Why were chainsaws invented? How the tool was used during childbirth - and the Scottish surgeons who created it

Chainsaws had a gruesome role before they were used to cut trees

Chainsaws were originally used during childbirth (Shutterstock)
Chainsaws were originally used during childbirth (Shutterstock)

Social media users have recently been asking one of life’s most important questions: why was the chainsaw was invented?

The answer, which has its roots in Scottish medicine, isn’t anything like you’d expect.

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The modern-day chainsaws we’re used to seeing are mainly utilised for tree cutting. However, the dangerous tool’s origins aren’t anything like what it is used for now.

In fact, that’s a huge relief since the chainsaw’s invention was for a particularly morbid reason.

It was actually two Scottish surgeons that created the first chainsaw, way back in 1780, but why exactly was this risky tool invented in the first place?

Here’s everything you need to know.

Why was the chainsaw invented?

Shockingly, the chainsaw was originally invented to assist in childbirth - yes, you read that correctly.

Before the caesarian section became common practise, all foetuses had to pass through the birth canal.

Inevitably, babies can become stuck if they are too large or in a breech position, which is when they lie feet first in the womb instead of the usual head-first position.

Back in the 18th century, if a baby couldn’t fit through or if it became stuck in the pelvis, parts of bone and cartilage were removed to create space, medically known as a “symphysiotomy”.

This painful and messy procedure, which was performed without anesthesia, was doneby hand using a small knife and saw to remove the bone.

To make the process easier, two Scots surgeons invented the chainsaw in the 18th century.

You’ll be pleased to know it wasn’t like the horror movie idea of a modern tree-chopper, but something like a small kitchen knife with little teeth on a chain which was wound by a hand crank.

The tool actually did make the procedure easier and less time-consuming, and it continued to be used for most of the 19th century.

Who invented the chainsaw?

The scary-looking child birthing tool was actually invented in Scotland, by doctors John Aitken and James Jeffray.

The two Scottish surgeons are credited with inventing the chainsaw in the 1780s.

John Aitken became a surgeon in the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, and he also gave medical lectures and demonstrations to university students.

He is known to have made a few practical improvements within surgery, including devising the chainsaw.

Dr Aitken’s partner in the invention was Dr Jeffray, who studied at both Glasgow University and Edinburgh University, and was known for dissecting the bodies of people executed for murder.

Jeffray held the twin chairs of Anatomy and Botany at Glasgow University from 1790, and became Vice Rector of the university in 1800.

He is buried on the northern slope of Glasgow Necropolis.

What was a symphysiotomy?

The doctors’ chainsaw was used during symphysiotomies.

This was a procedure carried out on pregnant women during birth, in place of a caesarian section which is now the modern practice.

A symphysiotomy involves slicing through the cartilage and ligaments of a pelvic joint to widen it and allow a baby to be delivered without obstruction.

For women, there were high risks of infection, pain, bladder injury and even long-term walking difficulty.

The procedure was common in treating obstructed labour from 1597, but became less frequent in the late 20th century after the risk of maternal death from a caesarian section decreased due to improvements in techniques and hygiene.