Tools of the Trade: Surgical Knives and Scalpels
In your hunt for the ultimate in medical instruments, don’t pass by loose instruments such as knives and scalpels. Surgical knives were used for amputations, see my article on Amputation Sets (Collecting Amputation Sets 101, Tools of the Trade: Amputation Saws, Proper Care and Storage of Antique Medical Instruments)
Two methods were used for amputation. Knives from the Revolutionary War period and before were curved like a big sickle and used in circular amputations. An original knife of this time period should go for $400-plus as seen at Civil War shows, however rarely. Straight knives were used in the flap method, which is fast and safer for the patient and used today. Dr. Liston and Dr. Syme, circa 1825, encouraged the use of this method and Liston developed large straight knives the style of which bears his name. A third knife, the double-edged Catlin knife, was used for cutting between bones.
The handles of amputation knives were wood, ivory and, rarely, horn or gutta percha—a tropical wood native to Southeast Asia—with checkered or smooth grips. In the 1870s, manufacturers began making these instruments with metal handles for ease of sterilization; however wood-handled instruments were still sold in catalogues early into the 20th century. I sold a set of two amputation knives in their own chamois-lined box by Charrier, circa 1860, for $350 a few years ago. Auction house prices, over the years, are comparable.
These amputation knives by Favre have ebony checkered handles with the maker’s name on the knife near the handle. A set like this should sell for around $300.
Scalpels have a long history and have remained remarkably similar down through the ages: The ancient Egyptians used sharpened obsidian; there is a bas-relief of a set of scalpels on the Temple of Asclepius at Athens in Greece (the temple was founded in 420 BC); and the Romans used a bronze scalpellus, a small light knife, in several blade forms—leaf (which was double edged), straight, bellied, and curved. The Romans also had some double-ended scalpels that must have taken a careful surgeon to use. All the single-ended forms have survived until today except the leaf shape. Roman scalpels have gone for $90 to $400 in online-auctions.
The blades of these two scalpels demonstrate the leaf shape of ancient (circa 300 B.C.) scalpels. Their wood or bone handles have long since disappeared.
The fixed-blad scalpels had handles of bone, ivory, horn or wood until the 1870s, when all-metal medical instruments began to be made. Today, only the blade of the scalpel is metal; the handles now are plastic and are made to be thrown away. Antique fixed-blade scalpels are very low priced in online auctions at $5 to $15 each, but occasionally a popular maker’s name will drive up the price nearer $40.
These four fixed-blade scalpels all have wood handles. The scalpel at the top has a blunt metal end used for blunt tissue dissection.
The folding or pocket scalpel came into its own in the 15th century. It fit in the pocket and because it folded, it stayed sharp and didn’t tear up the physicians’ clothes. These blades fold into tortoise or horn handles. 19th century scalpels have blade stops at 180 degrees and many lock open. They were very finely made.
Folding or roll-up leather wallets were created to carry a number of these and other instruments in the 17th to the 19th century. Early leather wallets are not common and go for $400 or more. And, of course, many surgical sets, including amputation sets, carried folding as well as fixed-blade scalpels. Nineteenth century folding scalpels fetch $45 to $80 each in online auctions. Folding scalpels disappeared at the end of the 19th century.
This style of folding scalpel was in use throughout the 19th century. The curved one at the top is an earlier curved-style with horn handle, while the tortoiseshell-handled scalpels are of a later, straight design. The double scalpel at the bottom is actually two bistouries. Bistouries are scalpels with longer, thinner blades that can be curved or straight.
With these loose instruments, you can fill out an amputation set, a surgical wallet or create a display of “scalpels down through the ages.” Have fun.
Laura Collum is a Worthologist who specializes in decoys, nautical and scientific instruments.
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