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Boils, Plague Sores and Embossed Carbunkles

Surgery and Amputation

An Amputation Saw


About the Item

This saw was used to remove arms and legs in a surgical procedure called ‘amputation’. An amputation would not be performed by a qualified surgeon like it is today. Instead you would go to the barber-surgeon. The barber-surgeon was not considered to be a doctor or a physician, instead he was working in a ‘trade’. Alongside cutting off patient’s limbs and other more complex operations like removing bladder stones, the barber-surgeon would have cut hair and shaved men's beards!

Although the saw may look attractive with the decorative design on the handle and the curved silver additions on the top, this actually made the saw impractical and dangerous. These decorative features could catch on the patient’s skin while the surgeon was sawing off their limb; and they were the ideal hiding place for infection causing bacteria.

There was no proper pain relief or antibiotics for patients undergoing surgery during Shakespeare’s time. Sometimes patients got really drunk before surgery so they would pass out before the surgeon started sawing. After the surgery was complete surgeons may have cauterized the wound to prevent infection and stop the bleeding. This would involve heating a piece of metal in the fire until it was red hot, then pressing the boiling metal onto the wound to ‘seal’ it. Although extremely painful for the patient, this would have stopped them bleeding to death and helped prevent infection.


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Credit: Amputation saw, Europe, 1501-1600. Credit: Science Museum, London. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)