Macabre contraptions reflect surgical history: Dalya Alberge looks at a collection of old medical instruments included in a unique auction next month

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IT HURTS just to look at the 19th-century German mechanical chainsaw at Christie's South Kensington. The contraption was never on general issue, according to an 1872 medical report: 'It was found to go too far too fast.' The report draws a veil over how that conclusion was reached.

However gruesome, the instrument's importance is unquestionable. John Kirkup, a semi-retired surgeon and curator of an important historical instrument collection at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, said: 'The chainsaw, by Heine of Wurzburg, was the world's first. It was a technical breakthrough . . . one of the few surgical instruments adapted by craftsmen for wider use.'

The chainsaw will be included in the first auction, on 19 August, to be entirely devoted to medical instruments - physicians' tools, pharmaceutical curiosities, surgical and dental instruments spanning 300 years. Mr Kirkup described it as 'a very interesting collection, with some very important pieces with highly skilled mechanisms.'

Most unnerving is the fact that, however much medicine is thought to have advanced over the centuries, many of the instruments are not all that different from today's examples. One of the 19th-century serrated saws designed for amputating limbs looks as basic as those in the average DIY kit, but is familiar to today's surgeons.

Mr Kirkup said that he had carried out many amputations with such a saw. 'Before 1846 and anaesthetics, the patient might have jumped,' he added.

Discussing other saws and their makers, Mr Kirkup alighted on the Butcher's Saw - 'that's Butcher the surgeon not Butcher the butcher', he explained. He reminded the faint-hearted that, in the 19th century, 'every soldier and sailor knew it was better to live with three limbs than die with four. Without amputation, they could get infections, gangrene, septicaemia . . .

'In the Peninsular War, they queued up for amputations. 'This way for legs, that way for arms' . . . They'd see the piles of limbs as they queued. If you didn't know about pain relief, that was the only option . . . Life was tough.'

The sale includes a combined fork and knife designed for a Guard who lost his right arm in the Napoleonic Wars; a 19th-century amputee's pair of artificial legs; and iron dental keys, tooth extractors used with a twisting action that are enough to inspire love for the modern dentist's drill.

It also includes a chilling looking 19th-century mechanical drill for boring holes about an inch in diameter in the skull - a practice, going back thousands of years, for relieving headaches and releasing devils. A version of this tool is still used today in neurological surgery for releasing blood clots in head injuries. 'That's a beautiful little thing,' Mr Kirkup said, working the lever that engages the drill.

Thankfully, the sale includes several tools that have passed out of use. One lethal-looking instrument, whose elongated shape is a cross between pliers and shears, was used in childbirth for cranial perforation - extracting a dead child by compressing the skull.

The metal of some pieces is slightly stained with dark spots, but definitely rust rather than dried blood, Mr Grant said reassuringly.

What kind of person has a taste for the macabre? On the whole, collectors of historical medical instruments are generally no more sinister than doctors and surgeons.

(Photographs omitted)