The Unkindest Cut: The Chainsaw Was Invented to Assist With Difficult Childbirths

viafilms/iStock via Getty Images
viafilms/iStock via Getty Images

There’s always a price to be paid for innovation. Usually that amounts to some sleepless nights and lots of trial and error. But sometimes it means attempting to deliver babies with a chainsaw.

This dark chapter in agricultural history comes from Popular Science, which recently detailed how the motorized cutting tool populating Home Depot shelves came to be. In the 18th century, two Scottish surgeons named John Aitken and James Jeffray devised a solution they could employ when faced with difficult childbirths. Rather than use a knife to widen the pelvic area by slicing through cartilage and bone to extricate a stuck baby, the two developed a chainsaw to make cutting easier.

While this sounds ghastly, the doctors were actually trying to lessen the agony endured by women who needed their pelvic bone separated. The knife took a long time, while their device—a modified knife with serrated “teeth” on a chain—could cut through bone and tissue more quickly.

If circumstances warranted it, the doctor would grab the saw, which had a handle on both ends, and wrap the chain around the pelvic bone, pulling each handle so the chain would cut into the bone. Later, the device was outfitted with a hand crank. Thanks to this innovation, difficult births could be described as merely agonizing as opposed to extended torture.

The procedure was dubbed a symphysiotomy and remained in use in the medical field as surgeons noticed how efficiently it could work in other circumstances, like amputations. It lasted through much of the 19th century as part of a surgical toolbox until C-sections grew in popularity. In the 20th century, the principle was commandeered for less disturbing purposes like logging, with two-person saws weighing more than 100 pounds each. By the 1950s, those gave way to lighter models.

For all its discomfiting history, at least the chainsaw proved to be useful—which isn't something that can be said for all inventions purporting to aid in childbirth. In 1965, George and Charlotte Blonsky patented a device that acted as a human turntable, spinning so quickly it might induce the patient (or victim) into delivering their baby via centrifugal force.

[h/t Popular Science]

14 Incredible Scientific Discoveries of the Decade

NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

The 2010s were banner years for science, seeing breakthroughs in everything from human evolution and disease treatment to space and artificial intelligence. Here are 14 of the greatest scientific discoveries and advancements of the decade. 

1. Neanderthal Genome Shows They Interbred with Modern Humans // 2010

About 19 years ago, biologist Damian Labuda at the University of Montreal found an unknown piece of DNA on the X chromosome of non-African peoples. He was unable to determine how it arrived in the human genome, however. In 2010, another team of researchers sequenced the Neanderthal genome, and with it, researchers found that same piece of DNA Labuda had discovered. The DNA snippet wouldn’t have made the interspecies leap from Neanderthal to Homo sapiens if the two had not interbred shortly after modern humans migrated from Africa. Though further research by the University of Berne in Switzerland showed children resulted from these interspecies unions less than 2 percent of the time, about 2 percent of the genome of Eurasian peoples today is Neanderthal.

2. HIV Transmission is Tackled with “Treatment as Prevention” // 2011

With the findings of study HPTN 052, the HIV Prevention Trials Network discovered that antiretroviral therapy (ART) for people infected with HIV also drastically reduced transmission rates of the virus. The study took about 10 years to conduct. When HIV-positive participants began ART early—meaning they still had a pretty healthy immune system—transmission of the virus to their HIV-negative sexual partners dropped by 93 percent. When HIV at any stage was fully suppressed due to the treatment, there was no transmission observed. The findings of HPTN 052 underscore the importance of treatment as prevention by showing that, regardless of the stage of the virus, ART treatment can inhibit transmission and set us on a path to eliminating HIV and AIDS altogether.

3. Physicists Finally Find the Higgs Boson // 2012

In 2012, physicists finally discovered the Higgs boson—about 50 years after its existence was first theorized. Dubbed the “god particle,” it’s responsible for giving all other particles mass, allowing them to join together and become something more, like stars. Using the large hadron collider at CERN in Switzerland, researchers confirmed the discovery by two different detectors. Peter Higgs, who first suggested this particular boson could exist in 1964, was there to experience the elation of the discovery himself. With the Higgs boson identified, the standard model of particle physics, which had about 500 years of work behind it and explains the fundamental forces of the universe, was finally complete.

