Chain Saws Were Supposedly Invented to Help in Childbirth. We Looked into the Tool's History

Pixabay/Public Domain
Pixabay/Public Domain
  • Some early hand-cranked saws driven by chains were invented in the 18th century for the "symphysiotomy and excision of diseased bone respectively." 

  • In some cases, these saws were used to break through parts of bone and cartilage in the pelvis to assist in difficult vaginal births.  

  • However, a medical archivist confirmed to Snopes that these early renditions were considered an "obstetrical 'prototype'" and very different from the woodcutting chain saws common today.

Childbirth, by all accounts, can be an arduous experience. For centuries, medical interventions and inventions have sought to make the birthing experience less painful, less dangerous and less fatal. 

The history of one of those medical interventions, the cesarean section, dates back thousands of years and was mentioned in Greek mythology. Among the many odd contraptions proposed to aid in childbirth was a device designed to propel the child right out of the womb with centrifugal force.

And, of course, there was the chain saw.

Social media and online accounts tell the chilling history of a device allegedly used in difficult childbirth that would break through parts of the childbearer's pubic bone to make space for the fetus. Take, for example, the Reddit post below from 2021:

This claim is true. Some early hand-cranked saws mobilized by chains were invented in the 18th century to remove diseased bone and to conduct symphysiotomies, a method of breaking through pelvic bone and cartilage to assist in difficult vaginal births. 

However, we should note some important nuances before diving into the history of the medical chain saw. These early renditions are considered an "obstetrical 'prototype'" of the common chain saw, a medical archivist confirmed to Snopes. Most importantly, early medical chain saws were very different from mechanical chain saws used in the timber industry today. 

Let's dive in:

Chain Saws for Use in Childbirth Sought to Remedy Other Dangerous Emergency Methods

Jacqueline Cahif, an archivist at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, confirmed to Snopes that the surgical hand chain saw was indeed invented for use in childbirth. What's unclear is whether the two inventing doctors, John Aitken and James Jeffray, worked independently on the "obstetrical 'prototype' of the common chainsaw." 

An article published in 2004 in the peer-reviewed Scottish Medical Journal also credited Aitken and Jeffray with the invention of the chain saw. This early version consisted mainly of a finely serrated link chain cut on the concave side, with handles on either side to saw through bone and cartilage. 

In the 18th century, doctors commonly responded to birth emergencies in one of three ways, according to a 2010 article in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery. The first involved a craniotomy to fracture a fetus' skull, resulting in infant death to save the mother. Performing C-sections often resulted in the death of the mother, mainly through hemorrhage. 

Doctors would also conduct a symphysiotomy, which involved breaking a joint between the left and right pubic bones, known as the pubic symphysis. Before the invention of the chain saw, this was done with a scalpel, which risked also damaging the bladder and urethra. (A flexible chain saw could break bone in hard-to-access areas but came with its own shortcomings, mainly breakage or entrapment in the patient's bone.) 

Cahif referred our newsroom to three contemporary works by Aitken and Jeffray in which the devices were described and which were used by the authors to support their work.

Aitken Is Largely Credited with the Invention of the Medical Chain Saw

Little is known about Aitken's early life, though historians assume he was trained in Edinburgh, where he became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1770. Subsequently, he lectured on surgery, midwifery and anatomy. 

Two works published by the Edinburgh obstetrician in 1786 described his medical chain saw: "A system of obstetrical tables, with explanations; representing the foundations of the theory and practice of midwifery" and "Principles of midwifery, or puerperal medicine." The latter illustrated the chain saw prototype used in Aitken's "dissecting room," as well as other instrumental innovations. 

Aitken's chain saw was first illustrated in 1785. (ResearchGate)

Aitken's saw is also described in a May 2009 article published in the Journal of Medical Biography. It described the device as "a flexible saw based on a watch chain with teeth to cut from inside outwards." 

Unfortunately, both knife and saw often injured the urethra and bladder, and symphysiotomy never became popular, the article noted, adding that Aitken's saw was later adapted for bone cutting, particularly joint excision, followed by its mechanization to cut on the outside of an endless chain. 

"Sadly its hand-powered speed proved inadequate to cut compact bone expeditiously. Nevertheless, this concept was the eventual source of today's successful chainsaw of the timber industry," the article said.

Jeffray Used the Chain Saw to Remove Diseased Bone

Jeffray, a professor of anatomy at the University of Glasgow, is credited with recommending the chain saw for joint excision and, by some, its invention. In 1802, Jeffray published "Cases of the excision of carious joints" which mentioned the use of chain saws for operating on wounds, removing limbs and cutting through bones. In particular, the article described successful excision of diseased joints, namely the knee and elbow. However, Jeffray received his medical degree in obstetrics at Edinburgh, where scholars argue he likely attended Aitken's lectures.

