Little Shop of Medical Horrors

UB’s collection of vintage medical instruments offers a slice of surgical history

By Rebecca Rudell

The Boston nerve beater. The obstetrical hook. The scarificator. A journey through UB’s Edgar R. McGuire Historical Medical Instrument Collection will delight and repulse you at every turn. Pictured is a four-tier surgical kit crafted by the venerable George Tiemann Company, which was founded in New York City in 1826 and continues to this day to manufacture exceptional surgical instruments. Sets like this one—which contains more than 30 Civil War-era medical tools cradled in soft, purple velvet—once sold for around $50. Today, collectors pay more than $6,000 apiece for these elegant boxes of gory gadgetry.


A. Galt Trephine
Surgeons used the Galt trephine to bore holes into the skull, either to alleviate pressure or to treat fractures. Trephining (or trepanation) dates back to 6500 B.C., and there are still fringe groups today who believe that creating a hole in the skull enhances brain function. Some modern proponents, unable to find a legitimate doctor to perform trepanation, have taken matters into their own hands—and heads.

B. Capital Saw
Capital saws were used during the Civil War to perform anywhere from 30,000 to 80,000 amputations. While some people thought them to be unnecessary surgeries, many doctors at the time claimed that if more amputations had been performed, more soldiers would have survived.

C. Elevator/Raspatory
You’ve cut a hole with your trephine; now how do you remove that perfect disc of skull? This double-ended tool is known as an elevator and a raspatory. One end lifts out bone fragments, while the other smooths out cut edges for a perfect finish.

D. Liston Knife 
Anesthesia wasn’t always available to surgeons in the mid-19th century. That’s when patients truly appreciated the incredible speed of Dr. Robert Liston. The eponymous Liston knife, a straight blade made of quality steel, helped him amputate diseased limbs, sometimes in less than 30 seconds.