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CMAJ - March 9, 1999JAMC - le 9 mars 1999

Image of the profession
The osteotome

CMAJ 1999;160:694

© 1999 Canadian Medical Association

The impetus for a new field often comes from new technology. Radiology evolved within a few years after Röntgen's discovery of x-rays in 1895 and the Curies' discovery of radium in 1898. Orthopedics became a specialty with the help of a new instrument, the osteotome, invented around 1830 by the German Bernard Heine.1 This illustration from a contemporary inventory of surgical tools2 shows clearly that this clever master of prosthetics had in fact invented the chain saw. The links of the chain carried small cutting teeth with the edges set at an angle; the chain was moved around a guiding blade by turning the handle of the sprocket wheel.
Heine's osteotome as illustrated in Gaujot and Spillman.2

The osteotome made it easy to cut through hard bone without the impact of hammer and chisel or the jolts of a reciprocating saw. The surgeon skilled in its use could now resect bone without splintering it, perform craniotomies with smooth-edged holes, and cut in topographies that did not permit access to a circular saw — without damage to surrounding tissue, all by himself, and with a minimum of force and time. Heine became an instant celebrity and was invited to demonstrate his invention at clinics all over Europe and even at the Court of the Czar. In 1834 he won the coveted Prix Montyon of the Académie des Sciences in Paris. For his studies on bone regeneration, the University of Würzburg appointed him professor of orthopedics in 1838, the first such chair anywhere, although he had never studied medicine. Heine died nine years later of tuberculosis at age 46.

Wolf Seufert, MD, DSc
Department of Physiology and Biophysics
Faculty of Medicine
Université de Sherbrooke

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  1. Seufert WD. The chain osteotome by Heine. J Hist Med 1980;35:454-9.
  2. Gaujot G, Spillman E. Arsenal de la chirurgie contemporaine : description, mode d'emploi et appréciation des appareils et instruments en usage pour le diagnostic et le traitement des maladies chirurgicales. 2 vols. Paris; 1867­1871.