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Feature Christmas 2012: Yesterday’s World

Surgical thimbles

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 17 December 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e8447
  1. William H Isbister, retired professor of surgery
  1. 1Hangstrasse 4, Feucht-Moosbach 90537, Germany
  1. Correspondence to: W H Isbister wisbister{at}

William H Isbister discusses the usefulness of the humble thimble and its derivatives in a variety of surgical situations

As a child, Christmas meant good food, especially nuts and chocolate, lots of presents, and party games. We often played “hunt the thimble,” and sometimes the thimble was hidden behind my father’s pile of brown paper wrapped, unopened BMJs.

By 1975 I was married with three children. Our Christmases still involved fine food and presents but my wife had become a thimble collector and instead of hunting the thimble I was “gifting the thimble.” Over the next years, as I travelled to meetings and conferences, I had the opportunity to seek thimbles out from all over the world, and over time I too became interested in them. I have devoted my retirement to the hobby of thimble collecting and thought that, as a surgeon, close to Christmas, it might be interesting to review the use of the humble thimble in surgical practice.

Searching for thimbles

I searched the BMJ archive for the word “thimble” and searched on Google for “surgical thimble.” I excluded thimbles mentioned as foreign bodies in the oesophagus or trachea and non-surgical uses of thimbles. Of 113 articles identified in the BMJ archive, 11 detailed the use of surgical thimbles or thimble shaped instruments.

The many uses of thimbles

Although surgeons used thimbles for sewing in the past,1 with the advent of needle holders this is no longer the case. Thimbles or thimble derivatives, however, are used in other surgical situations.

Cardiac surgery

In the 1950s, a cardiac surgeon, William Glenn,2 described the use of a tailor’s thimble to dilate or split the mitral valve during open heart surgery.

In patients with severe mitral valve stenosis needing surgery, the cusps of the valve are sometimes tightly stuck together. They can be separated by pushing a …

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