On November 9 2020, a Facebook post encouraging fellow users to “Google why chainsaws were invented” (archived) went quite viral very quickly; it alluded to the possibility that one might have difficulty guessing the original intended purpose of what might be the most intimidating handheld device:
Posts of the post’s general ilk were intermittently popular on Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter, akin to the “today years old” or “today I learned/TIL” memes. Although such posts weren’t expressly “engagement bait” and typically were more sincere, they might also be less virally popular if the post itself simply stated the underlying fact or claim (in this case, about the invention of chainsaws).
A July 2020 post circulated prior to the “what chainsaws were invented for” version, and it had to do with the inventor of blow-up dolls:
Chainsaws and… Childbirth?
As for the invention of chainsaws, a January 2020 Popular Science article claimed that the handheld harbingers of destruction — on which entire horror movie franchises were predicated — were developed to assist in, of all things, childbirth:
FACT: The chainsaw was originally developed to aid in difficult childbirths
By Claire Maldarelli
When you picture a chainsaw, the typical uses that come to mind usually have to do with wood (and, you know, chopping it). So it might surprise you that the device’s origin lands about as far away from a lumber yard as you can get: The creators of the chainsaw were two Scottish surgeons named John Aitken and James Jeffray. And they developed their gnarly and dangerous device to help them do their jobs—cutting human bone and flesh.
Even under the best possible circumstances, giving birth is not what most would call a pleasant experience. But in the 18th century, prior to the development of anesthesia and other modern surgical tools, delivery could turn incredibly dangerous with little warning. When babies came out feet-first or their bodies were otherwise trapped in the birth canal, doctors would have to widen the pelvic area by cutting into the cartilage and bone. Aitken and Jeffray found that a sharp knife just didn’t do the trick in a timely fashion, so, somewhat shockingly, they created a chainsaw as a more precise and humane option.
The resulting procedure was known as a symphysiotomy, and thankfully it is no longer in use today. What’s left is the chainsaw, which is now kept well away from surgical wards. Thank goodness.
However credible Popular Science might be, the claim was both extremely compelling and fairly novel — less than a year old when the Facebook post began circulating.
Was the Symphysiotomy a Real Procedure?
Wikipedia featured an entry for “Symphysiotomy,” but it had two immediate strikes against it in the chainsaws and childbirth column — it surprisingly bore a warning of disputed neutrality, and it did not mention chainsaws at all:
Symphysiotomy results in a temporary increase in pelvic diameter (up to 2 cm) by surgically dividing the ligaments of the symphysis under local anaesthesia. This procedure should be carried out only in combination with vacuum extraction. Symphysiotomy in combination with vacuum extraction can be a life-saving procedure in areas of the world where caesarean section is not feasible or immediately available. Since this procedure does not scar the uterus, the concern of future uterine rupture that exists with cesarean section is not a factor.
That entry’s “Talk” page warned the “article [might need the] attention of an expert due to the recent, possibly partisan edits” by a user with an Irish handle in 2014. Further “edit warring” debated the inclusion of information from an individual named Marie O’Connor, founder of an organization called “Survivors of Symphysiotomy.”
The discourse in that section alluded to a possible limitation of scope in both region (Ireland primarily), and chronology:
The contents of Ms O’Connor’s report must be read prior to making decision. The statements on the history of the operation are referenced in Ms O’Connor’s report. Again, if one can establish any actual factual misrepresentation please point this out. It’s important to note for the purposes of the expert review that all writing on the subject is tendacious by its nature: doctors who wrote about the practice were advocates of it.
If you wish I can provide of redacted redacted obstetric reports condemning the practice. But I would also advise you or whoever it is to read the contents of the Kearney decision, which is a decision of the Irish Supreme Court.
On the issue of selectivity, I cant see what has been left out in terms of the Government response or handling of the issue. All statements derive from media reports which surrounds the Government’s handling of this scandal.
In relation to giving Ireland undue weight, you must consider that Ireland was the only country in the Western World to have revived the practice: in no other country has symphystiomy been performed. This is why it’s significant. It’s a bit like mentioning anti-semitism but saying we shouldnt give undue weight to what happened in Germany during WW2.
The other point is that there is no campaign to have the operation banned: it’s no longer used in Ireland, it was never used in the Western World in the 20th century, which is something that hospitals or health officials have never disputed. The only place it has been performed in recent decades is Sub-Saharan Africa where there is no access to hospitals to perform c-section.
Even there, chainsaws were not mentioned. The plot thickened!
A December 2014 report by The Guardian, “Symphysiotomy – Ireland’s brutal alternative to caesareans,” began:
They were never asked for their consent – but symphysiotomy caused the Irish mothers subjected to it catastrophic long-term health problems. A compensation scheme has now begun, but the question remains: did religious dogma trump the women’s best interests?
When Mary discovered she was pregnant, she was more than delighted: she was relieved. It was 1981 and although she was just 23 years old, she had wanted a family since she had married three years earlier.
