Bone Saws and Centipedes

Our newest exhibit is now open! Considering the number of tools on display that were designed to sever, extract, or drill into one’s various body parts, “This Won’t Hurt a Bit! A History of Pain Relief” will make you either run screaming for the hills or bow down before the great and benevolent Horace Wells, the official “Discoverer of Anesthesia.” Or you might do both, in that order, if only there was a monument for Dr. Wells on a hill and available for prostration. Wait a second…

Wells-Horace-Memorial

Horace Wells’ monument at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford.

As we wrapped up our exhibit installation last week, two things bothered me:

 1.  This ingenious instrument that is not a silver necklace with extra large clasps, but a bone chain saw intended to, um, saw through your bones. Do I need to explain why that bothers me?

Bone chain saw, made by George Tiemann & Co., New York, 1880s, courtesy of the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University, on display at the Connecticut Historical Society.

Bone chain saw, made by George Tiemann & Co., New York, 1880s, courtesy of the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University, on display at the Connecticut Historical Society.

2.  Anesthesia is great and all, but why don’t we yet have biomechanical centipedes that come alive at contact with your injured shoulder, suture your wound together with its 100 legs, and dissolve into your flesh as it secretes healing and pain-relieving fluids into your blood stream? 

Surely this man could have used a suturing centipede. Engraving from Practical Observations in Surgery by William Hey, Philadelphia, 1805, from the Chester Hunt Medical Library at the Connecticut Historical Society.

Surely this man could have used a suturing centipede. Engraving from Practical Observations in Surgery by William Hey, Philadelphia, 1805, from the Chester Hunt Medical Library at the Connecticut Historical Society.

Here are two things to add to your summer to-do list. Read Dan Simmons’s epic sci-fi series, Hyperion (for suturing centipedes and other innovations of the future), and visit “This Won’t Hurt a Bit! A History of Pain Relief” at the Connecticut Historical Society, open through September 28.

Ben Gammell is the Coordinator of Interpretive Projects at the Connecticut Historical Society.

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