Bone Class

There’s a Bone Factory on Vashon Island

How a local company recast the future of medical education.

By Sophie Grossman June 28, 2021

It's all about that viscoelasticity.

For most Seattleites, Vashon Island conjures sylvan images of lavender fields and rolling orchards, wineries and farmers markets. But nestled just beyond the lush greenery of Island Center Forest is Pacific Research Laboratories—the headquarters of Sawbones, a company that produces the bulk of North America’s model bones.

“Model bones” might invoke a Halloween store or memories of the skeleton slumped in the corner of your high school biology classroom. If you went to high school in the 1980s or earlier, it was probably a real human skeleton from India, which to this day is still a hub for the trade of human remains.

But the bones that Sawbones crafts are something different altogether. They’re made of a composite plastic designed to replicate the properties of real bone, foremost among them viscoelasticity. Which, according to Sawbones founder Foss Miller, is “just a fancy way of saying that the harder you twist on the bone, the easier it’s going to break.” The (possibly very real) skeletons in most classrooms are display pieces, intended to provide students with a visual of the human skeletal structure. But the tactile realism of Sawbones’ creations made them wholly novel when they were invented back in the ’70s, transforming an entire discipline and improving countless people’s lives.

In 1975, Miller was working at K2 Sports when he was approached with a peculiar proposition. Dr. Fred Lippert, then chief of orthopedics at the VA hospital in Seattle and a faculty member at University of Washington Medical School, was rumored to be looking for someone to help him with a problem very particular to aspiring bone doctors.

Dr. Lippert, a “tiny” man who practically fizzed with the buoyancy of his idea, explained to Miller that there was a fatal flaw–perhaps quite literally–in the way that orthopedics was conventionally taught: a lack of practical experience. Recent grads were sent out into the world, glowing with fresh-faced idealism and drills and saws in hand, having rarely, if ever, actually cut into bone. The result was a fraught two-year learning curve post–med school. Dr. Lippert aimed to bridge this gap between theory and practice for his students. “‘I want somebody—and maybe it could be you, Mr. Miller—to give me a practice bone,’” Miller recalls him saying.

These practice bones, once the prototypes met with Dr. Lippert’s approval, were a smashing success. Kept stowed away in a janitor’s closet when not in use, the faux femurs, tibias, and pelvises single-handedly made the graduates of UW’s orthopedics program among the best-equipped in the country. A paper conclusively demonstrated that the models had obliterated the two-year learning curve for graduates. Suddenly universities across the country were clamoring for Mr. Miller’s fake bones. What had begun as an unorthodox commission from a professor hoping to help his students had blossomed into a hugely successful business; Sawbones was born.

Solid clear knees from Sawbones.

The origins of the company’s name lie in the Wild West, that golden age of whiskey-fueled amputations, when, according to Miller, “a surgeon’s reputation was based on how quickly he could saw your leg off.”

As the name suggests, Miller is attuned to the morbid connotations of what the company does. Halloween is a special time for Sawbones, as employees with access to “all the bones they want” (presumably this is included in their benefits package) have turned out such elaborate Addams Family-esque creations as a rocking chair made from bones.

With the matter-of-fact indelicacy of an engineer who spends a great deal of time around doctors, Miller vividly describes the importance of haptic feedback in learning orthopedics—think knowing, by feel, the crucial difference between the crunch of bone and the squish of an organ. With that in mind, the thought of a world without Sawbones is kind of scary, and anyone who has had orthopedic surgery in the past four decades likely has the lab on Vashon Island to thank.

Miller cheerfully insists that most of the credit is due to Dr. Lippert, and he speaks of the success of his now-multinational company with an unassuming frankness. “To know that you’re out there helping people, you know, that’s kind of a neat thing.” Kind of a neat thing, indeed.

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