4. The Curiosity Rover Lands on Mars // 2012

Mars Curiosity Rover selfie
NASA // Public Domain

In 2012, NASA triumphantly landed a plutonium-powered rover, called Curiosity, on the surface of Mars. It was the size of a compact car with incredibly sophisticated technology, a science lab on wheels that would set out across the Red Planet to see what it could find. Curiosity has sent back jaw-dropping images of Martian landscapes, scooped up soil samples and tested their chemical makeup, explored geological formations, observed atmospheric events, and even captured photos of Mars’s two moons eclipsing the sun.

5. Immunotherapy Blazes a New Path for Cancer Treatment // 2013

Battling cancer is often a long and difficult road, but immunotherapy may offer more hope. The process turns the traditional methods of fighting cancer on its head—now, instead of targeting tumors themselves with chemotherapy drugs, treatment harnesses the patient’s immune system to fight the tumors on its own, just like it would attack any other pathogen. The method can take two routes: Either the patient’s T-cells (the cells that target illnesses) are set loose to destroy cancer by removing a protein receptor that inhibited their disease-fighting activity, or modified T-cells are infused into the patient’s bloodstream. Studies on immunotherapy showed promising results of shrinking tumors and full remission, particularly on hard-to-treat lung cancers. Immunotherapy drugs won’t work for every patient, but researchers continue to investigate and modify their approaches. Thanks to this discovery, in 2013 we turned a corner into better and more effective cancer treatment.

6. Genetic Lineages Show Birds Evolved from Dinosaurs // 2014

For four years, scientists studied 48 bird species—a group that represented every major type of modern bird—and sequenced, assembled, and compared their genomes. It was the largest bird dataset in history, and as a result, researchers could finally support a commonly held belief: that birds evolved from dinosaurs. The first lineages of modern birds date back about 100 million years, but their amazing biodiversity emerged within a period of about 10 million years right after most dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago. The study’s results are further evidence that the dinosaurs’ extinction allowed birds, mammals, and other forms of life to rapidly evolve and diversify.

7. New Horizons Beams Back Stunning Photos of Pluto // 2015

When New Horizons first transmitted high-quality close-up colorized photos of Pluto and Charon, one of the dwarf planet’s five moons, back to Earth, it caused both awe and wonder. Now, we could see in detail the ground’s surface, in all its jagged frozen-water mountainous and chasm-filled glory. But we also learned that in recent history, the landscape was constantly being resurfaced, so craters and pockmarks found on other planets are scarce on both Pluto and Charon. Whatever was—or is—working to smooth out those surfaces is still being investigated.

8. CRISPR-Cas9 Revolutionizes Genetic Engineering // 2015

Scientists have been editing genes since the 1970s. But in 2015, that process became much easier with the introduction of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR-Cas9. This technology allows scientists to genetically engineer any living organism, from crops and bugs to animals and people, by precisely snipping out and replacing pieces of unwanted DNA with the help of a protein called Cas9. CRISPR hasn’t been without controversy, though. The technology gives us the ability to make designer babies—ones with specific genes edited before birth. But is it ethical? We may be able to edit out genetic diseases or change eye color, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we should.

9. Ancient Human Ancestor Homo naledi Broadens Our Family Tree // 2015

Homo naledi hand skeleton
Lee Roger Berger research team, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

In 2013, two spelunkers discovered a treasure trove of humanlike bones in Rising Star Cave in South Africa. They contacted paleoanthropologist Lee Berger who then, with a team of six women scientists, retrieved the bones and studied them for the next two years—ultimately finding and announcing in 2015 a new species of ancient human ancestor. Homo naledi had small brains, pronounced brow lines, apish pelvises, human-like hands, flat feet, and small teeth. Intriguingly, the 250,000-year-old bones bear traits common to Australopithecus, which lived about 2 million years ago, suggesting that Homo naledi could be an offshoot of the genus Homo. More than 1500 fossils were in the cave and Berger believes it was part of a burial ritual to leave dead kin there, though he thinks Homo naledi brains were too small for them to be able to accurately navigate a dark cave.