“Expecting our first child was the best thing ever,” Mary (not her real name) tells me from her home in Ireland, her voice softening at the memory. “It was what I had always dreamed of.” Her friends and her three sisters, already mothers themselves, reassured her giving birth was just “aches and pains”, she says. But for Mary – now a lively, funny healthcare worker – it was the beginning of a devastating experience that still affects her 30 years later. And the problems weren’t the natural complications that can trouble any pregnancy. They were the result of a doctor’s intervention.
When the doctor arrived, he did something Mary cannot forget. “They gave me gas and air and an injection, and took me to another room, where they tied my legs up on each side,” she recalls. “There were two nurses on each side of me. I saw this doctor at the end of my bed with a big, long silver thing. They made a hole in your private parts, and he inserted this silver thing up and cut the pubic bone and pushed it over to widen your pelvis for you to deliver your baby yourself.”
Petrified and in agony, Mary had been subjected to a symphysiotomy – a controversial operation that was seldom used in the rest of Europe after the mid-20th century, but which was carried out on an estimated 1,500 women in Ireland between the 1940s and 1980s.
“Mary” provided an account that was unsettling, but thankfully, chainsaws were not mentioned. In January 2015, CNN published an article headlined, “‘He was sawing me in half:’ Ireland’s gruesome era of symphysiotomy,” which began with another woman’s account of experiencing a symphysiotomy:
Rita McCann still remembers the day when her joy at the prospect of giving birth to her first child turned into sheer terror.
It was December 15th, 1957 when she went into labor at a hospital in Dublin, Ireland. As she floated in and out of consciousness, she remembers being taken into a room with a single bed.
“I was pulled to the bottom of the bed. My legs were strapped into stirrups. I was nine months pregnant, flat on my back,” she says. “I was helpless and I did not know what was going to happen.”
“[Then] I got a local anesthetic and the torture began.”
According to CNN, McCann assumed that the doctor was performing a Caesarian section, “but he wasn’t[, he] was slicing into her pelvis to make way for her baby.” A woman identified only as Cora recalled undergoing the procedure in 1972 at the age of 17:
Cora, another SoS member, says she was just 17 when doctors performed a pubiotomy (a procedure related to symphysiotomy) on her during the birth of her first child in 1972.
“I was screaming. It’s not working, [the anesthetic] I said, I can feel everything … I seen him go and take out a proper hacksaw, like a wood saw … a half-circle with a straight blade and a handle,” she said.
“The blood shot up to the ceiling, up onto his glasses, all over the nurses… Then he goes to the table, and gets something like a solder iron and puts it on me, and stopped the bleeding. … They told me to push her out. She must have been out before they burnt me. He put the two bones together, there was a burning pain, I knew I was going to die.”
Research published in 2007 in the journal PLoS Medicine (“Think Globally Act Locally: The Case for Symphysiotomy”) featured the following abstract:
When expatriate doctors from developed countries working in sub-Saharan Africa suggest to the local doctors and midwives that symphysiotomies should sometimes be done, they are silenced neither with quotations from the medical literature nor with tales of patients seen, but with: “If symphysiotomies are such good operations why don’t you perform them at home?” Here is why.
It began with an explanation of the procedure, and again, no mentions of chainsaws appeared throughout:
Symphysiotomy is an operation that is done to increase the size of the pelvic outlet to permit vaginal delivery of a baby. The procedure involves surgically dividing, under local anaesthesia, the cartilage of the symphysis pubis. The skin incision is 1.5–3 cm long. Symphysiotomies, like instrumental deliveries, are typically performed in the labour ward and not the operating theatre. Most women walk with the help of a walking frame/chair two to four days after the operation, and 95% can be discharged from hospital within two weeks.
One bullet point described why the procedure was linked so deeply with Ireland, and why it was perceived as based on religion versus medical science:
History [of Symphysiotomy]: First described in France in 1777. Performed extensively in twentieth century, especially in Catholic countries such as Ireland and Argentina where every contraceptive method, even for medical reasons, other than total abstinence was forbidden by the Catholic Church until 1951. This made multiple pregnancies inevitable and dangerous for women with a small pelvis and a healthy husband. Symphysiotomies were the only alternative to caesarean sections for such women, given that contraception and of course divorce were not options.
But What About Chainsaws?
Unsurprisingly, Wikipedia’s entry for chainsaws makes no mention of development for childbirth purposes.
After noting chainsaws are typically used “in activities such as tree felling, limbing, bucking, pruning, cutting firebreaks in wildland fire suppression and harvesting of firewood,” a section titled “History,” and a subsection “In Surgery” explained:
The origin is debated, but a chainsaw-like tool was made around 1830 by the German orthopaedist Bernhard Heine. This instrument, the osteotome, had links of a chain carrying small cutting teeth with the edges set at an angle; the chain was moved around a guiding blade by turning the handle of a sprocket wheel. As the name implies, this was used to cut bone.
