Different Surgical Instruments & Their Uses

Image by Flickr.com, courtesy of Jurek Durczak

Collecting medical artifacts is fascinating, and antique surgical instruments are among the most interesting. Experienced collectors are very knowledgeable about the uses and types of surgical instruments, and novice collectors need to be familiar with basic instruments.

Bleeding Instruments

Until well into the 19th century, there were three basic medical practices: bloodletting, purging and sweating. Bloodletting, the most common, required surgical instruments such as lancets to cut arteries and veins (usually on the inside of the elbow) and bleeding bowls to measure the amount of released blood.


Scalpels are simply knives for making incisions. A common scalpel is straight with a convex blade, and a bistoury scalpel is concave to prevent accidental piercing.


Retractors are hooked instruments used to open incisions or to lift blood vessels.

Dental Tools

Infection from cavities or other dental problems were often fatal. For this reason, extraction was the common method used to deal with problem teeth. A tooth key was used to pull molars and dental forceps for the other teeth.

Bone Saws

The most brutal instruments were the various bone saws used in amputations.

Minor Surgical Sets

Every early doctor had a pocket or minor surgical set that contained scalpels, lancets, retractors, scissors, probes and needles and silk for stitching wounds and incisions.