The Chainsaw Was First Invented for Use as a Surgical Instrument for Childbirth

Yes, you read that right. A chainsaw was used to help deliver babies.

The modern chainsaw we as know it was not invented to cut trees. It was designed and developed to cut women’s pubic bones in half during childbirth to make the birthing space wider for the baby to get out of the womb. And yes, it was a grisly as it sounds.

Between the years 1783 and 1785, two Scottish doctors, John Aitken and James Jeffray, invented a “flexible saw” that included a chain with serrated teeth. This medical device would be the first iteration of a modern chainsaw. They published their invention with a description of a pelviotomy or symphysiotomy procedure in Principles of Midwifery, or Puerperal Medicine in 1785.

What is a symphysiotomy?

Back in the 14th century, a French doctor called Severin Pineau got his hands on the corpse of a hanged pregnant woman. He cut her open to learn more about pregnancy’s anatomy, and he discovered something called a “diastasis symphysis pubis,” which is medical talk for a separated pelvic bone. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes for Health, some form of diastasis symphysis pubis occurs in one in four women. In pregnancy, however, it can be seen in 1 in 300 or 1 in 30,000 pregnant people, depending on various factors.

Diastasis symphysis pubis happens during natural vaginal childbirth when the pubic bones, which are typically joined at the center, can dislocate and separate. Some think this happens after the use of forceps or other trauma during childbirth.

A medical drawing that illustrates the parts of pelvic bones including the pubic symphisis in the center, which is what the doctors cut to separate the bones.
A medical drawing that illustrates the parts of pelvic bones including the pubic symphisis in the center, which is what the doctors cut to separate the bones.

The medical chainsaw was used by Aitken and Jaffray when a baby was stuck. They would use the device to cut the pubic symphysis, thus separating the pubic bones and allowing them to open the hips enough for the baby to enter the birthing canal and be born.

The recovery was brutally painful, and women were confined to a hammock-style bed and unable to move while their bodies healed. It should be noted that as horrifying and archaic as this procedure may sound, doctors did use anesthetics before the surgery and pain killers during post-op.

Eventually, obstetrics would advance enough that modern cesarean sections would replace symphysiotomy. The symphysiotomy is no longer performed in first-world countries today, thanks to updated practices. However, it is still used in third-world countries when access to cesarean procedures is unavailable.

Patient in a symphysiotomy hammock after surgery, 1907.
Patient in a symphysiotomy hammock after surgery, 1907.

There are no identified images of the original chainsaw that Aitken and Jaffray invented. The earliest known version of a medical chainsaw used to cut bone comes from 1830 by a German doctor called Bernhard Heine. His version is not likely that far off from the one that our Scottish friends used.

Heine was an orthopaedist, and his chainsaw was called the osteotome, which was used to cut bone. His device has been polished over the years and is still in use today for plastic surgery, orthopedic surgery, and even dental implants. However, the version you might encounter today looks nothing like the original.

A blue background with six figures of osteotomes shown in horizontal positions. They look like long, thin, metal tubes with bevelled edges.
A blue background with six figures of osteotomes shown in horizontal positions. They look like long, thin, metal tubes with bevelled edges.

And that’s the unexpected and bizarre history of the origins of the modern chainsaw.

Parenting, Science, and History Essay Hustler | Book Writer | Rabid Reader | Rep’d by Folio Literary Management | Follow me on Twitter, FB, IG @housewifeplus

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