Need an arrow removed? Try honey, twigs and some ingenuity
During the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, 16-year-old Prince Henry was struck in the face by an arrow. London surgeon John Bradmore was summoned to remove the arrowhead, which was lodged six inches into the Prince’s skull.
The surgeon’s removal process entailed first making wooden probes the length of the wound and wrapping them in clean linen, which was then rolled in honey — a natural antiseptic.
Using gradually wider and longer probes, he enlarged the wound until he had the width and depth of the wound, thus providing him access to the arrowhead, which he then removed with special small tongs he had devised.
Once the arrowhead was removed, he washed the wound with white wine and further cleaned it with another linen-wrapped honey probe before binding it with more clean linen. He repeated this process daily for about three weeks, each time using a slightly smaller probe so the wound closed up as it healed. The prince was left with a scarred right cheek, but he lived to become King Henry V.
Arrowheads were rough and sharp and had to be removed. Otherwise every time the person moved, the point’s rough edges would inflame the surrounding tissue and eventually lead to a fatal infection or amputation in pre-antibiotic times.
Even after gaining access to firearms, American Indians preferred silent bows over noisy guns during ambushes and night raids for reasons of stealth and quickness.
Some tribe members became adept at making arrows while others were skilled at removing them. During the making of arrows, the point was fixed to the shaft using dried tendons and sinews. The bond weakened when the arrow penetrated the body and the tendon or sinew became wet from blood and other bodily fluids. The worse thing someone could do was to remove the arrow by pulling on the shaft, which would cause the arrowhead to be left behind.
An 1883 medical article by W. Thornton Parker describes how American Indians used a similar process to the one used by Dr. Bradmore in 1403. A willow stick was split in half lengthwise and the sides and ends of each section rubbed as smooth as possible to allow it to move freely down the wound track. The pith was carefully cleaned out. One stick was inserted to reach and cover the uppermost fang of the point, while the second covered the lower fang. Then the exposed ends of the sticks were bound to the shaft of the arrow and all slowly withdrawn.
Various means were used to remove arrowheads lodged in bone. Dr. Joseph Howland devised forceps with jaws that were flat and bent at right angles like dental forceps. Another technique involved passing a wire loop that was larger than the arrowhead down the shaft of the arrow and positioning it over the base of the arrowhead. The end of the loop was then threaded into a wire-twister device and the wires tightened to attach the loop to the arrowhead. Because of the shape of the arrowhead, the hold was strengthened when traction was applied.
According to Dr. Bill’s 1862 notes on arrow wounds and treatments on the Western frontier, removal of an arrowhead lodged in bone required great force. One method to determine if it was in bone was to gently twirl the shaft. If it moved, the arrowhead was said to not be in bone. In a case where a man was hit in the upper arm near the shoulder, Dr. Bill braced his knees against the patient’s thorax and applied all the traction he could muster. When the arrowhead suddenly flew out of its seat, the doctor would have fallen on the floor if a steward had not caught him.