Jun 26

U.S.S. Scorpion Artifact Vignette: Surgical Scissors

Tuesday, June 26, 2012 8:49 AM

“It is no small presumption to dismember the image of God.”

-John Woodall (1556-1643)

The Naval History and Heritage Command’s Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) has been conducting a multi-year investigation of a shipwreck in the Patuxent River believed to be War of 1812 vessel USS Scorpion. During the 2011 field season, several artifacts were recovered from the vessel’s hold including a pair of surgical scissors, SCORP-2011-53 (Figure 2). Previous investigation of the shipwreck in 1979 yielded another pair of surgical scissors, 99-69-AE (Figure 1). UAB has been conducting ongoing research to better understand the specific medical uses of these artifacts.

Figure 1: A range of artifacts collected from the suspected USS Scorpion site.

Although both scissors are made of iron, the design of each blade is rather different. The first scissor found in 1979 is a small instrument, measuring 13.2 cm. The blades are short and slender accounting for 5.5 cm of the total length. Each blade terminates in sharp points; they meet the base of the handle at a slight angle. The second pair found in 2011 is a more familiar shape. This scissor is slightly longer, measuring 13.4 cm. The blades of this instrument also terminate in a sharp point, but unlike 99-69-AE, the blade to handle ratio is skewed in favor of the blades as the blades account for 7.5 cm of the total length. Both pairs of surgical scissors (Figure 2) bear the maker’s mark “Nowill”.

Figure 2: 99-69-AE (Left) and SCORP-2011-53 (Right)

In one irony of the war, the marker’s mark on the scissors indicates they were manufactured by Haugue & Nowill, of Sheffeild England. This suggests that Dr. Thomas Hamilton, the assigned surgeon aboard U.S.S. Scorpion, purchased at least part of his naval kit from an English firm. Unfortunately, research on the manufacturer revealed little information related to the specific functions of the scissors. This may be due to the fact that in the 1800s firms did not specifically associate themselves with the production of surgical instruments; instead they were silver firms etc.

 Much information can be learned about the intended use of surgical scissors by analyzing variations in their point, blade length, or angulation. Although there appears to be no recorded medical standard that dictates the specific correlation between scissor dimensions and function, a 1952 inventory compiled by Down Bros. and Mayer & Phelps LTD allows for some clarification. The inventory catalogued 104 pairs of historical scissors of varying types providing detailed measurements, scale drawings, and specific functions. It also suggested that the function of an instrument can possibly be determined by analyzing the percentage of blade length compared to the total length of the scissors. Scissors with a smaller percentage of blade length were typically used to make small controlled incisions while instruments with a higher percentage were used for post-mortem operations.

Based on the Down Bros and Mayer & Phelps LTD inventory, it is possible to posit the function of both pairs of recovered scissors. The total length of SCORP-2011-53 measures 13.4 cm while the length of the blade measures 7.5 cm (i.e. the blade composes approximately 55% of the instrument). An instrument with such a high blade percentage may have been used for post-mortem procedures such as cutting open large lengths of bowel for examination. A pair of scissors with identical shape and blade percentage can be found at the Musée de Histoire de la Médecine in Paris (Figure 3). This particular pair is part of a kit used by Dr. François Carlo Antonmarchi in 1821 during the autopsy of Napoleon Bonaparte. 

Figure 3: Surgical instruments used by Doctor Antommarchi for the dissection of Emperor Napoleon I (1769-1821). Musee d'Histoire de la Medecine, Paris, France / Archives Charmet / The Bridgeman Art Library

The total length of 99-69-AE measures 13.2 cm while the length of the blade measures 5.5 cm, (i.e. the blade composes approximately 42% of the instrument). Based upon this percentage and the angulation of the blade, it is likely that this instrument was used to cut bandages. However, the ends of the instrument terminate into sharp points which would also allow the scissor to enter tight spaces and perform more delicate procedures such as suture removal.

Naval surgeons were outfitted with a standard set of equipment that would allow them to fulfill any possible medical demands that could occur on board. This ranged from amputation blades to apothecary bottles, and would also include several different types of scissors. Although individual surgeons would be given a medical kit upon boarding a ship, it was expected that these supplies would stay with the ship. In the case of U.S.S. Scorpion, the assigned surgeon, Dr. Hamilton, may have not been present at the scuttling of the ship but all of his supplies remained on board. Many of the recovered artifacts at UAB would have been used by Scorpion’s surgeon to treat the men of the Chesapeake Flotilla. The range of artifacts recovered shed further light on the activities of a naval surgeon during the War of 1812. Although these instruments were designed with a particular function in mind, it is likely that the demands of the ship outweighed decorum and were used for a wide range of activities. 

Further Reading:

1. Bennion, Elisabeth. “Surgical Scissors.” In Antique Medical Instruments. London: Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications, 1979. 73.

2. Kirkup, John. “Scissors and Related Pivot-Controlled Cutting Instruments.” In The Evolution of Surgical Instruments: An Illustrated History From Ancient Times to The Twentieth Century. California: Norman Publishing, 2006. 247-260.