10. AI Beats a Human Player at Go // 2016

The ancient game of strategy called Go is more than 2500 years old and substantially more difficult than chess. And until 2016, human players always had an edge over artificial intelligence, which could not compute how to beat a real person. That year, though, Google’s DeepMind division programed a new AI system called AlphaGo. The system stored about 30 million moves in its memory that humans had played in the game, and was able to predict a human’s next move correctly 57 percent of the time. In AlphaGo’s first public tournament, it stomped the other computer system it played; in its next public tournaments, it destroyed reigning European Go champ Fan Hui and Go world champion Lee Sedol. Researchers immediately began to consider how else the new advanced AI technology could be used.

11. Einstein’s Prediction of Gravitational Waves is Confirmed // 2016

Based on his general theory of relativity, Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves—waves moving energy throughout the universe in a way similar to electromagnetic radiation—in 1916. They remained elusive, though, for the next century—until 2016, when a team of scientists found the first direct evidence that they exist. Evidence came in a unique way: a chirp sound heard when two black holes, a billion light years away, crashed into one another. The collision warped the fabric of space-time, causing the sound. These gravitational waves fulfilled Einstein’s last prediction and capped 40 years of work by scientists.

12. Earth Experiences Its five Hottest Years on Record // 2014-2018

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has monitored climate and temperature changes since 1880—and never before have its scientists seen temperatures like this. The period of 2014 to 2018 carries the distinction of being the hottest years on record, thanks to anthropogenic climate change. Plus, in those same years, no place on Earth experienced any record cold temperatures. And the repercussions of continuing climate change are severe: drastic unexpected weather changes and disastrous events, like increased flooding, wildfires, droughts, and more. Temperature extremes and melting ice caps are so severe now that they can even be seen from space.

13. Astronomers Capture the First Photo of a Black Hole // 2019

An image of a black hole.
Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

It’s hard to study something you’ve never actually seen—just ask all the researchers who’ve worked on black holes over the past 200 years. But because of the two-year-old Event Horizon Telescope, black hole researchers don’t have to struggle without a visual anymore. This year, the telescope captured the first-ever photo of one: a supermassive black hole in the middle of the M87 galaxy. It looks like a bright ring of light surrounding a central dark circle, the hole itself where massive amounts of gravity suck everything in. The image paves the way for scientists to determine exactly how the universe began—and its possible end, as well.

14. FDA Approves Long-Sought Treatment for Cystic Fibrosis // 2019

About 90 percent of patients with cystic fibrosis—a progressive, life-threatening genetic disease affecting the respiratory and digestive systems—have a mutation on the CFTR gene called F508del. And until this year, they had no treatment options. In 2019, 30 years after the gene was identified, the FDA approved the first drug to treat the genetic cause of the disease rather than just the symptoms, giving new hope to cystic fibrosis patients. Clinical trials of the drug, Trikafta, showed significant improvement in participants’ lung function. There may not be a cure for the disease—yet—but it brings the prospects of one closer.

14 Facts About Clara Barton

Mathew Brady, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain
Mathew Brady, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

To call Clara Barton just a nurse insults her legacy, despite what your history teacher may have taught you. She was a woman of numerous accomplishments, and in some ways, she was all too human. Here are 14 facts you probably didn’t know about this great American icon, who was born on December 25, 1821.

1. Clara Barton almost died when she was five years old.

Barton, the youngest of five siblings, was born Clarissa Harlowe Barton to Stephen and Sarah Stone Barton on Christmas Day in 1821, in North Oxford, Massachusetts. (Her name came from the novel Clarissa: or the History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson.) Her father was a militia captain and natural storyteller; her mother was well-known for her eccentricities: For example, she would bake pies for the family that she did not intend to share, preferring that they instead grow moldy.

But the pie situation wasn’t the most traumatic part of Barton’s youth. In her memoir The Story of My Childhood, she recounts being stricken with bloody dysentery and convulsions at the age of 5. Her family assumed she would not survive, and a report went out that she had died. Thankfully, she went on to make a full recovery, and later, as a nurse, she’d help soldiers suffering from the same illness.

