Revolutionary War amputation kits auctioned for $104,000

Posted at 9:07 AM, Jul 14, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-14 09:07:05-04

Two amputation kits used during the American Revolution sold at auction this week for more than $104,000. The items were once owned by Continental Army surgeon and Harvard Medical School founder Dr. John Warren. The auction house did not identify the buyer.

“For us, having sold auction items for over 40 years, it’s really rare to sell something of this historical significance,” said Bobby Livingston, executive vice president of Boston-based RR Auction. “I think almost all of the bidders were doctors from around the country, and they had an affinity for this coming from the founder of Harvard … and it was pretty exciting.”

According to RR Auction, Warren was a militia volunteer and became an Army surgeon during the American Revolution. After the loss of his brother at the Battle of Bunker Hill, the auction house said, Warren left his medical practice to serve at an Army hospital. According to Harvard, he was in charge of several of military hospitals, traveling to help those who had been wounded in war. In 1782, he was appointed the first professor of anatomy and surgery at Harvard.

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.

The RR Auction listing describes the first kit as being bound in worn shark or ray skin material and showing heavy signs of use. The kit contained a pair of small bullet forceps with scissor handles, which could be used to extract metal bullets from tissue; a blade for an amputation saw; a grooved director commonly used as a knife guide; tweezer forceps; a metacarpal saw; and a Petit-style tourniquet used to stave off blood loss during amputations.

The second tool kit was crafted out of mahogany and contains an amputation saw, a curved amputation knife, a set of surgical scissors and tissues forceps that were used to stabilize soft tissue. Nailed to the front of the kit is a handwritten identification label that reads, “Used during the Revolutionary War by Dr. John Warren.”

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 auctioned items also include provenance materials such as an entry from the journal of Dr. John Collins Warren, Warren’s son, and letters he wrote confirming the authenticity of the tools used by his father. There’s also a 1906 Boston Herald article recounting one kit’s display at a Harvard exhibition.

“These come with incredible unimpeachable provenance papers. … There’s no skepticism; these particular kits are rock solid and came straight from the Warren family,” Livingston said.