by Dr. Michael Echols
The anatomy of amputation knife blades changed over the years to reflect changes in techniques used by the surgeons and makers.
The progression of blades seen below show a gradual style change from the (Fig. #1), c.1840 'down' curve blade to a more straight edge as seen in the (Fig. #6), c. 1870 blade. All six of these blades are from different makers, but the earlier down curved blade of (Fig. #1) is similar to those seen in the late 1700's and beginning of the 1800's English and European styles. This would be expected since most of the American makers were trained in, or immigrated from, England and Europe.
It is noted by collectors, the handles on earlier knives (pre-1850) are much bigger and heavier construction. "Beefy" in the words of one collector.
These personal notes are made based on the sets in my collection and observation of other collections, the basic idea is that blade morphology changed over a period of years and if you are aware of the changes, that knowledge can help solve the puzzle of when a set was made or if a given instrument belongs in a particular set. None of these notes are meant to be 'fact'.
In the case of Civil War sets, the limited number of years they were made is important because the changes were limited during the War. Those sets which preceded the War are also very distinctive, where as post-War instruments varied greatly. Experience and handling a lot of sets is the best and only teacher in this instance.
Various amputation knife names and styles from the 1880's Geo. Tiemann catalog
Detailed explanation of how an amputation is performed: From Smith's Hand-book on Surgical Operations
1. Wiegan & Snowden (c. 1840 early)
2. Gemrig or Tiemann (c. 1840 mid)
3. Tiemann (c. 1855 - 60 ) Note curved blade
4. Wocher (c.1850 early)
5. Civil War common style Note straight blade
6. Teufel (c.1870's late)
1. Wiegan & Snowden (c. 1840 early) Beefy heavy handle.
2. Gemrig (c. 1840 mid) Beefy heavy handle. Tiemann had same style.
3. Tiemann (c. 1850 early), light handle
4. Wocher (c.1850 early), Light handle
5. Typical of many makers during the Civil War, heavy handle
6. Teufel (c.1870's late), heavy handle
Points to note about the photo above:
The joint between the handle and the blade changed from a decorative 'band' or 'ferrule', which held the two together, to a butt joint which was part of the casting of the blade. In earlier knives, the blade and handle are joined by the band between the two as can be seen in example #1,2,3. The later technique of one piece fabrication is shown in example #4,5,6. The ferrule should be consistent within a given set. There should not be various types within a given set. This is a hallmark for detecting replaced parts or misplaced knives in a set.
Note the different ferrules of the amputation knives. The top one is later, the lower two are early and normal for an 1860 set, but all three seem to fit exactly in the slots.
The curve of the blade changed from being curved down to straight after the 1850's (with the exception of Tiemann in the 1855-60 period, no other makers used this design in the USA during this time to my knowledge or experience.)
The tip of the blades changed from a more blunt style to the pointed tip from 1830 to 1850's.
The tip went from down turned in the 1840's to being in the middle of the blade during the 1850's and then to the top of the blade in the 1870's.
Note the Tiemann (Fig. #3, c. 1855-60) had the down curved blade, but had become much thinner than the earlier styles. This extremely thin blade would have seem to have been more prone to bend than the thicker and straight blades of later design. I have not seen this style in Tiemann sets after the 1860. I have noted the Reinhardt set in the Waring Museum and shown in Edmonson's book on page 294 is exactly the same design and style at the Tiemann #3.
In general, the knives became longer and thinner in width across the back and blade. The handles became more and more delicate.
Shown below is two early Tiemann amputation knives, both from the same time period. The question is: which set of knives are earlier? Usually the earlier knives have heavier handles, but the lower knife has a much thinner handle than the large knife. Since all the knives were custom made, it could relate to the size of the surgeon's hands for whom the set was made.
The knife at the top has the thicker handle and is also marked 'Tiemann'. The lower knife from this set and marked 'Tiemanns' and is c. 1830's. The 'Tiemann's' mark is the earliest I know about and dates to when George Tiemann started in business.
One of the decisions you may have to make is to determine if a blade is nickel plated. Nickel plating began about 1877, so if a blade tests positive for nickel, odds are it's post 1877. On the other hand, if the blade is a combination of iron and nickel formulation, this test won't work.
Test for Nickel
A nickel allergy test kit can be to determine whether metal contains nickel. Such kits are available at well-stocked pharmacies and can be ordered over the Internet. All such tests rely on dimethylglyoxime, which forms a complex with ionic nickel that has a distinct pinkish color.
Some people have allergies to nickel and metal alloys that contain nickel. The kit is designed to determine whether "metallic objects" contain nickel. It consisted of 2 dropper bottles. "Solution A" was dimethylglyoxime in alcohol. "Solution B" was a weak solution of ammonium hydroxide in water.
The directions read "Place one drop of solution A and one drop of solution B on a cotton-tipped applicator (use equal amounts of both solutions). Rub wet applicator firmly against the test object for 15 seconds. If applicator turns red, the object contains nickel."
Contact Dr. Arbittier or Dr. Echols
Last update: Monday, December 12, 2016