A chainsaw is a tool most commonly used in the modern era to harvest wood and in landscaping-related tasks. The first chainsaw was not developed for such jobs. During the late 18th century, the chainsaw was utilized by doctors during complicated childbirths.
Knowing a little about medical history, it is not difficult to imagine that having a baby was a very risky activity in the past. There was a high mortality rate due in part to a lack of hygienic medical standards and underdeveloped practices. Not until the mid-1800s did the field of obstetrics even exist. The cesarean section was only practiced on the most extreme of cases where the mother was pretty much already doomed to die. Oftentimes,opening up the abdominal cavity, prior to the discovery of germ-theory, was nothing short of a death-sentence. Since this surgical procedure was far less than ideal, doctors attempted to assist mothers in vaginal births.
If a mother was experiencing difficulty in getting the baby out, a doctor would perform a symphysiotomy or pubiotomy to widen the birth canal. A symphysiotomy involves the cutting of the pubic symphysis which widens the pelvis in instances where there is some sort of mechanical failure. This method though is extremely outdated and has been all but eradicated in all first-world countries.They have now been replaced by the cesarean section which is less debilitating and has become a standard practice since the late 19th century.
Many early symphysiotomies were performed on cognizant patients under high-stress. Not only was fear involved, but pain as well, especially in cases occurring prior to the Civil War. Bones were initially cut using hammers and chisels, but the late 18th century brought forth a groundbreaking invention, a crank saw. The first prototype was made by two Scottish doctors, John Aitkens and James Jeffray. The chain was connected to a hand crank and was used for symphysiotomies and the excision of diseased bones. Over time the tool was mechanized and by the 1830s, the chain osteotome, a close ancestor of the modern-day chainsaw, was born.
It is difficult to even begin to imagine a doctor holding a chainsaw up to a woman’s pelvis and cutting through her bones. Before the 19th century, child-birth really was the stuff of nightmares. Many medical professionals around the time that the hand-cranked device was first developed thought that it was humane. The saw could widen the birth canal in a short period of time and save the woman from hours of excruciating torture and death. During a time with less options, it seemed like the best one. Although this procedure surely did save lives, it also sentenced a lot of women to lifetimes of pain and disability. Symphysiotomies can cause lasting effects including but not limited to chronic pain, difficulty walking, incontinence, reproductive complications, an inability to lift, and joint degeneration.
If that doesn’t make you thankful for modern medicine then I don’t know what will!
See you all in 2023!
Until Next Time
- Carlton, Genevieve. “The Gruesome Reason Why Chainsaws Were Invented.” ATI. May 24, 2022. Accessed 27 December, 2022. https://allthatsinteresting.com/why-were-chainsaws-invented#:~:text=The%20chainsaw%20was%20invented%20to,bushes%2C%20or%20even%20carving%20ice.
- Delay, Cara. “The Torture Began: Symphysiotomy and Obstetric Violence in Modern Ireland.” Nursing Clio. May 31,2016. Accessed 27 December, 2022. https://nursingclio.org/2016/05/31/the-torture-began-symphysiotomy-and-obstetric-violence-in-modern-ireland/.
- Hippensteele, Alana. “Fun Fact- Unfortunately Chainsaws Were Invented for Childbirth. Pharmacy Times. March 26, 2021. Accessed 27 December, 2022. https://www.pharmacytimes.com/view/fun-fact-unfortunately-chainsaws-were-invented-for-childbirth.