Surgical stapling and anesthesia are common sights in a modern operating room, but it wasn't always that way. Some of these tools and processes have interesting and downright weird origins — long before they could be found in every operating room in the world.


Nitrous oxide

Dental surgeries before the 1840s were particularly painful because even the most basic forms of anesthesia had yet to be discovered. Thankfully, a traveling sideshow would provide the inspiration for this badly needed necessity.


Horace Wells first spotted the possibility for nerve-numbing gases in 1844 at a traveling circus show where he witnessed members of the audience turn into giggling morons, simply by inhaling large doses of nitrous oxide also known as "laughing gas." Wells tested his discovery on one volunteer patient by extracting a tooth after putting him under with the gas and found that the volunteer did not feel any pain during the extraction. He later had the gas tested on himself with similar success and proclaimed it as a "new era in tooth pulling."


Absorbable sutures

The pioneering Muslim surgeon al-Zahrawi invented many of the most basic tools used by surgeons. His dissolving sutures, however, provide easily the most interesting discovery story.


The 10th-century surgeon reportedly discovered that catgut strings served as the perfect internal sutures to repair wounds during surgical procedures. He came across this discovery after his pet monkey accidentally swallowed some of the strings from his lute. He found that they dissolved naturally in the body without any side effects or internal injuries. His discovery also served as the perfect material for making medicinal capsules.


General anesthesia

Henry Hill Hickman, one of the earliest experimenters in anesthesia, blazed an interesting path in the field with his strange experiments, one of which lead to less lethal consequences.


Hickman discovered the numbing properties of carbon dioxide by anesthetizing animals and removing their limbs to see how they reacted to the pain. Of course, he failed to realize that carbon dioxide could have deadly consequences if carbon based life forms inhale too much of it. His findings were widely criticized and his subsequent scientific endeavors weren't pursued, but he posthumously earned recognition as one of the founding fathers of anesthesia.


Surgical stapling

Surgical staplers have been a part of the surgical technologist's toolbox since as far back as the early 1900s, but the earliest devices were as cumbersome and complicated as the operation itself.


The first known prototype of the surgical stapler was invented by Humer Hulti, a Hungarian surgeon who is known as "the father of surgical stapling." His invention weighed a hefty eight pounds and required two hours of preparation. It also took several hours to fully staple a wound shut since it required an iron set of hands to keep the cumbersome device steady enough to make a straight staple line.


Skin glue

Stitching and suturing — the long time standard for closing wounds — were recently replaced by skin glue. However, long before stitching became the standard, the more recent innovation in surgical technology got its start.


Dr. Harry Coover, a scientist for Kodak Laboratories in the 1940s, was trying to concoct a solution for clear plastic to afix gun sights to the barrels of rifles. One solution, called "cyanoacrylates," came close to achieving this goal, but was tossed aside as unfit for production. Six years later, he revisited his formula to create plastic that could be made into airplane canopies and found that it made a very strong adhesive. Later in the 1960s, he submitted an application to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to use his "super glue" on injured soldiers to seal wounds in the field. His solution was battle-tested on wounded soldiers during the Vietnam War with great success. However, Coover (pictured right) didn't obtain approval for use on civilians until 1998 when the FDA approved it for use in stateside hospitals and surgical procedures.


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Click for photo credits

Nitrous oxide: jupiterimages
Absorbable: Wikimedia Commons

Anesthesia: lhooq38/Flickr

Stapling: Wikimedia Commons

MNN homepage photo: OSU Special Collections & Archives/Flickr

The curious beginnings of 5 common surgical tools
Think surgery's painful now? Imagine it before anesthesia. Medical technology has come a long way — check out the back stories behind common, essential tools.