Welcome to Patent Earth!

History of the Scalpel: The Original Surgical Instrument

History of the Scalpel: The Original Surgical Instrument
It is widely accepted that the knife was the first tool to be developed by humans. So it comes as no surprise that the first surgical instrument would be a variation of the knife, that fundamental tool which found widespread use in so many of man's earliest activities such as hunting, preparing and eating food, creating art, crafting other tools and of course our earliest attempts at medical care.

The modern word "scalpel" is derived from the Latin "scallpellus", a term that arose during the height of Roman surgical knowledge and skill. The Romans excelled in the production of blades. Combined with their high level of education, it was only natural that they would refine the instrument as well as how it's used. Borrowing extensively from eachother's knowledge and experience, together the Romans and Greeks reached a zenith of medical prowess that would remain unmatched for centuries.

Early Egyptian surgical instruments
Early Egyptian surgical instruments.
While the first known description of a surgical knife comes from the great greek physician Hippocrates, evidence of the use of blades in medicine have been found from as far back as the Mesolithic period about 10,000 years ago. And the modern scalpel isn't really all that different from the "macairion" that Hippocrates described. The fundamental features - a handle, a cutting blade on a single edge and a sharp, straight point at the end - remain unchanged.

Indeed, the scalpel has evoled remarkably little in over 10 millenia of use. What has evolved tremendously, however, is the way that modern medicine uses this simple but powerful tool. Most of the known history of the scalpel - or any blade - in medicine is, for lack of a better word, barbaric. The earliest known cases involved using flint knives to bores holes into the skull, the belief being that this would "let out" whatever was making someone ill. Even just a few hundred years ago during the Dark Ages, "blood letting" was a common medical practice. Thankfully, today the scalpel is used much more conservatively.

1800's Spanish surgical kit
1800's Spanish surgical kit.
To the extent that the scalpel itself has evolved, it's evolution closely follows the evolution of blades & cutlery in general. For surgical blades in particular, the primary concern of this evolution has been sharpness. The sharper a blade is, the clean and more precise a cut it can make. Of course that isn't the only concern - there's also the blade's shape, balance, rigidity and overall reliability.

The surgical scalpel as we know it today features a specialize handles with an interchangeable blade made from modern stainless steel alloys. This concept was inspired by the disposable shaving blades developed by King Gillette in the early 1900's. In 1910, Dr John B. Murphy of Chicago perfected the specialized handle and in 1915 Morgan Parker made the combination technically efficient when he found an ideal way to join the blade & the handle. Over the past few decades there have been additional adaptations and refinements, but the specialized handle and disposable blade design that was perfected nearly a century ago remains largley unchanged.

The scalpel is a unique case of the evolution of modern technology. Unlike other fundamental early inventions like the wheel, which gave us our earliest modes of transportation and paved the way for the bicycle and eventually the automobile, the scalpel is only still essentially just a blade. Yet it's history is just as rich, and despite over 10,000 years of refinement mankind continues to find new ways to improve not only the tool, but the skill with which it is wielded.

An assortment of modern surgical scalpels
An assortment of modern surgical scalpels.

Category: History of Inventions