Why Were Chainsaws Used in Childbirth?

What kind of image comes to your mind when you hear the word chainsaw?

Maybe you think of a gardener chopping down the overgrown branches from bushes and shrubs, effortlessly creating a more attractive landscape.

Lumberjacks also commonly use chainsaws for bringing down tall trees, because the old-fashioned methods, involving the use of tools like broadaxes and handsaws, took a long time and required lots of muscle.

An illustration of a modern chainsaw, a tool used mainly for cutting trees.

Or maybe you think of a mass murderer running towards you with blood-stained overalls, a scene from some late-night horror movie — or from your worst nightmares.

Put those thoughts to one side, because the original use that the chainsaw was put to could well surprise you.

I was astonished to learn that the tool was first invented to solve a very practical medical problem.

But I should warn you: you may want to take a seat and keep your legs firmly closed before you read this.

Otherwise you could find yourself feeling a bit jumpy, if you’re not fully prepared for the gruesome history that I’m about to share with you.

So take a deep breath and I’ll begin…

A pregnant woman in a woodland, resting against a tree.

As many women will know, giving birth has always been a difficult experience: sometimes it goes perfectly smoothly, but labor can often be arduous, long and distressing.

When the baby arrives, all of those negative thoughts are usually forgotten, but sometimes the pain can be so bad that it’s hard to forget — terrible suffering can stay with you for a lifetime.

In the past, things were worse. It was less common for mothers to be given Caesarean sections, even where they’d be considered absolutely necessary today, so all babies had to pass through the birth canal.

But sometimes there would be serious difficulties with the delivery. Perhaps the baby was larger than usual or was stuck in an awkward position.

When a baby is set to come out of its mother bottom-first, rather than head-first, it’s called a breech birth and it’s associated with a greater risk of serious complications.

In situations like that, where no amount of pushing and pulling is able to free the little kiddo, something drastic had to be done.

Surgeons would be called in to widen the pelvic area, in order to make the extraction of the baby from its mother easier.

This operation was called a symphysiotomy, which derives from a word describing the point where two pelvic bones meet, but you don’t need to remember the technical terminology.

Suffice to say, it was a painful — and even barbaric — procedure, but it seemed like the best option at the time.

Image of neon signs created by the Filipino-Canadian artist Lani Maestro for the 2017 Venice Biennale, which is one of the biggest art events in the world.

Surgeons simply had to hack away at the cartilage, muscle and bone that was between the pregnant woman’s legs, and it can’t have been a very dignified process. It was challenging to endure.

Luckily, the procedure is very rarely done in modern healthcare systems, but it can still sometimes be seen fairly often in poorer parts of the world where C-sections are not always possible to perform.

It was still common in some parts of the Western world until recently, however. In the 20th century, doctors performed symphysiotomies on Catholic women who were expected to have large families — sometimes without their consent.

One woman has given a vivid description of her harrowing experience and how it made her feel:

I was screaming. “[The anesthetic] is not working,” I said, “I can feel everything.” … I saw [the doctor] go and take out a proper hacksaw, like a wood saw… a half-circle with a straight blade and a handle. … The blood shot up to the ceiling, up onto his glasses, all over the nurse.

Then he goes to the table, and gets something like a solder iron and puts it on me, and stopped the bleeding. … They told me to push her out, she must have been out before they burnt me. He put the two bones together, there was a burning pain, I knew I was going to die.

That was clearly a terrible ordeal. However, if you go back just two or three hundred years ago, this sort of experience would have been relatively common in many wealthy countries.

This was before the invention of anaesthetic, which wasn’t widely used until the dentist William Morton demonstrated how a patient could be painlessly put to sleep at the Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846.

Just think about how distressing it would be to have your crotch sawn into and sewn up while you’re completely wide awake.

So when Morton showed how simple it could be to block the sensation of pain, the news quickly spread and it was rightly seen as a major advance.

A painting showing William Morton's use of a chemical called ether to induce anesthesia.

Effective anesthetics had, in fact, been developed earlier by other people, but the famous hospital in Massachusetts where Morton did his demonstration has long been staffed by faculty members at Harvard University, so he was able to impress some influential people and it was his name that got attached to the breakthrough.

Anaesthesia allowed more complicated operations to take place, which patients wouldn’t otherwise have been able to endure, so it was soon adopted throughout the medical profession.

In the eighteenth century, however, extreme pain was just considered a perfectly normal part of surgery, because there wasn’t much alternative.

Patients would be fully aware of what was happening and their screams would sometimes reverberate around the operating theater. When all was over, many people wouldn’t survive for long after the surgery, since there was almost no form of infection control in the modern sense.

Mothers must have been traumatized by the prospect of having their hips opened up and their bone slashed away by blood-thirsty physicians, but they knew that it might be their best chance of giving birth successfully.

Dr. Louis Schwartz, an academic at the University of Richmond, says, “In London and other cities and larger towns, about one woman died for every 40 births.”

So there were very real risks: doing nothing could have serious consequences, but even successful surgeries could result in serious complications.

Trying to make the process of dealing with difficult pregnancies more humane, Scottish surgeons John Aitken and James Jeffray invented the very first chainsaw.

It wasn’t like the terrifying tool we have today that contains an internal engine able to turn the chain at thousands of RPM, making a monstrous noise and emitting great plumes of toxic smoke.

The sort of chainsaw that was used in childbirth looked quite different: it was a small handheld device that would be operated by a crank.

When the surgeon was using it, one hand would hold the tool in place while the other would be used to turn the wheel.

This is a vintage surgical chainsaw that was used by the famous German doctor Bernhard Heine.

It wasn’t known as a chainsaw at the time. It was called an osteotome.

In medical jargon — which traditionally derives from the ancient Greek language — osteo- means “bone” and -tome means “cutter”.

So the name made it obvious to anyone working in the medical profession that it was a tool intended for cutting through bones.

But, even though it was powered by hand, it worked on exactly the same principles as a modern chainsaw.

Just like the gas-powered machines that are used in industry today, sharp teeth were connected at regular intervals on a long cutting chain, which would rotate at a fast speed and literally bite into whatever was placed in front of it.

The tool could cut through bone more quickly than a knife would, so even though the pelvic-splitting procedure that many women went through would still be extremely painful, the cutting wouldn’t last as long — a small improvement, yes, but a very real one.

The handheld chainsaw was later used for other kinds of surgery, such as amputations where diseased bone had to be removed, and only after decades had gone by was it ever used outside the operating theater.

Now, of course, it’s more likely to be used by a tree surgeon than a human one, but no one would be using a chainsaw today if it hadn’t been for the pressing demands of medicine.

So we should be grateful that the chainsaw was invented to help make women’s lives easier. But we should be all the more grateful if we’ve never needed to have it used on us!

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