Throwback Thursday: The Invention of The Laser Scalpel

Invented just over 50 years ago, the laser scalpel is used in an array of surgical procedures, across medical fields. A laser scalpel is typically either a CO2 laser or a excimer laser, depending on the surgery. For soft tissue procedures, such as removing a birthmark or teeth whitening, a CO2 laser is used. A C02 laser’s wavelength is absorbed by water, which allows the laser to vaporize the surrounding tissue with minimal damage inflicted. Bleeding, swelling, and chances for infection are greatly decreased in procedures performed by CO2 lasers, which led to their adoption in the fields of dermatology, dentistry, oncology and beyond.

The CO2 laser was initially developed in 1964 at Bell Laboratories. Through the decade, and into the 1970s, researchers took interest in the gas-based, manipulable laser and its potential medical applications. Until the early 1980s, the laser scalpel was used almost exclusively in academic medical settings due to its size and availability. Once smaller, more powerful lasers were made accessible, the CO2 laser scalpel found its way into most hospitals and specialist’s offices.

In the case of laser eye surgery, an excimer laser is the preferred tool for LASIK procedures. The excimer laser has a high ultraviolet output, making it a strong candidate for use in surgical procedures. Researchers at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center began looking at the excimer laser’s potential for use on biological materials in the early 1980s. The precise, neat incisions created by the excimer qualified it for use in the medical field, ultimately resulting in a patent. The larger size of the excimer laser scalpel hinders its utilization in a number of medical fields. However, as the necessary technology is developed, the equipment is scaling down to fit a multitude of purposes.

In just over half a century, the laser scalpel has evolved from a potential medical tool to an industry standard.  A push for more powerful, free electron lasers coupled with the push for smaller equipment will likely increase the utilization of the laser scalpel. In the very near future, laser technology will be used for as many internal procedures as it is currently used for external. With lasers already in use for clearing clogged arteries and oral surgery, the future of the laser in surgical procedures is closer than most of us realize.