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Pair of Revolutionary War amputation kits top $104K

A pair of surgical amputation kits used during the Revolutionary War by the man who would go on to found the Harvard Medical School sold for $104,147 during RR Auction's July auction.

BOSTON, MA — Dr. John Warren’s Revolutionary War amputation kits sold for $104,147 according to Boston-based RR Auction.

Revolutionary War Surgeon's Kit

The remarkable Revolutionary War amputation kits hail to a time before doctors understood the importance of sterilization. The instruments show heavy signs of use. Wounds from musket balls were rarely superficial. Amputation was fairly common-even though as few as 35% of men survived the procedure. Amputation kits were therefore essential on the battlefield and in very high demand. The Continental Army had little in the way of surgical instruments to provide their doctors, and surgeons were forced to rely on their own personal property to make it through the war.

John Warren's family includes older brother Joseph Warren. After studying medicine under his brother, John began a practice in Salem, Massachusetts, and volunteered in Colonel Pickering’s militia regiment as an army surgeon. He saw action at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, but had returned to Salem by the time the Battle of Bunker Hill took place.

Surgeon's Path to Medical History

Amputation kits

Pair of Revolutionary War amputation kits. (Photo courtesy RR Auction)

Upon the death of his brother, John entered full-time army service as head of the hospital at Cambridge. He then followed Washington’s troops throughout their campaigns in 1776–1777, tending to the wounded at the Battles of Long Island, Trenton, and Princeton. Retiring from active combat, Warren resumed practicing medicine in Boston and became a widely respected lecturer. He became a founder of Harvard Medical School in 1782, and he was elected as the new school’s first Professor of Anatomy and Surgery.

The first kit features a cover of shark or ray skin (shagreen) and 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 second kit is mahogany and contains: a capital amputation saw, with a wooden-handle instrument with hexagonal nut to adjust the blade; a curved amputation knife; surgical scissors; and tissue forceps. The interior houses instruments, and the front edge contains a handwritten 19th-century identification label that states: “Used during the Revolutionary War by Dr. John Warren.”

Provenance In Place

The kits history includes a Harvard University warehouse auction sale to William Held; then Held to the consignor through Webber Antiques in 2002.

Accompanying the lot are two additional medical kits, also part of the 2002 purchase of the John Warren kits, along with additional provenance materials.

“Dr. Warren’s medical kits and the tools that they contain were used to save the lives of wounded American patriots,” said Bobby Livingston, Executive VP at RR Auction. “We are confident that the new owner will properly curate them for future generations to enjoy— they were purchased by an anonymous collector who understands the historical significance.”

Further highlights include:

  • Benjamin Franklin-signed document that issued payment for the first governor of the Northwest Territory, sold for $39,392.
  • Donald Trump's personal golf irons gifted to his former Bedminster caddie, sold for $29,798.
  • John Hancock signed bank check, sold for $28,553.
  • Thomas Edison signed and inscribed vintage matte-finish portrait, sold for $18,376.

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