Knife and Saw: Dichotomies of Design and Knowledge (c.1400–1600)

Knife and Saw: Dichotomies of Design and Knowledge (c.1400–1600)

Jack Hartnell

wound_man_wellcome_ms_290_wellcome.jpg

"Wound Man," England?, c. 1450 (London, Wellcome Library, MS 290)

Considered since Hippocrates to be a direct extension of the surgeon’s hands and fingers, surgical instruments like knives and saws represent a body of objects whose long history is deeply intertwined and directly engaged with scientific medical knowledge. Yet at the same time, the design and decoration of such instruments—their art history—often appear at odds with their surgical use. Flourished with complex coiled frills, sharply tooled handles, or beak-like lips shooting at right angles from the steel framework, these artistic elements snared dangerously on inner tissues or caught on loose flaps of the patient's skin, as well as harboring infection in their beautiful hooks and crevices. This research project attempted to explore this dichotomy, understanding why the decorative qualities of such functional objects, far from working with the surgical processes they enacted, seem instead to work against their embodied medical knowledge.