2. One of Clara Barton's first jobs was as a painter's assistant.

When her family moved to a new home in the 1830s, Barton became fascinated with the house painter’s technique and talked her way into being his helper. “I was taught how to hold my brushes, to take care of them, allowed to help grind my paints, shown how to mix and blend them, how to make putty and use it, to prepare oils and dryings … So interested was I, that I never wearied of my work for a day, and at the end of a month looked on sadly as the utensils, brushes, buckets, and great marble slab were taken away,” she wrote. The experience may have sparked her lifelong love of the arts. She also liked to play the piano, dance, draw, go to the theater, dress up in high Victorian fashion and jewelry, and collect books for her extensive library. Her favorite color was red.

3. A famous phrenologist thought Clara Barton should become a teacher.

In 1836, a phrenologist named L.N. Fowler examined Barton and suggested to her parents that she should pursue a career in teaching. After six years teaching in Oxford, Massachusetts schools, Barton opened her own school in 1845 to serve the children of workers in her brother’s mill. She went on to create a free public school in New Jersey; however, it grew so large that local leaders refused to let her run it and brought in a male principal. So Barton left.

4. Clara Barton made a salary equal to a man's—but had a sexist boss.

Perhaps disillusioned by the experience at the school she founded, Barton temporarily left teaching in 1854 and went on to become a recording clerk in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., where her salary—$1400 a year—was the same as her male co-workers’. Unfortunately, Secretary Robert McClelland of the Interior Department—which had jurisdiction over the patent office at the time—didn’t want women as federal employees, and demoted her to copyist making 10 cents per 100 words copied. In 1857, President James “Ten-Cent Jimmy” Buchanan did away with her position, but the next administration—Abraham Lincoln’s—reinstated it.

5. The Civil War gave Clara Barton her famous nickname.

In 1833, her brother David had fallen off the roof of a barn, and for two years Barton had dedicated herself to his care during his recovery. Her early experience in nursing found an outlet in the Civil War and, at age 39, Clara found her calling—even though nursing was then seen as a man’s profession.

A week after war broke out, Barton discovered injured soldiers from the 6th Massachusetts Infantry housed in the Senate chamber of the U.S. Capitol. She used supplies from her home for their care, and eventually founded her own supply distribution agency. Her ministrations earned her the sobriquet “Angel of the Battlefield.” The first battle where she is known to have assisted was the 1862 Battle of Cedar Mountain in Culpeper County, Virginia. More than 3000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded in the two-day fight.

6. Clara Barton had a brush with death in the Battle of Antietam.

Just one month after her first battlefield triage, Barton almost lost her life in the gruesome Battle of Antietam. As she lifted a wounded man’s head to give him some water, a bullet ripped through the sleeve of her dress. She survived, but her patient didn’t: "A ball has passed between my body and the right arm which supported him, cutting through his chest from shoulder to shoulder. There was no more to be done for him and I left him to his rest,” Barton wrote. “I have never mended that hole in my sleeve.”

Another time, she encountered a soldier who had been her former student at her school in New Jersey. “This is the second time you saved my life,” he told her.

7. Clara Barton suffered from depression.

Away from the intense action of Civil War battles, Barton suffered from depression. In early 1864, the lack of activity, combined with an inability to secure a supply warehouse, got the better of her. “All the world appears selfish and treacherous. I can get no hold on a good noble sentiment any where. I have scanned over and over the whole moral horizon and it is all dark,” she wrote. She thought about killing herself, and it wasn’t the first time. What brought her out of it was having purpose again, notes Barton biographer Elizabeth Brown Pryor in Clara Barton: Professional Angel. Pryor suggests that Barton thrived in scenarios that others would run from.

8. Some people thought Clara Barton was having an affair with a senator.

In 1861, Barton met Senator Henry Wilson, a Massachusetts Republican, abolitionist, and future U.S. vice president under Ulysses S. Grant. He became a close confidant, someone she felt comfortable talking about her innermost feelings with. He turned out to be a good person to know professionally, too: He procured a railroad pass for her, which allowed her to travel to battlefields free of charge, and she asked him to furnish supplies for soldiers, including “whiskey, brandy, wine, condensed milk, [and] prepared meats.” They shared a strong work ethic and a love of the Republican party. Their closeness prompted some to whisper of romance between them while Wilson was married and after his wife died, but there was no concrete proof. Still, some of Barton’s family members thought that marriage was imminent soon before he died in 1875. (Barton never married or had children.)

