The Bookwalter® Retractor in Service and Surgery: An Origin Story

August 2, 2022

Many clinicians in the surgical community know Dr. John Bookwalter, inventor of the Bookwalter® Retractor System, for his dedication to entrepreneurship and, more importantly, patients. Many may not know Dr. Bookwalter is also dedicated to the U.S. military and supports our troops with the resources they need to receive the standard of care in our Veteran Affairs and Department of Defense hospitals.

The U.S. military not only played a crucial role in Dr. Bookwalter’s personal development but also impacted the development of the Bookwalter® Retractor.

Necessity Led to Creativity

In 1964, Dr. Bookwalter fell asleep in an operating room while holding a retractor during an emergency operation. He quickly awoke and realized it did not matter that he had fallen asleep – if he was holding the retractor in its place. After that incident in the OR, he imagined replacing human hand-held retractors with mechanically held retractors.

In 1970, Dr. Bookwalter went into active duty in the U.S. Army at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Here, his idea of a mechanically held retractor became more structured. He later developed prototypes by taking a smooth, flat ring and creating notches in it with a metal cutter. He then fastened it to a table at two points so the retractor blades could be moved and tightened around the perimeter. One day in the OR, with only one bar available, he secured the ring with the remaining bar with the hope his ring would remain stable throughout the procedure. His hope became a reality, and his prototype worked.

At the time, Dr. Bookwalter worked with Codman & Shurtleff Inc., a medical device manufacturer, on a separate medical device. When Johnson & Johnson bought Codman & Shurtleff it invested in research and development, supporting the development and manufacturing of Dr. Bookwalter’s invention: the notched, uniform, single-post retractor.

The Bookwalter Retractor Today

While Dr. Bookwalter said luck played a role in his invention, his ingenuity and willingness to explore new solutions when resources weren’t available led to the development of the Bookwalter Retractor System sold by Symmetry Surgical® today.

Since its humble conceptualization and experimentation at Fort Bragg, the Bookwalter Retractor System has become the standard of care for open surgery’s most critical cases. For the past 40 years, the Bookwalter Retractor System’s design has evolved due to Dr. Bookwalter’s collaboration with his clinical peers. This led to ongoing innovation, meeting surgeons’ changing needs. While the surgical field has become less invasive, many cases still require open surgery, and the Bookwalter Retractor System is the tool surgeons use procedure after procedure.

Like those men and women who serve in our military, patients must show incredible bravery. Dr. Bookwalter understands this bravery and provided a tool to ensure clinicians and patients had the exposure required during critical surgeries. Because, as his father, a general practitioner, once told him, “It’s a privilege to take care of sick people.”