Surgeons use a wide variety of different tools and instruments to carry out procedures and operations. Some of these are relatively simple tools, while others are more complex and perform highly specialised functions.

Many of these tools have been developed and designed over hundreds, even thousands of years. Let’s take a look at some of the most fascinating histories behind some of the most commonly used surgical tools.



Retractors are used to hold open wounds and incisions during operations, making it easier for surgeons to operate internally.

Some research suggests that surgical retractors were used in ancient Rome, but the earliest confirmed use of a retractor is in the 4th century CE when an Indian doctor used one to remove a patient’s tonsils.

Medical retractors have come a long way since those early days. The biggest development was the creation of the self-retaining retractor, which does not need to be manually held open and offers surgeons much more space and convenience. Retractors can be general tools used for a number of different purposes, or they can be more specialised, such as the Balfour retractor, which is designed to work well for invasive abdominal procedures.

Retractors of the past were made from metal, but modern versions are usually made from medical-grade plastic. These are far more resistant to bacteria, making for a safer, more sterile environment.



Surgeons use forceps to grip and pick up objects or to hold tissue and skin as they operate. There are various different types of forceps, such as non-toothed forceps for delicate tasks, and toothed forceps that offer maximum grip.

Forceps were used commonly by ancient Roman surgeons, who utilised them for everything from removing broken bones to treating varicose veins.

In the past, forceps would have been rudimentary instruments that would have caused a lot of pain and trauma. Today, they are designed ergonomically to minimise discomfort without sacrificing efficacy.



Scalpels are bladed tools that are used to make incisions. They are exceptionally sharp, designed to easily cut through soft tissue and skin.

When it comes to scalpels, there is a huge variety of different shapes and sizes. Each different kind is designed for a different purpose. Some of them are highly specialised and intended for use only on very specific areas of the body.

Scalpers are perhaps the oldest of all the medical instruments, thought to have been used as far back as 10,000 years. They have remained relatively unchanged since, with one sharp edge that runs to a point, perfect for making accurate, efficient incisions with minimal trauma to the surrounding skin.

Scalpels of the past were washed and reused over and over again. Today, they tend to be single-use, which significantly improves hygiene and cleanliness standards.



Retractors, forceps, and scalpels are among the most historically interesting and significant surgical tools, and their stories are a testament to how far the medical profession has come. Despite remaining relatively unchanged in terms of functionality, the design of the instruments has been honed over the years to maximise patient welfare.


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