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Artifact of the Month: Cautery Iron

Several medical instruments have been discovered on the shipwreck, including a cautery iron.

Author: Terry Williams, Conservator

Cauterization and instruments

Medicine has come a long way since Hippocrates in the 4th century BC – a deep cut or diseased flesh is currently treated in sterilized environments with pain killers at the ready. But, in the beginning, more rudimentary procedures were required.

In medicine, cauterization is the technique of burning a part of a body to remove or close off a part of it. Cauterizing first appears with the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates. He suggests cautery use when opening abscesses, done "either by incision or actual cautery." The practice expanded to the Arab world in the 10th and 11th centuries, eventually moving into mainstream European medicine. As the practice was painful and traumatic to both patient and doctor, its use, though still present, had decreased by the 18th century.

You can imagine the type of problems this treatment would present at sea. One very basic problem was the requirement for fire on a wooden vessel. Further, the heating of the iron to keep it at the correct temperature would have been tricky. When at sea, medical personnel had to make do with what tools were available, even if they were not optimal. Consequently, these cautery irons were used for a variety of ailments, including “… elimination of poisons, treating decayed teeth…removing rotten bone, …removing unwanted flesh…”.

In our collection, we have discovered a tool used for this purpose. Parallels are found in Surgeon's Hall Museum and Royal College of Surgeons and on engraved plates from "The Workes of That Famous Chirurgeon Ambrose Parey” from 1649.

This tool measures approximately 12 inches in length, with a 90-degree bend. It has a squared tapered head on one end, and itt is made from wrought iron – which is typical for a cautery iron.

This is also one of the objects we have replicated for educational purposes, so that the original can be displayed at NCMM and the copy displayed for visitors in our lab. The copy was created by making a mold of the original object, then filling the mold with epoxy and, finally, painting it to match. We will also occasionally perform this task if we are concerned that a delicate artifact may react negatively to its treatment. How good of a job did we do – can you tell which one is which?

Cautery Iron

-Cauterization and Instruments Illustration from Hans von Gersdorff, Feldtbuch der Wundartzney, newlich getruckt und gebessert, 1530, held in the Wellcome Collection. CC-BY-4.0.
-Cautery iron and its display copy from site 31CR314. Images by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

-Kehoe, M. 2023. “Cauterizing Procedure during the Golden Age of Piracy,” The Pirate Surgeon’s Journals. Accessed July 28, 2023:

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