Surgical Instruments
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Bloodaxe's Realm     The Medieval World  

Greek and Roman Surgical Instruments

Physicians in the Classical World had access to a variety of surgical instruments that were designed to aid them in their treatment of the sick. Several ancient texts mention the use of surgical tools and several of these texts offer a brief description of some of the instruments used by doctors in antiquity. The precise date when each instrument was first employed is largely unknown. The most of the following instruments seemed to have been available to Hippocrates (c. 460) and continued to be used throughout the late Roman empire with several existing in a similar form still being used by physician's today.

All of the below images were taken from 
John Stewart Milne Surgical Instruments in Greek and Roman Times. Claredon Press: Oxford, 1907. 
Copyright no longer pending. 

*Note- Any number visible within the image does not correspond with the following key and that the objects within the image are at different scales, therefore please pay careful attention to the size of the original column within the key. 
Scalpels: Scalpels could be made of either steel, bronze, or a combination of the two metals  (such as a steel blade and a bronze handle). Ancient scalpels had almost the same form and function as their modern counterparts do today. The two long steel scalpels that make up the first and third columns of the accompanying image are examples of the most ordinary type of scalpel from antiquity. These long scalpels could be used to make a variety of incisions, but they seem to be particularly suited to making either deep or long cuts. The four bronze scalpels which make up columns two and four are generally referred to as "bellied scalpels." This variety of scalpel was another favorite of physicians in antiquity since the shape of its handle allowed more delicate and precise cuts to be made (such as incisions between ribs). 

From left to right and top to bottom   
Size of the original                                Museum   
1)14cm                                                    British   
2)17cm                                                    Naples   
3)17cm                                                    Naples   
4)12cm                                                    British   
5)15cm                                                    Naples   
6)18cm                                                    Naples   


  Hooks: Hooks were another common instrument used regularly by Greek and Roman doctors. The hooks the ancient  doctors used came in two basic varieties: sharp and blunt. Both of these types of hooks are still used by modern surgeons' for many of the same purposes for which the ancient doctors first used them. For instance, blunt hooks were primarily used as probes for dissection and for raising blood vessels. Sharp hooks, like those pictured in the accompanying image, were used to hold and lift small pieces of tissue so that they could be extracted and to retract the edges of wounds. 

From left to right and top to bottom 
Size of the original                                Museum 
1)14cm                                                    Saint-Germain 
2)11cm                                                    Saint-Germain 
3)10cm                                                    Saint-Germain 
4)15cm                                                    John Stewart Milne 
5)17cm                                                    Naples 


Uvula Crushing Forceps: With their finely-toothed jaws these forceps were probably designed to facilitate the amputation of the uvula. This procedure, as described by Aetius in the first half of the sixth century, called for the physician to crush the uvula with forceps (like the one pictured in the accompanying image) before cutting it off in order to prevent hemorraging. 

 From left to right  
Size of the original                                Museum 
1)19cm                                                    British 
2)18cm                                                    British 


Bone Drill: Bone drills were generally driven in their rotary motion by means of a thong in various configurations. Greek and Roman physicians used bone drills in order to excise diseased bone tissue from the skull and to remove foreign objects of considerable thickness (such as a weapon) from a bone. 

From left to right and top to bottom  

Size of the orginal                                Museum 
1) 18cm                                                   Guildhall 
2)15cm                                                    Guildhall 
3,4,5) After an illistration in a manuscript by Vidus  
  dating to 1544 


Bone Forceps: This forceps were used by ancient doctors to extract the small fragments of bone which could not be grasped by the fingers. Naturally, physicians often used such forceps in conjunction with bone drills. 

Size of the orginal                                Museum 
21cm                                                       Naples 


  Catheters and Bladder Sounds: Physicians in the Classical World employed catheters in order to open up a blocked urinary tract which allowed urine to pass freely from the body. These early catheters were essentially hollow tubes made of steel or bronze and had two basic designs: one with a slight S curve for male patients (figure 1) and another straighter one for females (figure 2). The same doctors also used simular shaped devices which were solid, as opposed to hollow, in order to probe the bladder in search of calcifications (figure 3). 

From left to right   
(ignoring the small illatration in the lower righthand corner)  
size of original                              Museum 
 Naples Museum  
2) 20cm                                              Naples Museum 
3) 15cm                                              Mainz Museum 


Vaginal Speculum: Vagina specula are among the most complex instruments employed by Greek and Roman physicians. Several examples of such specula have survived and they generally demonstrate the high degree engineering skill available to the ancient doctors. Most of the vaginal specula consist of screw device which when turned forces a cross-bar to push the blades outwards. 

Size of the orginal                    Naples  Museum 


Portable Medicine Chests: As the ancestor of the "Docotor's Black Bag," these small chests were the portable storage units for doctors in antiquity. Small boxes have been found containing everything from scalpels and probes to ointments and drugs. The box pictured in the accompanying image is made of bronze and when opened (the lid is not pictured with the box) the box is shown to be divided into six compartments, two of which have their own seperate hinged lid. 

Size of the orginal                                Museum 
13cm x 7cm