The fascinating history that links the chainsaw's origin with childbirth.


When you hear the word ‘chainsaw’, you probably think of falling trees or a certain fictional Texas massacre.

And I’d hazard a guess that childbirth doesn’t exactly spring to mind.

But I learnt something this week that, at first, might make your stomach turn. The invention of the chainsaw is actually linked to bringing babies into the world.

I know. Creepy. But stay with me.

Because disturbing as this fact is, it’s also fascinating.

And not entirely surprising. After all, we know that even modern-day surgery often involves instruments that would make you wince if you laid eyes on them. For example, orthopaedic surgeons routinely use saws and mallets during hip and knee replacements. But we, the patients, are unconsciously unaware.

So. The chainsaw.

Its history goes back to the late 18th century, a period where childbirth could still easily become a life or death matter when complications arose. And sadly, they were common. In the 1780s, two Scottish doctors named as John Aitken and James Jeffray were trying to help matters by creating a tool to ensure a baby could pass safely through the birth canal.


childbirth chainsaw
A historical medical chainsaw, also known as an osteotome. Image: Sabine Salfer/Wikicommons.

At the time, caesarean sections were still dangerous procedures because of the high infection and mortality rates. So there really was only one way out for newborns: through the vagina. Which could be a problem when a baby was breech or too large, making them unable to get past the pelvis.

In such situations, doctors needed to perform a "symphysiotomy", which essentially involved dividing the pelvis in half to allow for enough room for the baby to pass. Without such a procedure, a mother could die. It was done by cutting away cartilage and bone using a small saw and knife. But it was agonisingly slow for a birthing mother, who was without anaesthesia.

And that's where the chainsaw came in. As hard as it is to believe, the invention was actually designed to make the process smoother, more precise and quicker for both the obstetrician and their patient. And it worked.

You're probably picturing those terrifying, enormous tree-chopping devices. But this medical instrument was far smaller, sized like a regular kitchen knife, except with tiny teeth lined on a chain with a handle on each end. It was illustrated in Aitken's Principles of Midwifery or Puerperal Medicine in 1784. A few years later, a hand crank was added so it would rotate.


The tool was a success, and it continued to be used for most of the 19th century until advances in medicine saw symphysiotomies largely phased out and replaced with c-sections. After all, recovering from stitches is more attractive than recovering from a broken pelvis.

The chainsaw was also widely used for other operations, such as when diseased bone needed to be removed.

Eventually, people realised these instruments would do wonders with wood-chopping. So about 100 years after the medical chainsaw was created, the huge monstrosities as we know them today came into existence.

And while the chainsaw is no longer used during labour, a modern version of the bone-cutting instrument - also called an osteotome - is still used in other medical operations.

So there you have it. Next time you think of a chainsaw, remember it was first invented to help create life. It's not so scary after all.

Main image source: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.