The Tools We Hold: The Allis Clamp


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Today I used an Allis clamp in the operating room.  Like so many surgical instruments, it is a thing of beauty.  It’s a balanced, well engineered tool designed to hold without crushing.  And it has been used by surgeons all over the world since it was first first created.… in 1883.

1883-fashions-71-woman-austrian-customeWomen’s fashion in 1883

Imagine if you will the operating room of 1883… it’s still the beginning of modern anesthesiology and the concept of antisepsis in surgery had been published by Lister less than 20 years before.

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Surgeons in 1883 performed operations which were gory and painful. Patients routinely died, if not from the actual procedure then from the infections afterwards. Operating on the bowel in the 1880s was particularly dangerous with a mortality rate of 30-40%.

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But despite the mortality (not to mention the morbidity and outright suffering), bowel obstructed by cancer or necrotic from strangulated hernias still needed to be resected. Faced with these outcomes and this suffering, surgeons in 1883, like we do now, studied, discussed, performed experiments and tried new techniques to improve the treatments they offered their patients. ( For a great review on the history of bowel anastomosis, click here.)

One of those surgeons was Oscar Huntington Allis.


Dr. Allis was born in 1836 in Holley, New York.  He attended Jefferson Medical College and did an internship at the Philadelphia General Hospital.  Like many surgeons of the era, he spent several years studying in Europe. Upon his return, he worked as a general surgeon at Presbyterian Hospital in Philadelphia. Dr. Allis died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1921.

Here is Dr. Allis’ account of developing and using the Allis clamp (referred to as “toothed forceps”), which was delivered to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 1901. As you read this, remember that he was using a straight needle, much like a tailor would use.

My operation was performed in the following manner:  If the reader will divest himself of his coat and place the cuffs parallel, he can look down into the sleeve ends as into a double-barrelled gun. The inner surfaces of the sleeves correspond to the mucous surfaces, and the outer surfaces to the serous surfaces of the gut ends. Now, if the reader will sew the two proximal edges of the coat sleeves together, by a suture that passes entirely through them, he will find that he can readily sew fully half their circumference together. If now he will turn in the remaining borders, he will find that he can readily complete the circuit by sewing the outer surfaces. It was precisely in this way that I finally successfully approximated the intestines in Case 2. The fact that the mucous membrane could be safely included in a suture emboldened me to repeat the operation; and finding by experience that my fingers could not always accomplish my purpose, I have added to my case two instruments that I have found very convenient not only as special aids in anastomoses, but also in general surgical work. 

screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-7-06-27-amThe first may be called tenaculum forceps (Fig. 1, a). I use them very much as women use pins and basting thread to secure their work temporarily while they are sewing it more securely. It does not matter what stitch is used–the whip stitch, through-and-through stitch, or over-and-over. All that is essential is that the approximated bowels should be securely united. Having firmly approximated one half the circumference, I remove the forceps, and, turning the partly united structures half round, I seize the seam with my tenaculum forceps, and with a pair basting the work a little further on (Fig. 3), the through-and-through suturing can be continued almost entirely around the entire circumference.

screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-7-04-49-amWhen near the end of the approximation I have found toothed forceps (Fig. 1, b), with serrations on the edge, convenient for turning in the mucous edges, adjusting the serous, and holding them approximated until sutured (Fig. 4)