Curator's Choice: Gill Scott on bone saws and amputation knives at the Great North Museum

By Gill Scott | 18 March 2013

Curator's Choice: Gill Scott on medical instruments from new exhibition Tales of Antiquarian Adventure at Newcastle's Great North Museum...

A photo of a woman pointing at an ancient saw inside a see-through exhibition case
“This selection of Barber Surgeon instruments, consisting of a bone saw, amputation knife, trephine drill handle and bit, date to the early 18th century and belong to the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne.

The objects are part of a much larger selection of tools on display at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle.

They fascinate me for several reasons: it is evident that they are in pristine condition and were probably never used for their original purpose.

Instead, they were kept as showpieces within a large wooden display cabinet and would have been the pride of the owner’s collection of surgical items.

Even though they are clean and shiny, they offer a stark reminder of a brutal apprentice trade where blood-letting, using tools like the trephine, was commonplace.

Bone saws and amputation knives would have been, by today’s standards, messily applied to infected and wounded limbs with no effective or safe anaesthetic.

The earliest mention of the Company of Barber Surgeons and Tallow Chandlers dates to October the tenth 1442.

Records from the late 1600s reveal that they met, dined and, most importantly, practiced their trade using skeletons and, later, the bodies of executed criminals in a Barber Surgeon’s Hall near the Holy Jesus Hospital in Newcastle until around 1830.  

Perhaps the most disturbing – or amusing – aspect of these fascinating objects is that they are still inspiring young children to pursue a career in the medical profession today – as attested to by a conversation I had with one intrigued seven-year-old in the exhibition."

  • Tales of Antiquarian Adventure – 200 years of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne was at the Great North Museum: Hancock until April 13 2013. Read our preview.
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