HealthHistoryPregnancy & Childbirth

Tidbit Tuesdays: The Shared History of Childbirth and Chainsaws

(Content warning: Yes, it’s what it sounds like.)

At first I didn’t even realize that this (offensive and poorly written) post that appeared on my G+ stream was a repost from the Science on G+ community to the Woodworking community, as I didn’t draw the immediate connection. It is a very interesting tidbit I thought merited a slot on the Tidbit line up.

Most of us don’t give a lot of thought to the origins of things we see around us… there is just too much going on and a lot of things seem like common sense. After all, it just seems natural to assume that the chainsaw was invented for, you know, cutting things like wood… right?

Nope. It started out as a tool known as an osteotome, used for removing bone (and still used to this day, particularly in dental applications) and to perform symphyiotomies (also known as Gigli’s Operation), the cutting of a woman’s pelvic ligaments to assist in childbirth (other knives and saws were also used such as Galbiati’s knife, Gigli’s saw, scapels, and others). Multiple versions of chain osteotomes were developed in the 18th and 19th century, so the exact history and credit of the invention is disputed.

An image of a historical chain osteotome.

Image via Wikipedia

Reference to symphysiotomy published in 1894. (Edit: Added to clarify, the above is from “The Medical Times and Register, Volumes 27-28.”)

John Aitken’s work creating a chain saw for symphysiotomies is referenced heavily referenced, it should be noted it was what Aitken referred to as a “flexible knife” or “flexible saw.” (EDIT: Added to clarify, the above embed is Aitken’s “Principles of Midwifery or Puerperal Medicine”, 3rd Edition published in 1786.)

In the developed world, symphysiotomies have been largely replaced with cesarean sections but the practice continues to this day.


Irish Doctors Used to Break Women’s Pelvises So They Wouldn’t Miscarry

The Chain Saw – A Scottish Invention


J.G. Hovey

Just another person out there in the world. Follow the author's other endeavors at: A Parent With Glass, and ALTsapiens, and G+.

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  1. UG. I followed way too many links to find this gem:
    “Carried out in Irish hospitals long after they were discontinued in other jurisdictions [up until 1992], the childbirth procedure involved unhinging the woman’s pelvis and widening it by up to 3.5 cm. It was used as an alternative to Caesarian Sections as doctors and the Catholic hierarchy which ran the wards believed they would facilitate future births and avoid the need for family planning for medical reasons.”

  2. So looking at the way that book was written and typeset I thought, “there’s no way this came from 1894.”

    It turns out that’s because it’s from 1784. Just FYI

      1. The 1894 refers to the upper embed which is the “Medical Times and Register”, volumes 27-28. The lower image is a separate work, the 3rd edition of Aitken’s “Principles of Midwifery or Puerperal Medicine” that was published in 1786. I will edit to clarify this, thank you.

          1. That’s strange that it would only display a small part of it, even if being in Canada was a factor (why would it show any of it at all?) I use Chrome, and both embeds appear correctly. Very strange.

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