What The Fuck Is a Trephine?

Illustration for article titled What The Fuck Is a Trephine?

What The Fuck Is This? is a new column examining terrifying medical instruments throughout history.


The trepan and the trephine are two objects created to do the same thing: to bore.

Dr. Robley Dunglison’s 1874 Dictionary of Medical Science describes the two interchangeably (although most accounts indicate that the trephine is a more advanced version of the former). Both words come from the Greek trepo or trypanon, to turn, and describe instruments designed to dig into the skull like a little circle cutter—in other words, to remove tiny little discs of bone.

Dunglison writes:

[A trephine is] an instrument consisting of a simple cylindrical saw, with a handle placed transversely like that of a gimlet; from the center of the circle described by the teeth of the saw a sharp perforator projects, called the centrepin, which can be removed at the surgeon’s option. It is used to fix the instrument until the teeth of the saw have made a circular groove sufficiently deep for it to work steadily.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, trepanation or trephination was used to remove fragments of bone that interfered with the brain after traumatic brain injury, or to relieve intracranial pressure by allowing the release of blood. And people have been performing it for millennia in Europe and Mesoamerica: the earliest evidence of trepanation was found in a 7,000-year-old burial site in Alsace, France on a man who had died at around 50 years old.

The concept of trepanation—i.e. making a hole in bone or nail—is still used, although the trephine is not.


Various websites recount spiritual seekers participating in self-trepanation, some led by shamans, others led by a Dutch Dr. Bart Hughes, who was active in the 1960s and ‘70s and allegedly believed that opening the skull could lead to a higher state of consciousness.

In 2000, a UK woman named Heather Perry attempted to perform trepanation on herself in an attempt to cure her chronic fatigue syndrome, while a film crew looked on. She successfully injected anesthetic into her head and then used a surgeon’s knife to cut away her scalp. But then, she drilled too far into her skull, severed a membrane and had to be rushed to the hospital.


“I know what I’ve done sounds totally horrific and I know most people will think it is extremely dangerous,” Perry told the BBC at the time. “I’m the first to admit it sounds totally ridiculous and I can understand the reaction I’ve provoked... but I felt something radical needed to be done.”

She claimed a “definite improvement” in her health post-surgery.

So, who here’s gonna self-trepan and tell us what it’s like? (Don’t self-trepan.)


Contact the author at joanna@jezebel.com.

Image via Getty.


Ms Evergray

Oooh! This will be missed because of my evergray status, but I have seen the collection of trepanned skulls at the Mutter Museum in Philly and it is gruesome! Some of those holes weren’t made with fancy drills - cross hatching on the skulls shows that someone took a blade to the head repeatedly and hoped for the best. D: