It is extraordinary to discover that stone-age man was conducting trepanning (making holes in the skull) operations with a flint. In ancient times surgeons became skilled at amputations after battles. These early instruments must have been crude and, without anaesthetics, the operations extremely painful.
Even so, the later knives, small and large bone saws, scalpels, catheters, trepanning drills, lithotomy instruments, obstetric specula, forceps and so on can be unexpectedly beautiful. The basic forms of surgical instruments hardly changed from the mid-1500’s to the late 1700’s. Indeed, some show virtually no evolution before the coming of the laser. A guide to dating them, however, can be found in the handles. Before about 1875 sets of instruments often had handles of carved ebony but after that, they were made to be sterilised by boiling and were replaced by metal.
A set which does not contain gynaecological instruments suggests that it was for use by a naval or military surgeon and, from the 1700’s, service surgeons would usually carry their instruments in fitted, brass-bound wooden cases.
These are often superb examples of cabinet making in their own right. Country doctors might still prefer a simple leather wallet. Bleeding knives or cups were included until about 1940. Most collectors seek out complete sets, but there are those who specialise in one type of instrument. Single saws, for example, from the 1500’s or 1600’s can be valuable as the handles were often intricately carved ivory or bone – a perfect breeding ground for potentially fatal bacteria!