Dr. John Warren’s Revolutionary War amputation kits: used by the Continental Army surgeon and future founder of Harvard Medical School during America’s War for Independence
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Two amputation kits personally-owned and used in the Revolutionary War by Continental Army surgeon Dr. John Warren, a founder of Harvard Medical School; one kit given to him by his famous brother, the patriot Dr. General Joseph Warren, who was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
One kit is covered in shark or ray skin (shagreen) and measures 19.5 x 7.75 x 3. The kit contains: bullet forceps with scissor handles; tissue forceps; a grooved director; a Petit-style tourniquet; bow-framed metacarpal saw; and an extra blade for a large amputation saw. Attached inside the hinged top cover is a 19th-century hand- written card tracing the provenance, reading: “Revolutionary Instruments given by Joseph Warren to John Warren to John C. Warren to Henry J. Bigelow. Copy of letter describing them in possession of J. Collins Warren.” A typed early 20th-century card reads, “Instruments. Revolutionary War. Surgical instruments used by Dr. John Warren in the war, and presented to him by his brother, General Joseph Warren. Dr. J. Collins Warren.”
The second kit is mahogany and measures 18.75 x 7 x 2. The kit contains: a capital amputation saw, with a wooden-handled instrument with hexagonal nut to adjust the blade; a curved amputation knife; surgical scissors; and tissue forceps (possibly non-original). The interior is fitted for the instruments, and one (a scalpel) is absent. Nailed to the front edge is a very faint handwritten 19th-century identification label that is extremely difficult to read, but with enhanced contrast can be deciphered: “Used during the Revolutionary War by Dr. John Warren.” This second kit was exhibited in a 1906 Harvard exhibition of surgical instruments, which was organized by Dr. J. Collins Warren (also known as John Collins Warren, Jr.), the son of John Collins Warren and grandson of John Warren. A newspaper clipping from the Boston Herald of June 3rd, 1906, shows this second kit in the Harvard exhibition.
These remarkable Revolutionary War amputation kits hail to a time before doctors understood the importance of sterilization, and the instruments show heavy signs of use. Wounds from musket balls were rarely superficial, and amputation was fairly common—even though as few as 35% of men survived the procedure. Amputation kits were therefore essential on the battlefield and in very high demand. The Continental Army had little in the way of surgical instruments to provide their doctors, and surgeons were forced to rely on their own personal property to make it through the war. Dr. John Warren carried these kits with him throughout his patriotic service.
Additional provenance materials include:
* A transcript of an entry in John Collins Warren’s day book, dated February 19, 1850, in part: “Sent to Dr. H. J. Bigelow as a present an ancient tourniquet belonging to my father which went through the Revolutionary War. And also an amputating case which had gone through the war most of the important instruments remaining, but some having lost and replaced.”
* A transcript of a letter from John Collins Warren to Henry J. Bigelow, dated October 2, 1850, in part: “Sometime since you desired me to give a history of the old surgical instruments which I had sent to you. This history is simplified and comprised in few words. The old case was received by me from my late father, and was employed by him in the army of the American Revolution, during the first years of the war, and during the remaining years in the American Continental Hospital in Boston. The case was probably given to him by his brother General Joseph Warren, when he served as a medical pupil.
The tourniquet is a French instrument from a model of great antiquity. It is, perhaps, the best instrument of the kind which has been invented. This, as well as the other instruments, was employed in the public service during the whole of the Revolutionary War.
These instruments I have taken great pleasure in transmitting to you, under the impression that they will receive additional honor, by being in the possession of one whose talents and industry will, I doubt not, reflect new lustre on the character of him who was the original possessor and your first predecessor in office.” This is the letter referenced in the handwritten card inside the lid of the shagreen kit. In 1849, Bigelow was appointed as Professor of Surgery at the Harvard Medical School, a position first held by John Warren. Bigelow’s donations form much of the collection of Harvard’s Warren Anatomical Museum.
* A photocopy of an article from the Boston Herald of June 3, 1906, concerning the ‘Historical Loan Exhibition of Medical and Surgical Instruments’ held at Harvard as a part of the 1906 American Medical Association Annual Meeting. These kits were featured in the exhibition and described at length in the article, which reads, in part: “The oldest set of amputation instruments in the collection is that which was originally used by Dr. John Warren, the brother of Gen. Joseph Warren, who was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill. These instruments seem like the coarse and blundering tools of a carpenter to the modern surgeon, in comparison with the instruments used today. They are in a mahogany box with an old-fashioned brass handle on the back, by which it was carried. The instruments are set into sockets in the inside of the box, these sockets being covered with plush which is now a dull snuff color. The large knife in this set is one of the most curious instruments, as it has a blade shaped like a scimitar, while the modern knives are almost straight. This set of instruments is one of the most highly prized of all those that are now in the Harvard medical school collection. They were handed down from Dr. John Warren to Dr. Henry J. Bigelow, who gave them to the medical school museum.” The article also ran with a photo of the medical instruments from the second set, captioned: “These instruments were used by Dr. Warren of Boston in the revolutionary war. This is the oldest set in America and the first photograph of these instruments ever published.”
NOTE: These were sold by Harvard University in a warehouse auction sale to William Held; then sold by Held to the present owner through Webber Antiques in 2002. Also includes a 2014 letter from Harvard’s Countway Library of Medicine warranting that Harvard and its affiliated entities make no claim of ownership interest in these kits. Accompanying the lot are two additional medical kits which were included in the 2002 purchase of the John Warren kits: a late 19th century urological set owned by Henry J. Bigelow (with engraved brass plate, “Henry J. Bigelow,” inlaid on the top cover), and an early 20th century set of urethral sounds owned by John Collins Warren, Jr. (with “J. Collins Warren” nameplate affixed to the bottom). Some implements are missing from both kits.
Read the biographies of the Warrens and Bigelow
Learn more about Dr. John Warren’s Service in the War
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