Ed Uthman, MD
Diplomate, American Board of Pathology
I don't know how anyone can make a living by manufacturing and
selling autopsy tools. They last forever, and no one ever steals them
(instrument pilferage, which ran rampant before mandatory employee drug
testing radically reduced the demand for roach clips, was never much of
a problem in the morgue). Accordingly, most practicing prosectors today
are using tools that were purchased decades ago by earlier generations
of pathologists. For most of us, who learned how to actually do
autopsies from uneducated and/or illiterate dieners, these tools are
nameless implements that we employ empirically to do what we think they
will do, whether they were originally designed to do so or not.
Learning to use these instruments is a completely nonverbal process,
which lends credence to the anthropological notion that tool-using by
early hominids could have preceded the evolution of spoken language.
The upshot is that, while some of the instruments shown below probably
have proper eponymic designations, neither I nor any of the hundred-odd
subscribers to the PATHO-L mailing list who have hit this site know
what they are. If anyone reading this knows any synonyms for these
tools, please e-mail me.
These large scissors are used for opening the intestines. The
bulb-ended blade is inserted into the lumen (the hollow inside) of the
gut, and the instrument is smoothly stripped down the length of the
intestine. The blunt bulb keeps the internal blade from perforating the gut
from the inside.
After scoring the calvarium (the vault-like part of the skull that
holds the brain) with the vibrating saw or hand saw, the chisel is used to
gently finish the separation of the top of the calvarium from the lower
skull, thus exposing the brain and its coverings (meninges).
Also called the sailmaker's needle, this is a large needle with an
eye for sewing up the body after the autopsy is finished. The stitching
is similar to that used on the outer covering of baseballs. Heavy
twine, which is much coarser than suture, is used for the
These look like small pruning shears and are used to cut through the ribs prior to
lifting off the chest plate. Some prosectors actually use pruning shears from a
hardware store, which are much less expensive.
This differs from the surgeon's scalpel in having a longer handle for reaching deeper
into body cavities. The disposable blade is usually a #22 size, which is the largest commonly
The teeth on these "pickups" lend strength in gripping heavy organs for removal. In surgical
pathology, teeth are a liability in that they increase the risk of cross contamination
between specimens, so untoothed forceps are used there.
These are otherwise unremarkable scissors used for opening hollow organs (such as the
gallbladder) and trimming off tissues. They can also be used for blunt dissection by means
of an "opening" motion, rather than the more familiar "closing" motion used in cutting.
This hand saw is rarely used today, most often by pathologists who
fear infection from aersols thrown up by the much more vigorous
vibrating saw (see below). The hand saw can be used to saw through the
skull, but it's very slow-going compared to the vibrating saw.
Hammer with hook
The hammer (perhaps the Beatles' inspiration for "Maxwell's silver hammer"?) is
used with the chisel to separate the calvarium from the lower skull. The hook is handy
to pull the calvarium away.
Also referred to simply as the "long knife," this is used to smoothly cut solid organs
into slices for examination, display, and photography of the organs' cut surfaces. Particularly
facile prosectors pride themselves on being able to do almost all of the soft tissue dissections
(including stripping the gut from the mesentery and opening the heart chambers) with this large,
unlikely-looking blade. The example shown here includes a disposable blade. Models with permanent,
resharpenable blades are also available.
The vibrating saw, also referred to eponymously as the "Stryker saw," is the instrument
of choice for most prosectors faced with removing the brain. The blade reciprocates rapidly
with a small amplitude. This action prevents the saw from cutting soft tissues, notably the
prosector's hand. The disadvantage of vibrating saws is that they throw up more potentially
infectious aerosols than do hand saws.