Histo-History: Heated Forceps

Like any profession, histology is always changing to keep up with the technology and culture of the time. Some things like automated stainers are obvious examples of the profession’s advancement, however others are simple changes we can take for granted. One such change is the way we heat up forceps. Forceps are generally kept warm to avoid tissue sticking and paraffin solidifying on the forceps. Today, many labs will use heated wells at the embedding center. The wells will fit multiple forceps so you can alternate which forceps you are using while others heat. The wells are, of course, cleaned regularly to reduce contamination.

These convenient heating wells did not always exist, however. If you comb back through the archives of the Histonet, the pre-curser to NSH’s Block discussion forum and the Histology Professionals Facebook page, you can find posts in which techs are using Bunsen burners to melt the wax off of their forceps. This 1999 post for example, discusses Bunsen burners and their relative safety when operated by properly trained individuals, but mentions wells, for a safety officer looking for an alternative to open flame. Safety concerns over the use of open flame in the laboratory eventually led to widespread use of the aforementioned wells.

To its credit, the Bunsen burner, originally invented by Robert Bunsen in 1855, pre-dates any histology forums, with references to Bunsen burners in histology showing up in texts such as Outline of Combined Courses in Pathology (1915) and earlier. Many fondly remember the Bunsen burner days and maintain that with proper training and attention to the task at hand the method was safe.

Now, 150 years after the birth of the Bunsen burner, many manufacturers are also making plug in heated forceps as an alternative to the heating wells. The forceps have adjustable temperature to accommodate different melting points of waxes and are marketed as more ergonomic, however the simple fact of the cord getting in the way, makes this product less desirable for some, who feel the wells are doing a perfectly fine job of heating the forceps. Only time will tell if heating wells will go the way of the Bunsen burner.

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