Ten Terrifying Knives from Medical History

I’m excited to announce that I’ve just finished filming the first episode of my new YouTube series, Under The Knife, and will be releasing it very soon (please subscribe to my channel for video updates). Unsurprisingly, that got me thinking about, well, knives. Here’s a list of some rather terrifying knives from our medical past.

  1. VALENTIN KNIFE, 1838. This knife was one of the few able to cut slices of organs and soft tissues for microscopic examination. The double-bladed knife worked best when the blades were wet – best of all when submerged in water. Named after its inventor, Professor Gabriel Valentin (1810-1883), a German-Swiss physiologist, the knife was invented in 1838. This example, however, dates from 1890.

  2. BISTOURY CACHÉ, c.1850. Invented in the mid-19th century, bistoury caché literally translates from the French as ‘hidden knife’. The device was used to cut internal organs or to open cavities, particularly during the surgical removal of a bladder or kidney stone – a practice known as lithotomy.
  3. CIRCUMCISION KNIFE, c.1775. Circumcision – the removal of the foreskin of the penis – is practised across the world often for cultural and religious reasons. In some countries it is also promoted for reasons of hygiene and health. This knife dates from the late 18th century.
  4. CATARACT KNIFE & NEEDLE, 1805. Georg Joseph Beer (1763-1821), an Austrian professor of ophthalmology, invented this cataract knife and needle around 1805. Cataracts cause blurred vision as the lens becomes cloudy and if left untreated can cause blindness. These instruments allowed for the surgical removal of some of the cloudy mass and, if necessary, part or all of the lens itself. Prior to effective anaesthetics, this was an excruciatingly painful process. This particular example dates from 1820.
  5. ORTHOPEDIC KNIFE, 1855. William Adams (1820-1900), an English surgeon, invented this type of knife for his new procedure called periosteotomy in 1855. This involved un-fusing the bones of the hip joint by cutting the neck of the femur (upper leg bone). He affectionately called it ‘my little thaw’, because the knife was used to cut through and ‘melt’ fused bones.
  6. LISTON KNIFE, c.1830. Robert Liston (1797-1847), a Scottish surgeon renowned for his speed and precision in surgery, invented this double-edged amputation knife in the 1830s. This particular example is made of steel with a nickel-plated handle. Nickel plating was introduced in the 1890s and meant that the knife could be boiled without it rusting and was therefore ideal for aseptic surgery. It was made by Down Bros, a leading surgical instrument maker, in the 1920s.
  7. SYRIAN SURGICAL KNIFE, c.900 AD. Most of the blade of this ancient surgical knife is rusty and part of it is broken. The steel blade is slotted into a brass handle. The loop at the end may have been used as a finger hole for gripping. This knife dates to a period when the Islamic world became a major centre for medical study and practice.
  8. PLAGUE LANCET, c.1600. Plague epidemics ravaged Marseilles in France throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Lancets, such as the copy shown here, were used to open buboes in order to relieve pressure and also remove poisons from the body – an unsuccessful attempt to cure the patient. The lancet would have been stored in a brass case.
  9. DOUBLE BLADED LITHOTOME, 1812. This object was used to cut the bladder in order to remove stones – a practice known as lithotomy. Baron Guillaume Dupuytren (1777-1835), a French surgeon and pathologist, invented this double bladed lithotome for the bi-lateral lithotomy procedure he developed in 1812. This procedure became widely used from the 1850s onwards, and this example dates from 1825.
  10. FALCIFORM AMPUTATION KNIFE, c.1700. The curved shape of this amputation knife was common in the early 1700s. Amputation knives became straighter once the practice of leaving a flap of skin to cover the limb stump became the preferred amputation method. Ebony was a common material for handles as it is a hard-wearing wood. This knife was probably made by Eberle in Germany, as indicated by the inscription on the silver blade.


By | 2014-09-16T16:25:40+00:00 September 16th, 2014|Casebooks|13 Comments


  1. sandvick September 16, 2014 at 5:22 pm - Reply

    Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    Lindsey Fitzharris has posted a spine tingling article on “Knives from Medical History” on the The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice. All of these knives were used before anesthesia was invented (the Liston knives were first invented in the 1830s, but the example shown is from the 1920s). So if you ever wondered what an 18th century Circumcision Knife looks like check out The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice new post. I guarantee that you will shudder at least once.

  2. First Night Design September 16, 2014 at 6:03 pm - Reply

    Reblogged this on First Night History.

  3. Scott Moore September 16, 2014 at 7:35 pm - Reply

    May I ask about the date on the double-bladed bistoury caché pictured? I believe you used the picture in another post and dated it as mid-16thC.

    • The Chirurgeon's Apprentice September 16, 2014 at 7:55 pm - Reply

      Wow – you have a great memory. I just checked. This knife, according to the Wellcome Catalogue, dates from the 18th century. However, the same knife listed at the Science Museum in London dates it from 1501 – 1530. I’ll have to look into this but a quick search makes me think that it is, indeed, 18th century. I will correct the error depending on which article needs updating once I find out the definitive answer! Thanks!

      • Scott Moore September 17, 2014 at 12:32 am - Reply

        I have a particular (and peculiar) interest in this instrument as it seems to cross in to my hobby, 16thC German surgery. A similar instrument appears in Hans Vvon Gersdorff’s Feldtbuch der Wundartzney (1517-1525) and the Germanisches NationalMuseum has two such instruments dated as in the mid-17thC.

        I regret I cannot find online images of these, but I can post my own images if you wish.

    • E. C. Ambrose September 17, 2014 at 11:19 am - Reply

      I, too, have images like this dated to Mid-16th century. Will be curious to see what you discover.

  4. ontheupcyclemom September 17, 2014 at 3:28 am - Reply

    Very interesting post! My 5x Great Grandfather was a SX in England in 1800! It is hard to imagine what kind of person you would have to be to do a job like this back in the day! The syrian sx knife is especially interesting because of how old it is!

  5. […] The Chirugeon’s Apprentice: Ten Terrifying Knives from Medical History […]

  6. Kythera of Anevern September 25, 2014 at 4:58 am - Reply

    I’ve seen you reference the falciform knife elsewhere, so you’ve got me rather curious about it and how it was used. How did the handling technique of the falciform knife versus a straight blade make leaving a flap of skin for covering the stump easier? I’m trying to work it out in my head, and not coming up with anything.

    Morbid detail questions aside, a lot of these knives are beautiful pieces of craftsmanship. I guess the attention to aesthetic detail can offset the more frightening qualities. :]

  7. aurussanchez1234 September 26, 2014 at 3:36 am - Reply

    I love the video on the cloclwork saw so scary and gruesome. But im so into old historic medical instruments. The way the video was amde short and to the point. Just the way i like it

  8. huoli June 3, 2015 at 9:35 am - Reply

    I do not know whether it’s just me or if everyone else encountering issues with your blog.
    It appears like some of the written text on your posts are
    running off the screen. Can someone else please comment
    and let me know if this is happening to them as well?

    This could be a issue with my browser because I’ve had
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  9. Randall Brown September 9, 2015 at 1:04 pm - Reply

    Where can you purchase the 18th century version of this knife?

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