Tools of the Trade


Roll over the Barber’s surgery tools below to learn how they were used.

Elish Barber
Cover Illustration by Cliff Nielson

Bone Saw After cutting the flesh in preparation for an amputation, the bone saw takes care of the rest! Flesh was usually pulled back from the area to be cut, then sliced in two semi-circular sections (like the end of a popsicle stick) which would provide padding for the stump to make the amputee more comfortable with an eventual prosthetic. For individual fingers or toes, a hammer and chisel would be employed instead.
Shears The well-equipped barber-surgeon carried several pairs of shears for different uses. Shears of this size are likely reserved for cutting cloth: trimming away clothing that surrounds or covers a wound site, or removing bandages that may have become stiff with blood and infection.
Round Cautery For cauterizing wounds smaller wounds, a convex end allowed for careful sealing without too much damage to surrounding flesh.
Crowsbill Forceps Forceps with curved tips were used to remove bone, arrow heads, bullets or other impacted fragments from a wound, as well as for grasping the ends of vessels in preparation for surgery. They are often referred to by various bird names depending upon the size and shape of the tool in question, including Hawksbill, Ducksbill, and the very long Cranesbill.
ProbeA wooden-handled, long-nosed tool for probing to determine the depth and extent of an injury and whether there were bone fragments, weapon shards or other debris carried into the wound. Other styles and shapes had very specific purposes, including those with a scoop on the end for removing gallstones. Hollow probes, either straight or with a slight curve, could be used to carry needles or cauteries close to the injury without damaging surrounding flesh.
Parting Blade A curved knife with the inner edge sharpened for slicing through skin and muscle in preparation for amputation.
Lifters A specialized tool for lifting and isolating the breast for surgery, especially in the case of abscess.
Shears Small shears for close, careful work including the snipping of injured eyelids or other delicate areas.
Knife Shaped for making lateral slices, this blade is similar to what would have been used in bleeding patients. Bleeding was meant to relieve an imbalance of humors (blood, phlegm, black and yellow bile) to cure various physical and mental conditions. A physician would consult charts linking astrological signs and ancient understandings of sickness to various parts of the body—taking season and the patient’s natural humoral state into account–then direct the barber where to cut and how much blood to let in order to effect a cure.
Square Cautery For cauterizing larger areas of flesh, possibly requiring multiple impressions to complete the operation.
Elisha Barber From the dirty streets of fourteenth century London, a hero walks. He does not stride. He does not mount his destrier and ride fiercely off to embrace his destiny. Beneath the burden of tragedy, Elisha walks. He is no king. He is no fool. He is, in fact, a barber. And a haunted man.
Elisha Barber Shears Round Cautery Crowsbill Forceps Probe Parting Blade Lifters Shears Knife Square Cautery Bone Saw