9. Clara Barton's war-related efforts didn't end with the war.

Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, and that May, Barton resumed her career in education. This time, she taught skills to freed slaves.

Near the conclusion of the Civil War, many soldiers remained missing. Barton created the Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army in 1865. Operating out of the Washington, D.C. boarding house where Barton lived, the office received more than 63,000 pieces of correspondence inquiring about missing family members—all of which were answered by the office’s 12 clerks. Barton’s organization was able to locate 22,000 missing soldiers, 13,000 of whom had perished in the Confederacy’s Andersonville Prison. As a result, the government established a national cemetery at Andersonville. (Congress also reimbursed her for the $15,000 it cost to establish the office.)

10. The office's headquarters were discovered by accident.

In 1996, a General Services Administration inspector discovered Barton’s long-forgotten headquarters at the D.C. boarding house as he was preparing the building for demolition. Barton’s effects had been lying there for over a century. Construction was halted, and almost 20 years later, the building was re-opened as the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum at 437 7th Street NW.

11. Clara Barton spoke out for women's suffrage.

In 1866 Barton embarked on a nationwide lecture tour after the war and shared the stage with Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other thinkers. She also met two leading lights of the women’s rights movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who supported her interest in women’s suffrage. “I did not purchase my freedom with a price; I was born free; and when, as a younger woman I heard the subject discussed, it seemed simply ridiculous that any sensible, sane person should question it,” Barton wrote in a speech supporting women’s right to vote. “And when, later, the phase of woman’s right to suffrage came up it was to me only a part of the whole, just as natural, just as right, and just as certain to take place.” She encouraged veterans to support a woman’s right to vote, not-too-subtly suggesting that they should help women win that right as she had helped them survive the wounds of war.

12. Clara Barton co-founded the American Red Cross.

After the Office of Correspondence closed down, she went to Europe to relax and recuperate. In Switzerland, she learned about the International Red Cross, which had been founded in 1863 to help victims of humanitarian crises. She soon launched an effort to establish a similar organization in the United States, even trying to enlist then-President Rutherford B. Hayes in its creation. On May 21, 1881, she and Adolphus Solomons, a community leader active in numerous charities, co-founded the American Red Cross. She was appointed its president the following month and served for the next 23 years, and never received a salary.

In addition to helping those affected by war, the American Red Cross stepped in to assist survivors of natural disasters. Its first test was a massive forest fire in Michigan in 1881, which burned more than a million acres in 24 hours and left thousands homeless. In its first couple of decades, the Red Cross provided supplies and relief to victims of the Johnstown flood in 1889 and the 1900 Galveston hurricane.

13. Clara Barton was cat-crazy.

Barton grew up on a farm and loved animals. Really loved animals. She could ride a horse by age 5 thanks to her brother David’s instruction. Her first pet, a dog she named Button, was “a sprightly, medium-sized, very white dog, with silky ears, sparkling black eyes and a very short tail,” she recalled in The Story of My Childhood. She was also given animals as gifts: Rep. Schuyler Colfax of Indiana sent her a kitten to thank her for her work at Antietam, and a family friend presented her with two-and-a-half-dozen ducks.

Like another famous nurse, Florence Nightingale, Barton had a soft spot for cats. Her favorite was Tommy, her faithful black-and-white companion for almost two decades. Her friend and fellow nurse Antoinette Margot painted a portrait of Tommy in 1885, which is still on display at the Clara Barton National Historic Site in Glen Echo, Maryland.

14. Clara Barton shared a hairstyle with Princess Leia.

There are some eerie similarities between Barton and Carrie Fisher, the actress who played Princess Leia in the Star Wars films: Barton and Fisher suffered from mental illness; had movies that drew from their lives (Postcards from the Edge in Fisher’s case, Angel of Mercy in Barton’s); were authors; were feminists; and were parts of large, talented families. And as Jake Wynn and Amelia Grabowski point out in a blog post for the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum, they also share the same braided and bun hairstyles.

Wynn wrote that that their power isn’t hurt by the fact that they were vain: Though Barton was brave, she was also worried about how the war would affect her hair. “They are both people who are unapologetically in the middle of the action," Grabowski added. "They are risking their lives and making a difference. The guys would be lost without them."