Jeffray's interest in the medical chain saw was not rooted in childbirth, but rather in removing diseased bones. He leaned on methods produced by Liverpool surgeon Henry Park, who operated on the knees and elbows of those infected by tuberculosis or wounded on the battlefield. This method involved "cutting through the bone with an amputation saw, on each side of the defective joint, to remove diseased tissue." 

Modern Renditions of the Medical Chain Saw 

A later version of the medical chain saw was proposed by Bernard Heine in 1830 in what would become the first mechanical chain saw, known as the "osteotome." This rendition incorporated an endless chain sped up using a hand gear — a model that would ultimately inspire modern timber chain saws. Heine's osteotome was notably used during the Civil War for amputation, which is outlined in this 2010 article in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery

Bernard Heine's chain saw, known as the osteotome, used a hand crank. (Orthopädische Universitätsklinik Frankfurt/Public Domain)

Bernard Heine's chain saw, known as the osteotome, had a hand crank but was still difficult to use. Heine was one of the few surgeons who mastered it. This chain saw is the version most commonly referenced in social media posts, like this Reddit post

In 1894, Italian obstetrician Leonardo Gigli introduced another modification to the medical chain saw, the Gigli saw. This flexible wire saw, described in the Journal of Neurosurgery, is still used today for the amputation of extremities. 

Origination of Chain Saws Used in Timber Industry

Canadian millwright James Shand is credited with inventing the first portable chain saw, which he patented in 1918. According to the British Columbia Provincial Museum, the "idea came to him while he was fencing his quarter-section of land and discovered that the barbed wire, drawn by horses, had sawn through a seven-inch oak post." 

(British Columbia Provincial Museum)

Sources:

Aitken, John. A system of obstetrical tables, with explanations; representing the foundations of the theory and practice of midwifery. By John Aitken, .. For the use of students.  1786. 1786. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/bim_eighteenth-century_a-system-of-obstetrical-_aitken-john_1786.

---. Principles of midwifery, or puerperal medicine.  1786. 1786. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/bim_eighteenth-century_principles-of-midwifery-_aitken-john-m-d_1786.

Cesarean Section - A Brief History: Part 1. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/cesarean/part1.html. Accessed 2 July 2024.

"Chainsaws, Vacuums and Forceps: The Dark, Brutal History of Birth Technology." CNET, https://www.cnet.com/culture/internet/chainsaws-vacuums-and-forceps-the-dark-brutal-history-of-birth-technology/. Accessed 2 July 2024.

"Fun Fact: Unfortunately, Chainsaws Were Invented for Childbirth." Pharmacy Times, 26 Mar. 2021, https://www.pharmacytimes.com/view/fun-fact-unfortunately-chainsaws-were-invented-for-childbirth.

Hawk, Alan J. "ArtiFacts: Bernhard Heine's Osteotome." Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research, vol. 474, no. 5, May 2016, pp. 1108–09. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11999-015-4658-2.

How the Chainsaw Went from Womb to Wood | Stork Helpers. https://www.storkhelpers.com/blog/entry/chainsaws-and-childbirth-how-the-chainsaw-went-from-womb-to-wood/#:~:text=This%20process%20was%20very%20messy,pelvic%20bone%20quicker%20and%20easier. Accessed 2 July 2024.

Kirkup, John. "John Aitken's Chain Saw." Journal of Medical Biography, vol. 17, no. 2, May 2009, pp. 80–80. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1258/jmb.2009.009019.

Opening Hours and Contact | Library & Archive The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. https://library.rcsed.ac.uk/about-us/opening-hours-and-contact. Accessed 2 July 2024.

Palma, Bethania. "Was an Invention Patented That Used Centrifugal Force in Birth?" Snopes, 13 Nov. 2019, https://www.snopes.com//fact-check/centrifugal-birthing-apparatus/.

Park, H., et al. Cases of the Excision of Carious Joints [Electronic Resource]. Glasgow : The University Press, 1806. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/b21288185.

---. Cases of the Excision of Carious Joints [Electronic Resource]. Glasgow : The University Press, 1806. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/b21288185.

Salfer, Sabine. English:  Bernhard Heine's Osteotome. July 2007. private photo taken at Orthopädische Universitätsklinik Frankfurt (M), Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bernhard_Heine%27s_Osteotome.jpg.

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