Howard H. Hepburn and the development of skull tongs for cervical spine traction

I. F. Parney, P. B.R. Allen, K. C. Petruk, J. T. Goodrich, Jr Laws, S. Papadopoulos, P. R. Cooper

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


The first use of skull tongs for cervical spine traction is credited primarily to W.G. Crutchfield. In 1933, Crutchfield described his application of extension tongs to the calvaria of a 23-year-old woman with a traumatic C2-C3 fracture. Less recognized are the contributions of Howard H. Hepburn, who designed skull tongs for cervical spine traction at the University of Alberta several years before Crutchfield's first case. Hepburn was the first neurosurgeon at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. On the basis of his experience treating wounded soldiers in World War I, he developed the hypothesis that traction would promote healing in cervical spine injuries. Hepburn designed skull extension tongs that were modeled on common ice tongs, and he used an automobile inner tube as an elastic to keep the tongs firmly applied to the patient's head. These tongs were first used in the mid-1920s, and by 1930 they were applied routinely. Crutchfield's 1933 report refers to the application of 'Edmonton extension tongs.' This suggests that he was at least indirectly aware of Hepburn's work, although how this information reached him is not entirely clear. Hepburn attended a meeting of the British Medical Society in 1930, and he is thought to have discussed his tongs during the conference. Hepburn's work has received some attention previously; his original tongs were included in a 1973 Smithsonian Institute exhibit on cervical spine traction as an example of an early cranial traction device. However, his contributions are underappreciated in the neurosurgical community and deserve wider recognition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1430-1433
Number of pages4
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2000


  • Cervical spine
  • History
  • Skull tongs
  • Traction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Clinical Neurology


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