The prototype of the chain saw familiar today in the timber industry was pioneered in the late 18th century by two Scottish doctors, John Aitken and James Jeffray, for symphysiotomy and excision of diseased bone respectively. The chain hand saw, a fine serrated link chain which cut on the concave side, was invented around 1783–1785. It was illustrated in Aitken’s Principles of Midwifery or Puerperal Medicine (1785) and used by him in his dissecting room. Jeffray claimed to have conceived the idea of the chain saw independently about that time but it was 1790 before he was able to have it produced. In 1806, Jeffray published Cases of the Excision of Carious Joints by H. Park and P. F. Moreau with Observations by James Jeffray M.D. In this communication he translated Moreau’s paper of 1803. Park and Moreau described successful excision of diseased joints, particularly the knee and elbow. Jeffray explained that the chain saw would allow a smaller wound and protect the adjacent neurovascular bundle. Symphysiotomy had too many complications for most obstetricians but Jeffray’s ideas became accepted, especially after the development of anaesthetics. Mechanised versions of the chain saw were developed but in the later 19th century, it was superseded in surgery by the Gigli twisted wire saw. For much of the 19th century, however, the chain saw was a useful surgical instrument.
That section did not mention childbirth expressly, but noted that the two Scottish doctors developed their version of the device “for symphysiotomy and excision of diseased bone respectively.”
As it turns out, that was easy to find. Much of that section appeared verbatim in the abstract of research published in the Scottish Medical Journal in 2004, “The chain saw–a Scottish invention”:
The prototype of the chain saw familiar today in the timber industry was pioneered in the late 18th Century by two Scottish [doctors], John Aitken and James Jeffray, for symphysiotomy and excision of diseased bone respectively. The chain hand saw, a fine serrated link chain which cut on the concave side, was invented around 1783-1785. It was illustrated in Aitken’s Principles of Midwifery or Puerperal Medicine (1785) and used by him in his dissecting room. Jeffray claimed to have conceived the idea of the chain saw independently about that time but it was 1790 before he was able to have it produced. In 1806, Jeffray published Cases of the Excision of Carious Joints by H. Park and P. F. Moreau with Observations by James Jeffray M.D.. In this communication he translated Moreau’s paper of 1803. Park and Moreau described successful excision of diseased joints, particularly the knee and elbow. Jeffray explained that the chain saw would allow a smaller wound and protect the adjacent neurovascular bundle. While a heroic concept, symphysiotomy had too many complications for most obstetricians but Jeffray’s ideas became accepted, especially after the development of anaesthetics. Mechanised versions of the chain saw were developed but in the later 19th Century, it was superseded in [surgery] by the Gigli twisted wire saw. For much of the 19th Century, however, the chain saw was a useful surgical instrument.
Both the abstract and the Wikipedia blurb glossed over the actual prevalence of “chainsaws” as they related to childbirth and symphysiotomies, indicating the procedure “had too many complications for most obstetricians,” but that both uses (cutting away diseased bone and, presumably, excising pelvic bone) “became accepted” as the use of anesthesia progressed. The phrasing didn’t really provide any clues with respect to how often childbirth involved use of the prototype chainsaw to which the literature alluded.
Moreover, the original article from which nearly all citations appeared to have been drawn was obscure and difficult to access; we were unable to find any copies of the research aside from the abstract. However, we were able to track down a letter to the editor of a medical publication in 2004 about chainsaws and childbirth.
In addition to an illustration of Aitken’s “chainsaw” (indicating it was nothing like the motorized version with which most people are familiar), a partial letter by an unidentified person described how Aitken had designed “a mobile saw, that used a linked clock chain with serrations cut into one side; this was passed behind the symphisis [a place where bones are closely joined; ‘a compressable fibrocartilaginous pad that connects two bones’] and pulled outwards, and from side to side, bimanually”:
The letter writer went on to assert that Aitken’s manual “chain saw” was displaced by a similar bone saw, before “the forestry industry mechanized the surgical chain saw for tree felling.” In other words, the item nearly all people understood to be a “chainsaw” was not mechanized, and the version with which we are acquainted was in fact developed by the forestry industry.
A popular November 2020 post encouraged Facebook users to “stop what you’re doing and google why chainsaws were invented,” a search which resulted in seemingly credible assertions that the chainsaw we all know from Texas Chainsaw Massacre was first developed for childbirth, primarily a procedure known as a “symphysiotomy.” Additional research led to harrowing accounts of the procedure from Ireland, none of which mentioned chainsaws. The notion that chainsaws and childbirth were inextricably linked appeared to be a function of lack of full access to medical literature — primarily a 2004 Scottish Medical Journal item about the Scottish doctors who invented the chainsaw.
Further investigation suggested the “chainsaw” described was handheld and not motorized, and somewhat rarely used in childbirth; the nebulous text of the abstract and Wikipedia article made it easy to accept the “fun fact” that chainsaws were invented for childbirth. In actuality, this device was likely used rarely, and resembled the less alarming handheld device seen above.