The chain saw--a Scottish invention

Scott Med J. 2004 May;49(2):72-5. doi: 10.1177/003693300404900218.


The prototype of the chain saw familiar today in the timber industry was pioneered in the late 18th Century by two Scottish docors, John Aitken and James Jeffray, for symphysiotomy and excision of diseased bone respectively. The chain hand saw, a fine serrated link chain which cut on the concave side, was invented around 1783-1785. It was illustrated in Aitken's Principles of Midwifery or Puerperal Medicine (1785) and used by him in his dissecting room. Jeffray claimed to have conceived the idea of the chain saw independently about that time but it was 1790 before he was able to have it produced. In 1806, Jeffray published Cases of the Excision of Carious Joints by H. Park and P. F. Moreau with Observations by James Jeffray M.D.. In this communication he translated Moreau's paper of 1803. Park andMoreau described successful excision of diseased joints, particularly the knee and elbow. Jeffray explained that the chain saw would allow a smaller wound and protect the adjacent neurovascular bundle. While a heroic concept, symphysiotomy had too many complications for most obstetricians but Jeffray's ideas became accepted, especially after the development of anaesthetics. Mechanised versions of the chain saw were developed but in the later 19th Century, it was superseded in surgey by the Gigli twisted wire saw. For much of the 19th Century, however, the chain saw was a useful surgical instrument.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article
  • Portrait

MeSH terms

  • Amputation, Surgical / history
  • Amputation, Surgical / instrumentation*
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • Humans
  • Medical Illustration
  • Obstetrics / history
  • Obstetrics / instrumentation
  • Scotland
  • Surgical Equipment / history*
  • Surgical Instruments / history*

Personal name as subject

  • John Aitken
  • James Jeffray