Ever wondered what tools a surgeon used during the Regency era? Want to see some leeches? Or learn where you can find French battlefield surgical journals? Or maybe you’d like to take a peek at actual surgical equipment used during the Regency era? Take a look at the equipment below and you’ll understand why they called surgeons by the ghastly nickname name, Sawbones.

Historical Extras…


This page is not for the fainthearted. If you are squeamish do not continue reading.Battlefield surgical instruments

Medical practices in the Regency time-period were a fascinating blend of burgeoning science and cruel, almost torturous, traditions. During the Napoleonic wars more soldiers died of disease than they did on the battlefield. Conditions were awful for the sick and wounded. There were no nurses until the Crimean war. Wounded soldiers were picked up and carried off the field, not by medics, but by the regiment musicians. Or sometimes local peasants with carts. 

In the aftermath of battles surgeons worked long hours, sun-up till late at night. They amputated limbs as quickly as possible but there was no anesthesia and sometimes patients waited thirteen and fourteen men deep, begging, pleading to go next.

On and off the battlefield, both French and British surgeons attempted to stop bleeding by bloodletting and applying leeches. The irony was lost to them at the time.

In one grisly account, a surgeon drastically bled a soldier following his surgery to reduce the blood flow. When the doctor still could not stop the patient’s profuse bleeding, he applied twelve leeches to his wound. The soldier awoke in agony, and, like our hero, Valen, this fellow plucked off the parasites and threw them. Amazingly, he survived to tell the tale, which is more a testament to his courage and fortitude than the medical care he received.


Want to know more about historical surgical instruments and procedures?

Valen’s surgery, in Cut From The Same Cloth, was based on authentic practices of the period. The patient was often held in a sitting position while the surgeon performed a procedure like removing a bullet. Napoleon’s battlefield surgeons kept copious records, as did British medical officers. Some are still available to us today.

Kings Press sells reprinted copies of actual manuals from Napoleon’s surgeons and others throughout history. Kingspress.com  I couldn’t resist purchasing, Marine Practice of Physik and Surgery, Including the Nature and Treatment of Gunshot Wounds, by Dr John Ranby, esquire; surgeon general to the British Army, circa 1776. Kings Press also supplied me with a manual on the treatment of Wounds and Fractures, from the same time period. Interesting reading for medical history buffs.

The internet is rife with criticisms of the French in treatment of their wounded during the Napoleonic wars. Most of this is misplaced propaganda and must be dismissed. Yes, the British were first to organize care of the wounded. But the French, under their extraordinary military chief surgeon, Dominique Jean Larrey, introduced the first triage system. He also set up the first prototype of an ambulance service. Larrey was a truly caring doctor. Wellington was so impressed with the man, that at Waterloo he ordered his soldiers not to shoot in Larrey’s direction so that the surgeon could collect his wounded.

Now for a peek at some surgical equipment used during the Regency era. One look and you’ll know exactly why surgeons were called ‘sawbones.’ Here are some pictures that tell all.


Here are a few pictures of the surgical equipment physicians used during the Regency era.

Surgical Instruments












Bone saw British surgical kit






This is a British surgical kit circa 1800. Makes one appreciate modern hospitals, doesn’t it?

If you’d like to see more kits search on this Medical Antiques site: http://www.medicalantiques.com/medical/Medical_Antiques_Index.htm

And now for my favorite…nah, just kidding. But you’ve gotta love leeches.


Here’s and exciting bit of news: these slimy things were approved for marketing by the FDA in 2004.
Leeches can be extremely helpful after plastic surgery because they excrete an enzyme that stimulates blood supply to the surrounding tissue. This is great for patients who’ve had reconstructive surgery. Very useful little critters when used in the appropriate situation.

Napoleon’s surgeons did extensive experiments with leeches in their battlefield tent hospitals. Unfortunately, they often used them incorrectly. In many cases, use caused a significant loss of blood for patients already experiencing too much blood loss.  You’ll love the irony of this . . . it is a French firm is the first to begin marketing leeches as a medical device. Leeches are amazing little creatures, and for some applications such as plastic surgery and limb reattachment they are amazingly useful.



Interesting historical note: most of the battle casualties from the Napoleonic wars were due to complications AFTER the battle. Small wonder, considering the method used to stop bleeding was to slap a couple dozen of these little suckers on a soldier’s wound. If he had already lost a lot of blood he was in trouble. Leeching was so common in this era that doctors were often referred to as leeches. Oh, that and sawbones. Nice!

It surprised me to learn that disease, in particular dysentery, killed more soldiers than the battlefield.


British Army Hospital Deaths 1812 – 1814

Disease names were modernized

Cause of Death 1812 1813 1814 Total
Dysentery 2340 1629 748 4717
Fever 2235 1802 409 4446
Wounds 905 1095 699 2699
Typhus 999 971 307 2277
Gangrene 35 446 122 603
Pneumonia 58 133 96 287
Tuberculosis 49 158 72 279
Diarrhea 79 106 34 219
Fractures 6 64 70
Apoplexy 19 21 16 56
Tetanus 4 23 24 51
Hepatitis 5 23 8 36
Syphilis 19 11 5 35
Rheumatism 5 13 15 33
Epilepsy 3 6 2 11
Cholera 4 4















Source: ‘A History of the Peninsula War, Vol. VIII by John Hall.