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Amputation instrument set, Strasbourg, France, 1780-1820

The leather case set contains a range of equipment a surgeon would need to perform amputations. These include a number of rather gruesome looking knives and saws to cut through skin, muscle and bone. The instruments are made from steel with ebony handles. Materials such as ebony were difficult to clean and these instruments would very likely have harboured dirt and dangerous micro-organisms. Only later in the century, with the introduction of aseptic surgical procedures, were instruments finally made of materials that could be fully sterilised. Inside the lid there is a handwritten inventory signed by surgeons of the Military Hospital in Strasbourg, France. This set was probably used during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). Amputations of arms and legs were common and were carried out without anaesthetic. One surgeon of the Napoleonic Wars claimed that at the Battle of Borodino in 1812 he performed two hundred amputations in a single day.

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    Glossary: micro-organism

    A tiny single-celled living organism too small to be seen by the naked eye. Micro-organisms that cause disease are called bacteria.

    Glossary: amputation instrument set

    Set of instruments used for amputation, usually of external limbs. The amputation saw was the primary part, usually present in all sets of this type.

    Glossary: anaesthetic

    An agent that causes insensitivity to pain. Applied to either the whole body (general anaesthetic) or a particular area or region (local anaesthetic).

    Glossary: amputation

    Removal of part of, or a whole limb by surgery. Used to control pain or the spread of disease in the affected limb.

    Glossary: aseptic

    Free from bacterial contamination; surgically sterile or sterilized.