The story of the modern surgical instrument originates over 100 years ago during the late 19th century and early 20th century as contemporary science sought a solution to the universal problem of the rusting and pitting of metals, including medical instruments used by contemporary practitioners.
Scientists from around the globe turned their attention to the problem of discovering a metal that would withstand the ill effects of weathering and specific acids common in every day solutions that weakened products and rendered them unusable through corrosion and oxidation. Scientists, working collaboratively and independently, tested an array of alloys with basic iron, searching for the perfect combination that would resist corrosive elements. A breakthrough occurred, after much trial and error, when a combination of iron, 10.5% chromium, and a reduction in carbon, below 1%, produced a steel that resisted the ill effects of various acids.
In 1913, two scientists in particular, Harry Brearley and Ernest Stuart, dubbed the alloy they had produced “Stainless Steel” after testing their combination of alloys in a vinegar solution and discovering under a microscope that it was without the “stain” of oxidation.
By the late 1920′s, Stainless Steel products were under production for all industries, from the girders of vast bridges to the stainless steel of the surgical scalpel. In fact, at this same time, mass production added a chapter to the modern surgical technique of “One-Use” disposable blades and lancets that greatly improved the strength and sharpness of both products.
Further improvement became the main focus during the next quarter of a century. Precision and delicacy of instrument combined with consistency and reliability of products were the targets of all new designs. Instrument manufacturers produced a steady stream of surgical instrumentation that fit the hand of the surgeon, and thereby, improved surgical technique but the quest continued for surgical tools that would aid the performance of delicate operations and stand up to the rigors of exacting tasks with enhanced precision, strength and versatility.
Earlier, in 1781, a scientist by the name of Carl Scheel, had discovered a method of producing tungsten from various ores, mainly Wolframite, that produced a very hard product when mixed with carbon. Few applications were produced from this discovery until the onset of World War II, when both sides sought improvements to weaponry production. Immediately this tough new material solved the problem of metal under stress that could crack, deform or even crumble. Tungsten Carbide was an extremely hard material, a 9 on the Mohs scale, with only diamond achieving a score of 10, but it was relatively easy to produce, modest in price, and it resolved numerous issues of strength and reliability.
After the war, when demand for Tungsten Carbide had eased, many new and innovative uses of this wonder metal arose. Drills for the mining industry, tools for the milling industry, and many other products that needed durability, strength, and reliability were turning to Tungsten Carbide over steel and other materials, such as titanium, both mainstays prior to the war but were soon replaced with Tungsten Carbide.
Manufacturers of surgical instruments were no exceptions to the rule as uses for Tungsten Carbide instruments in the surgical arena emerged. New instruments could now be developed more durable than ever and the life of the instrument increased dramatically. Products became virtually indestructible, sharper, in the case of cutting instruments, and the cut produced was now more reliable. Those same instruments retained sharpness longer and the nicks and pulls of the cutting blade were eliminated. Hemostats, forceps and needle holders were now designed more delicately and minutely with increased serrations that eliminated slipping, held its form longer, and, like all Tungsten Carbide instruments, withstood the heat and pressure of multiple high-temperature sterilization. Additionally, products such as Retractors, Rongeurs, and Rasps were designed stronger, performed better, and out-performed earlier designs that did not include the addition of Tungsten Carbide.
Today there are over 50 types of stainless steel. New components, such as Nickel and Molybdenum, add strength, flexibility, and attractiveness to the design of contemporary instruments. Tungsten Carbide adds durability to areas where instruments must not fail. Lighter instruments produced with Titanium offer flexibility and precision and yet, it is important to realize that innovation will continue and we will be rewarded with improved medicine and the benefits that result.