Notes on Anatomy and
Dating of Amputation Knife Blades
by Dr. Michael Echols
Drawings from Bourgery & Jacob
The anatomy of
amputation knife blades changed over the years to reflect changes in
techniques used by the surgeons and makers.
The progression of blades
seen below show a gradual style change from the (Fig. #1), c.1840
'down' curve blade to a more straight edge as seen in the (Fig. #6), c. 1870
blade. All six of these blades are from different makers, but the
earlier down curved blade of (Fig. #1) is similar to those seen in the late 1700's and beginning of the
1800's English and European styles. This would be expected since
most of the American makers were trained in, or immigrated from, England
It is noted by
collectors, the handles on earlier knives (pre-1850) are much bigger and heavier
construction. "Beefy" in the words of one collector.
notes are made based on the sets in my collection and observation of other
collections, the basic idea is that blade morphology changed over a period
of years and if you are aware of the changes, that knowledge can help solve
the puzzle of when a set was made or if a given instrument belongs in a
particular set. None of these notes are meant to be 'fact'.
In the case of Civil War
sets, the limited number of years they were made is important because the
changes were limited during the War. Those sets which preceded the War
are also very distinctive, where as post-War instruments varied greatly.
Experience and handling a lot of sets is the best and only teacher in this
knife names and styles from the 1880's Geo. Tiemann catalog
Detailed explanation of
how an amputation is performed:
Smith's Hand-book on Surgical Operations
1. Wiegan &
Snowden (c. 1840 early)
or Tiemann (c. 1840 mid)
(c. 1855 - 60 ) Note curved blade
War common style Note straight blade
1. Wiegan &
Snowden (c. 1840 early) Beefy heavy handle.
(c. 1840 mid) Beefy heavy handle. Tiemann had same style.
(c. 1850 early), light handle
(c.1850 early), Light handle
of many makers during the Civil War, heavy handle
(c.1870's late), heavy handle
Points to note about the photo above:
The joint between the
handle and the blade changed from a decorative 'band' or 'ferrule', which held
the two together, to a butt joint which was part of the casting of the blade.
In earlier knives, the blade and handle are joined by the band between the two
as can be seen in example #1,2,3. The later technique of one piece
fabrication is shown in example #4,5,6. The ferrule should be consistent
within a given set. There should not be various types within a given
set. This is a hallmark for detecting replaced parts or misplaced
knives in a set.
Note the different ferrules of the
amputation knives. The top one is later, the lower two
are early and normal for an 1860 set, but all three seem to
fit exactly in the slots.
The curve of the blade
changed from being curved down to straight after the 1850's (with the
exception of Tiemann in the 1855-60 period, no other makers used this design
in the USA during this time to my knowledge or experience.)
The tip of the blades
changed from a more blunt style to the pointed tip from 1830 to 1850's.
The tip went from down
turned in the 1840's to being in the middle of the blade during the 1850's and
then to the top of the blade in the 1870's.
Note the Tiemann (Fig.
#3, c. 1855-60) had the down curved blade, but had become much thinner than the
earlier styles. This extremely thin blade would have seem to have been
more prone to bend than the thicker and straight blades of later design.
I have not seen this style in Tiemann sets after the 1860. I have
noted the Reinhardt set in the Waring Museum and shown in Edmonson's book on
page 294 is exactly the same design and style at the Tiemann #3.
In general, the knives
became longer and thinner in width across the back and blade. The
handles became more and more delicate.
Shown below is two early
Tiemann amputation knives, both from the same time period. The question is: which set of knives are earlier?
Usually the earlier knives have heavier handles, but the lower knife has a much
thinner handle than the large knife. Since all the knives were custom made, it could relate
to the size of the surgeon's hands for whom the set was made.
The knife at the top has the thicker
handle and is also marked 'Tiemann'. The lower knife from this set and
marked 'Tiemanns' and is c. 1830's. The 'Tiemann's' mark is the earliest I
know about and dates to when George Tiemann started in business.
One of the decisions you may
have to make is to determine if a blade is nickel plated. Nickel plating
began about 1877, so if a blade tests positive for nickel, odds are it's post
1877. On the other hand, if the blade is a combination of iron and nickel
formulation, this test won't work.
Test for Nickel
A nickel allergy test kit can be to determine whether metal contains nickel.
Such kits are available at well-stocked pharmacies and can be ordered over the
Internet. All such tests rely on dimethylglyoxime, which forms a complex
with ionic nickel that has a distinct pinkish color.
Some people have allergies to nickel and metal alloys that contain nickel.
The kit is designed to determine whether "metallic objects" contain nickel. It
consisted of 2 dropper bottles. "Solution A" was dimethylglyoxime in alcohol.
"Solution B" was a weak solution of ammonium hydroxide in water.
The directions read "Place one drop of solution A and one drop of solution B
on a cotton-tipped applicator (use equal amounts of both solutions). Rub wet
applicator firmly against the test object for 15 seconds. If applicator turns
red, the object contains nickel."