The History of the Scalpel

February 14, 2019

The scalpel is one of the oldest surgical instruments that is still used in medicine today. It dates back more than 10,000 years in various different forms, and began as flint and obsidian cutting tools that were used during the Stone Age.

Today, of course, the technology has advanced significantly, with many different types of materials, safety measures and coatings in use—in conjunction with professional medical instrument sharpening in San Diego, CA—to provide scalpels and surgical knives for all types of purposes.

In the beginning

It’s difficult to say for certain exactly when humans began making knives specifically for surgical purposes. However, there is evidence to indicate seashells, sharp leaves, bamboo shoots and possibly even fingernails were all used as early surgical tools. Sharks’ teeth could be used for venesection as well.

The best estimates we have based on excavations of archaeological sites are that knives began being used for surgical purposes between 10,000 and 8000 B.C. Blades designed for surgical purposes were initially made out of flint, obsidian and jade, with some pieces chosen specifically because they had sharp edges. Over time, fracture and flaking techniques were used to refine these blades to make them better for cutting with certain characteristics. These were among the very first human-refined tools.

In 1991, researchers found a very well-preserved prehistoric blade mounted in a handle that was preserved in ice close to the border of Austria and Italy. Based on the design of the tool, it was likely used for venesection, lancing and circumcision. The flint dagger was dated to have been from earlier than 4000 B.C.

Move to metal

The transition to metal blades began around 3500 B.C., as copper started to become more commonly used. Bronze and iron blades started to appear around 1400 B.C. By 400 B.C., we have our very first description of a surgical knife in documentation, as described by Hippocrates. The specific term he used was “macairion,” a smaller version of a type of sword.

The Romans who came after named their version of the tool the scallpellus, which obviously is the precursor for the widely used term “scalpel” today. This tool was much the same as that described by Hippocrates.

The real variation and specialization of surgical tools began in the Renaissance in the 14th and 15th centuries. Some of the upgrades to the scalpel included folding and fixed blades, blades with specialized tips and double-edged blades. Barbers during the Renaissance used ornamental scalpels that were popular for a few hundred years. But these more artistic versions started to fade out of popularity in the late 19th century with the requirements of antisepsis and asepsis in surgery, which would subject surgical tools to caustic chemicals.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, medicine has swiftly evolved. The basic idea of the scalpel, though, has remained the same for thousands of years: a sharp, versatile tool for surgical cutting.

To learn more about the history of surgical tools, or to arrange for medical instrument sharpening in San Diego, CA, reach out to the team at Larson Sharpening, Inc. today.

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