The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE buried the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum under feet of ash and pumice. Objects under the volcanic material were found to be well preserved when they were excavated centuries later. Among the artifacts recovered were surgical instruments from multiple sites, the best known being Pompeii’s House of the Surgeon, so named because of the nature of the items recovered there. In 1947, reproductions of these instruments were presented to the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library by the University of Virginia’s 8th Evacuation Hospital after its service in Italy during World War II. The collection is one of the best surviving examples of the tools at a surgeon’s disposal in the first century CE. Since there was relatively little innovation in surgery and surgical tools from the time of Hippocrates (5th century BCE) and Galen (2nd century CE), this collection is typical of surgical practice for nearly a millennium and illuminates the practice of medicine in ancient Rome. In fact, the technology of some tools, such as the vaginal speculum, did not change significantly until the 20th century.
The following display presents images and summaries of the known uses of each instrument. The extant comments of medical writers from antiquity–including Oribasius, Galen, Soranus, Aetius, and the Hippocratic corpus–have provided scholars with some clues about the use of some instruments. Some instruments, such as mixing instruments and tweezers, probably had other household uses, such as the application of cosmetics and paints.