If you’ve ever wondered why chainsaws were invented, you’d probably be surprised to learn that it wasn’t for cutting wood. The first chainsaw was originally invented to aid in childbirth. If that conjures disturbing visuals in your head, you’re not alone.
“It sounds horrible. It was,” says Dr. Anthony Tizzano, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Ohio. Tizzano has one of the most extensive private collections of Ob/Gyn artifacts and medical books in the United States, all housed in the Tizzano Museum of Obstetrics, Gynecology, Medical Antiques & Women’s Health History.
While certainly cringe-worthy, the medical chainsaw played a life-saving role during childbirth at a time when there were no safer options available in cases of obstructed labor — and long before anyone realized the same mechanism could be a boon to the timber industry.
Birthing Babies in the Olden Days
Even though women have been birthing babies since, well, the beginning of humankind, labor was especially difficult before modern medical advancements such as antibiotics, anesthesia and hygiene practices like hand-washing.
When a woman suffered complications during labor, it could be life-threatening. A caesarian section was rarely considered because it was thought dangerous because of the high risk of infection. So, doctors were forced to try alternative methods.
In the 1770s, French medical doctor Jean-René Sigault came up with a possible solution to delivering babies who were getting stuck in the birth canal. Sigault was inspired by the writings of Severin Pineau, a French surgeon in the late 1500s who had described a “diastasis of the pubis” (separation or dislocation of the pubic symphysis or joint) in a pregnant woman who was hanged.
Sigault’s idea was to surgically separate the pelvic joint to create a larger opening in the pelvis. If it was successful, it would allow the baby to pass through the birth canal.
In October 1777, Sigault and his assistant Alphonse le Roy tested the method on the first patient. Madame Souchot was a 40-year-old woman with a contracted pelvis due to rickets that prevented her from delivering vaginally. She’d already lost four babies, and the consensus among the medical community was that she had no chance of bearing live children without a caesarian section. But, a cesarean section would have likely killed her.
With little to lose, Sigault cut through Souchot’s pubic joint, successfully performing the first so-called symphysiotomy. Both the mother and baby survived, and symphysiotomies soon became routine medical procedures for women experiencing obstructed labor.
Two Scottish Doctors Improve the Symphysiotomy
In 1785, Scottish doctors and obstetrician John Aitken and James Jeffray improved on the symphysiotomy method using a tool that later became known as the Aitkens flexible chainsaw.
The cutting device was specifically designed to make removing the woman’s pelvic bone easier and less time-consuming during childbirth. The flexible chainsaw also caused less trauma to adjacent tissue than the rigid saws and sharp knives typically used to perform the procedure.
The Aitkens flexible chainsaw — what Tizzano calls a “unique and rare” find in his collection of antique surgical tools — was made with a fine serrated link chain with teardrop-shaped handles on both ends. One of the handles was removable so doctors could attach a blunt-pointed needle to the end of the chain.
The doctors used the needle to guide the chain behind the pubic bone in preparation for the symphysiotomy. The surgeon would then move their hands back and forth to “saw” through the pelvic bone faster than they could with a sharp knife and with greater precision.
In the 1890s, Italian obstetrician Leonardo Gigli developed what became known as the Gigli saw. This chainsaw was similar in function to the Aikens saw but had T-shaped handles that were easier to grasp. It also had a chain of twisted wire with sharp little teeth that were finer and easier to position.
Around the turn of the century, the symphysiotomy began losing favor, thanks to improved medical procedures, hospital hygiene and general anesthesia, making C-sections safer. The Gigli saw was used more in amputations and bone cutting operations.
Today, amputations are performed with modern power tools. However, flexible chainsaws like the Gigli saw are still used during some medical procedures where precision and control are paramount.
Bernhard Heine’s Version of the First Chainsaw
In 1830, orthopedic technician-turned-orthopedic surgeon Bernhard Heine shook up the medical and physical sciences with a new medical chainsaw invention. Heine had designed and built many of his own instruments and appliances through the years, but nothing was as renowned as his chain osteotome.
Similar to the modern chainsaw (which bears a slight resemblance to the chain osteotome), the instrument had little “teeth on the exterior, grooves on the inside corresponding to spurs on the motive wheel,” according to Tizzano’s circa 1889 copy of George Tiemann & Co.’s Surgical Instruments catalog. It also had a “thin, knife-like plate (deeply grooved longitudinally), over which, and the motive wheel, the saw is extended.”
Heine’s osteotome had a hand crank and could cut through bone comparatively quickly, saving the patient from blows of a hammer and chisel or the jarring of a regular amputation saw. (This was golden, considering anesthesia was rarely used at the time.)
Symphysiotomies were still being performed then, but the osteotome was never used for this surgical procedure, Tizanno assures, as the operation required an initial approach that was not possible with Heine’s version of the chainsaw.
However, the osteotome was adjustable, making it ideal for other delicate surgeries. Guards on the chainsaw could be configured to minimize the area of the patient that had to be cut. This prevented soft-tissue damage, which allowed surgeons to perform surgical procedures like craniotomies without splintering bones or damaging surrounding tissue, including the brain.
There were some drawbacks to the osteotome, though. It was a pricy surgical instrument, ringing in at $300 in Tiemann’s 1872 catalog compared to just $5 for standard medical chainsaws. (These days, pristine, cased and complete examples of antique Heine osteotomes have sold for upward of $30,000, Tizzano says.) Furthermore, using it required a great deal of skill and, unfortunately, Heine was one of the few who mastered it.
Andreas Stihl Invents Electric Chainsaws
As cool as Heine’s osteotome was, it took a while before someone realized that a saw with a similar cutting mechanism could make felling trees a lot easier. Some credit inventor and naturalist John Muir for being the first to make this leap in 1897. However, his invention was a large mechanical machine that weighed hundreds of pounds and required a crane for operation. Because of its impracticality, it failed to gain commercial success.
In 1905, San Francisco-based logger Samuel J. Bens applied for a patent for his “endless-chain saw,” which he said was based on Heine’s original osteotome. His tool was also rather large (though not as enormous as Muir’s invention), required more than one user, and thus, was similarly impractical. More than a decade later, Canadian James Shand patented the first portable chainsaw, though “portable” was a stretch considering its bulkiness.
In 1926, German mechanic Andreas Stihl patented the first electric chainsaw for logging purposes. Stihl followed that invention with a gas version three years later. However, both required more than one person to operate.
The first one-man chainsaw wouldn’t be put into production until the 1950s. That cleared the path for the modern chainsaw, and the rest, as they say, is history.