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Top 10 Scary Medical Devices Throughout History – Special Halloween Edition

Having to visit the doctor or surgeon isn’t on the top of anyone’s “favorites” list and undergoing any type of medical procedure can be more than a bit unnerving.  Thankfully, hundreds of years of medical and technological advancements have made these experiences at least a little less terrifying.

Why are they less terrifying?  Easy.  A simple look at the devices previously used to perform surgical procedures tells the story and is quite frankly, shocking.

Just in time for Halloween, these 10 instruments are scary, yet real, devices that were actually used and even considered cutting-edge (pun intended) for their time.  Almost certainly, medical device reps now have a much easier time selling products that are more effective and indeed less painful.

Tonsil Guillotine


Just like the guillotines used during the French Revolution, these instruments were used to perform the common tonsillectomy during the mid-1800’s.

It was rather simple to use them: position the tonsils inside the rings, and pull the spring-loaded ring.  Doctors eventually stopped performing the procedure with the guillotine, however, after too many people suffered hemorrhaging.  You know, a regular guillotine is just fine, thanks.

Luckily, the same procedure today involves anesthetizing a patient before burning the base of the tonsils with electricity, also known as cauterizing.



Used to remove various growths including tumors, polyps, hemorrhoids, and cysts in the esophagus, larynx, uterus, or ovaries, the ecraseur (French for “crusher”) was the instrument of choice.  The loop on the end of the instrument could be a saw-toothed chain or a simple wire and was employed to strangle and crush the growth, preventing hemorrhage by restricting blood supply like a tourniquet.  After lassoing the base of the growth, the doctor then turned a screw to apply pressure.  Similar instruments were used in veterinary medicine to castrate livestock, including cattle and sheep.

Skull Saw


The skull saw was mainly utilized between the 1830’s and 1860’s.  The name of this instrument is pretty self-explanatory: the hand-cranked saw blades were used to cut through sections of the skull, allowing for access by other instruments.

Hernia Tool


Developed and used during the 1850’s, this unique tool was used after the restoration of a hernia.  It was inserted into the body near the affected area and left there for a week to produce scar tissue that would help seal off the hernia.  The surgeons did the work but left the tool?  On purpose?  Scary.



First used around the early 1600’s in pre-modern Europe, these types of trephines were hand drills made to cut circular holes in patients’ skulls in an attempt to treat epileptic seizures and skull fractures.  They were also used to treat “trivial” conditions like mental illness (yeah, really).

The tool included a metal pin mounted at the center, which made the initial hole.  Once that was set, the doctor could proceed to twist the trephine until it bore a hole.  Amazingly, patients underwent the procedure without anesthesia.

A drilled hole in the head is the last thing anyone wants, but a trephine is the seemingly perfect Halloween-inspired medical device, guaranteed to give anyone the chills.



A bladder stone was a common problem when many people ate low-protein diets.  Doctors typically cut out these “stones” by making an incision in the perineal raphe, exposing the bulb of the urethra, which led them to the bladder.

The lithotome contained two adjustable hidden blades that would spring out and cut and dilate the neck of the bladder.  The surgeon would then begin probing with forceps for the stone felt earlier through the wall of the rectum.  These operations took approximately five minutes since doctors didn’t want to prolong their patient’s suffering during those pre-anesthetic days.  Five minutes still seems far too long!

Artificial Leech


There was a time when bloodletting with leeches was a popular treatment for a wide range of medical conditions.  The artificial leech was invented in 1840 and was used frequently in eye and ear surgery.  The rotating blades would cut a wound in the patient’s skin, while the cylinder would be used to produce a vacuum that sucked up the blood.  Forget Dracula; leeches are real, they suck blood, and in this case, science actually built a super leech that’s worse than a vampire!



The osteotome was used extensively throughout the 1800’s to perform amputations.  Before general anesthetics were introduced, amputations were incredibly painful and also dangerous.  Bones were often splintered and the tissue around them damaged by the harsh impact of a hammer and chisel or the jolts of a saw.  Surgeons turned to the osteotome to speed up the procedure while reducing the risk of complications.  The device was cranked manually, utilizing a chain and sharp cutting teeth to cut through bone and virtually everything else.

Dental Key


During the late 1700’s, dentistry was hardly sophisticated.  When someone needed to get a tooth pulled, a dental key was the primary solution.  How did it work?  Just like it sounds: the key’s claw would be placed over the tooth and the bolster (the part attached to the rod and handle) would be placed along the tooth’s root.  Then, the dentist would twist and turn like a key until the tooth was (quite painfully) pulled out, root and all.  According to a 2005 industry review, the dental key caused more accidents and injuries than all other tooth extraction instruments before 1900 combined.

The dental key is the ideal surgical tool of a demented dentist and should be a staple of that costume at any Halloween party!

Tobacco Smoke Enema


While maybe not a classical surgical “device” in the traditional sense, this instrument really demonstrated the state of medical practice during the mid-1700’s until the early 1800’s.

The tobacco enema was used to infuse tobacco smoke into a patient’s rectum for various medical purposes, primarily the resuscitation of drowning victims.  A rectal tube was inserted into the anus and connected to a fumigator and bellows system that forced smoke towards the rectum.  Additionally, the warm smoke was thought to promote respiration.

Thank goodness for the advancements made in the field of medicine, medical care, and especially medical devices throughout the years.  As scary as undergoing medical procedures might currently be, we can only imagine how utterly terrifying they must have been in the not-so-distant past.  Most of these scary surgical devices almost seem like they were designed for a Halloween television special and it’s quite surprising that patients decided to go through with their procedures after seeing these instruments of torture that doctors had the nerve to call medical “tools” and “devices.”

At least one thing is for sure: medical device sales must be a whole lot easier now that technology has allowed for the production of highly-efficient instruments that are no doubt less painful (thanks to anesthesia) and a lot less horrific.