecting the blade, circa 1860.

William Ford, of New York, who was in business from about 1850 to 1900, made this saw that came with a tin scabbard. Inside the sheath is a piece of wood the saw slips into so it doesn’t rattle around. It is only speculation, but it is possible the surgeon lost his box in the confusion of a field hospital and threw all of his remaining instruments into a bag. The tin sheath would protect the saw while it tumbled about in the bag. It is fun to speculate but we will never know.

This is an all metal amputation saw made circa1874 with a brass handle.

This is an all metal amputation saw made circa1874 with a brass handle.

Down Brothers, of London, circa. 1874, made the all-metal brass and steel saw with the knurled screw at the handle end. It was designed to take apart for sterilization.

This is an all-steel amputation saw made circa1900.

This is an all-steel amputation saw made circa1900.

The final saw is all steel and has relinquished all pretenses at beauty to strict functionality. It was made by Truax Greene and Co., about 1900 in Chicago.

As to values, the chain saw can sell between $450 and $900. The metacarpal saw for about $200, and the brass-mounted tenon saw from $400 to 700. The large bow saw is valued between $250 to $350, the saw with tin scabbard about $300, the Down Brothers saw about $175, and the all-steel saw from $40 to 80. These saws are available at shops, shows and online. Keep your eyes open and good hunting.

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