Fun Fact: Unfortunately, Chainsaws Were Invented for Childbirth

March 26, 2021
Alana Hippensteele, Editor

Although childbirth remains a difficult, often stressful experience for mothers, the advent of opioid medications for labor pain relief and the use of appropriate sanitation methods has made childbirth far safer for mothers than was possible during previous periods in history.

Although childbirth remains a difficult, often stressful experience for mothers, the advent of opioid medications for labor pain relief—such as morphine, fentanyl, nalbuphine, and butorphanol—and the use of appropriate sanitation methods, has made childbirth far safer for mothers than was possible during previous periods in history.1

For example, in the 1500s, the first record of a successful cesarian section (C-section) was recorded in Switzerland by a professional cow-castrator who had conducted the surgery on his wife. However, since he wrote about the experience supposedly 82 years after the fact, historians today continue to dispute whether his account is actually reliable. This lingering doubt is because not only did both the mother and child survive the surgery he conducted, but the man explained that the baby went on to live 77 more years. This places both the child and the man at a very ripe old age during a time when many did not live past 40 years of age.2

In the United States, the first record of a C-section was published in 1830 in the Western Journal of Medical and Physical Sciences. In the article, Dr. John L. Richmond describes how, after many hours of the expectant mother being in labor, he could see she was close to death, requiring that he make a decision quickly to save the woman’s life.2,3

“After doing all in my power for her preservation, and feeling myself entirely in the dark as to her situation, and finding that whatever was done, must be done soon, and feeling a deep and solemn sense of my responsibility, with only a case of common pocket instruments, about one o’clock, I commenced the caesarean section,” Richmond wrote in the article.3

He explained further that the woman’s home—where he was conducting the operation—had been constructed with logs less than a week before, with no floor or chimney yet in place. This meant there were gaping holes throughout the home, which was additionally a problem since the night was both stormy and windy, making it very difficult for candles to stay lit, and thus also difficult for him to see anything he was doing.3

“Under these circumstances it is hard to conceive of the state of my feelings, when I was convinced that the patient must die, or the operation be performed,” Richmond wrote.3

Using a crooked pair of scissors and his finger, he conducted the C-section. As he proceeded with the process and attempted to remove the baby from the mother, he found he had additional trouble since the child was “uncommonly large, and the mother very fat, and having no assistance, I found this part of my operation more difficult than I had anticipated.”3

He then made the decision that “a childless mother was better than a motherless child,” and went about determining what he could do to save the mother’s life. In this effort, he found he was successful.2,3

In short, at this time in history, C-sections were incredibly dangerous, often resulting in the death of either or both the mother and child in the process. For this reason, C-sections were more generally a last resort following the exhaustion of all other options.2

Far more common during this period in history was the surgical procedure of the symphysiotomy. During this procedure, the pubic symphysis, which is a joint above the vulva covered and connected by cartilage and reinforced by ligaments and tendons, is severed to widen the pelvis and make the childbirth process a bit more likely to occur.2

Yet, like all procedures of this era, it remained very risky to conduct because it required both speed and accuracy. This was possible to accomplish by hand with varying degrees of success.2

In comes the chainsaw. In the late 18th century, 2 Scottish doctors, John Aitken and James Jeffray, developed a prototype of the chainsaw—familiar today in the timber industry—for symphysiotomy and the excision of diseased bone.2,4

The design of the chainsaw was based on a watch chain with teeth that moved through the use of a hand-crank. This meant that although the mother may not have looked down to see her doctor holding a version of the chainsaw we know today, she would instead see her doctor furiously cranking a chainsaw against her vulva.2,4

With the invention of the chainsaw, obstetricians and gynecologists (OB/GYNs) working in the field at the time were bowled over by how much better chainsaws were to use for conducting symphysiotomies than the previous methods they were relying on.2

In light of this success, the chainsaw was eventually mechanized in the later 19th century to increase its ease of use by OB/GYNs on expectant mothers. However, shortly after this, the chainsaw was superseded by the Gigli twisted wire saw, which was most commonly used to cut bone.2,4

This led to the mechanized chainsaw eventually getting adopted by the timber industry in 1905, allowing the instrument to be applied to trees, rather than its original use on women.2