The Medical Press

Card with paper cuttings from "The Medical Press." You, too, can do brain surgery! [Science Museum, London]

Trephined Skull

Trephined piece of skull. [Wellcome Library, London]

Trephine, 1800s

Cranial trephine, probably 19th century. [Science Museum, London]

Trephine, Ancient

Trephine (ancient). [Wellcome Library, London]

Post Mortem Toolkit

Post mortem set, cased, by Weiss, English. [Science Museum, London]

Oyster Shells

Cigar box containing twenty-four oyster shells. (For scooping out brains?) [Science Museum, London]

Einstein's Brain

Slices of Einstein’s brain. [Wellcome Library, London]

Bronze Age Skull

Bronze Age skull from Jericho, Palestine, 2200-2000. [Science Museum, London]

Embryonic Brains

Wax models of embryonic brains. [The Hunterian, University of Glasgow]

Wax Head

Wax anatomical model of human head, Europe. [Science Museum, London]


Antique Tools For Brain Surgery Are The Stuff Of Nightmares

Ingenuity isn’t always a far cry from butchery.

They’re called "trephines," which seems innocent enough. From the Latin "trypan," the origin literally means "to bore." But to bore into what, you ask? In this case, skulls, to get to brains. Everything from sharp hammers to bow-drills to what I swear is a serrated espresso portafilter have been implemented with the sole purpose of opening heads. And while in the back of our minds we know these things must exist, it sure is disconcerting to actually see them.

Brains: The Mind As Matter is an installation on display through mid-June at London’s Wellcome Collection. It’s a collection of over 150 objects—artwork, documents, photographs, sketches, surgical tools, and even real brains in jars—that map our historical fascination with the brain from thousands of years ago through today.

These cultural artifacts are slices of humanity, each designed to answer one of life’s biggest questions: How does the brain work? Sometimes you see echoes of technology within the artifacts—as artisanal plaster busts give way to corrosion casts of brain blood vessels, or formaldehyde jars filled with gray matter are replaced by 3-D computer models. But the more chilling moments are those that echo our looser moralities born of ignorance, like open brain anatomical sketches that appear not to be of cadavers, but of those still living, their jaws loose and eyes vacant quietly implying an intellectual disability. Was it just artistic license, or was it live human testing in the name of medicine and science? This is information I could easily look up, but honestly, part of me would rather not confirm an answer that I probably already know.

Slices from Einstein’s brain.

Yet on the other hand, if you can shake off all the shivers for a moment, it’s simply awesome to see how far we’ve come in cracking this nut that is the human skull, art and science combining for centuries to both annotate and decode its mysterious contents. We’ve gotten so ironically good at all this brain probing stuff, in fact, that now we’re able to study the brain without opening a skull at all.

But that won’t save any of us from brain surgery. Shivers.

[Hat tip: notcot]

Add New Comment


  • Redheadjokes

    *shudder* My mother was 64yo when she first revealed to me her story. Age 14 she'd fallen to the sidewalk and hit her head. It was 1922. For 7 years her parents believed Jesus Christ would heal her of the horrible headaches, hallucinations. Age 21, 1929, she had a breakdown and had unheard of brain surgery for what I now call a hematoma. A welfare hospital. She told me with shame in her voice that she'd let down her parents because she hadn't been healed by Jesus. She told me with shame in her voice about the crowds of doctors around her bedside marveling at the hole in her head. She had never before revealed the hole in her head to me. It was like the opening of a baby's head, and the size of a baseball. She hadn't graduated high school, and was ashamed of that. I hadn't known. Her handwriting, spelling, grammar, speech, was all excellent. My mother married age 29. Pregnant on her wedding night. DIdn't get pregnant again until 14 years later. Having gained 18lbs, in those days they put you on bread and water. She broke her knee 2 weeks before delivery. Had a full length cast on her leg. In delivery room, where to put her foot? THEN they discovered twins. Each over 7lbs.

  • kstirto

    The founder of modern trepanation is a Dutch man by the name of Dr. Bart Huges, he trepanned himself in 1965 with an electric drill... read more here: