In this article:
- You might think sawing down trees or maybe butchering large animals is the answer to why were chainsaws invented. But you would be wrong.
- Originally invented by doctors, the chainsaw was first used to assist in childbirth, specifically when performing a symphysiotomy.
- The controversial surgical procedure was used well into the 1980s, despite carrying all the risks you’d expect to come with chainsawing a woman’s pelvis.
The tool most well-known for its ability to fell trees or cut pieces of lumber to size got its unlikely start far from the lumber industry. The chainsaw was actually invented in the late 18th century by a Scottish doctor named John Aitken, who used it in the operating room. It was later independently invented again by another Scottish doctor.
Why were chainsaws invented by doctors, you ask? If you saw the viral TikTok video on the subject, you already know the unsettling answer. It was used to assist in childbirth.
As Dr. Aitken explains in his riveting 1785 tome, Principles of Midwifery or Puerperal Medicine, it was a tool for performing a pelviotomy (later dubbed a symphysiotomy).
During difficult childbirths, when the baby was too large or breeched and too difficult to turn by hand, doctors in the late 18th century would sometimes widen the pelvic opening by sawing through pelvic bone or cartilage, making room for the baby to be delivered.
In Dr. Aitken’s own words, the procedure was performed “with various success” and, while he suggests that the goal of a “pelviotomy” was to keep both mother and baby alive, “performing it promiscuously, or in improper circumstances, has contributed to disgrace.”
So, readers, let this be your warning that you should not go promiscuously sawing people’s pelvises open.
The Origin of the Symphysiotomy
While Dr. Aitken invented the chainsaw and refined the procedure, he did not invent the “pelviotomy” which later became the symphysiotomy.
That credit goes to Severin Pineau, the French surgeon who, in the 16th century, witnessed someone cut through the pelvis of a recently hanged pregnant woman in order to extract the unborn baby from the deceased woman’s womb.
On the basis of that single case involving a dead woman, he started to advocate for the use of the procedure on living women. While doctors across Europe tried taking Pineau’s advice, it would be another 180 years before a symphysiotomy was performed successfully (without killing the mother, the baby, or both).
This abysmally poor success rate and the inappropriate use of symphysiotomies when they weren’t necessary led to the procedure falling out of favor. Hence Dr. Aitken’s footnote about not performing the procedure “promiscuously.”
Before Dr. Aitken’s chainsaw, this controversial procedure was done, slowly and painstakingly, with a regular hand saw or small knife — all without giving a drop of anesthesia to the patient because, even though naturally-occurring pain relievers like opium existed, doctors believed that the sensation of pain was necessary to a patient’s survival.
Despite the “various success” of the symphysiotomy and that the risk of making a mistake during the operation could put both mother and child at risk, it continued to be practiced, albeit infrequently, into the 20th century.
Most notoriously, it was used in Ireland, without patient consent well into the 1980s, as an alternative to caesareans, a safer operation where the baby is extracted through an incision on the abdomen.
Catholics disapproved of caesareans because doctors would sometimes recommend contraceptives to women who had had more than three of the safer but still risky procedure — and contraception was decreed “intrinsically wrong” by Pope Paul VI in 1968.
As many as 1,500 women in Ireland unknowingly and without consent had symphysiotomies performed on them between 1944 and 1987. Survivors of this era of Irish history reported ongoing health problems including chronic pelvic pain, a permanent limp, and incontinence.
So, Why Were Chainsaws Invented?
In that context, Dr. Aitken’s mechanized chain saw invention (which was powered by turning a handle to rotate a chain of “teeth” around a blade) was meant to make the unpopular procedure faster and more precise.
He also provided clear instructions for cutting through the cartilage only, rather than just hacking through bone and all.
This eventually led to the modern version of the symphysiotomy, which is still used in rural areas where the lack of a qualified doctor or the appropriate tools make the far less damaging Caesarean section impractical.
As barbaric as it sounds (and is), then, Dr. Aitken was genuinely doing his best with the medical norms of the day.
While his invention is no longer used in childbirth, it continued to serve as a tool for cutting through bone in autopsies or amputations until more refined electric bone saws were developed.
Meanwhile, it also evolved into the larger, more powerful versions used today to cut down trees, sculpt foliage, or — if you’re a family of cannibals in rural Texas — torment your dinner guests/main course.
So, in a roundabout way, we can thank the 18th-century Scottish obstetrician for the 1974 cinematic masterpiece, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre — and I think that’s beautiful.