Albert Stille learned his craft from instrument maker C.F. Ponsbach. The Ponsbach family had a tradition of cutlery forging extending back to the 1700s, and from there, had taken the step to becoming skilled surgical instrument makers.
Albert Stille was laid off from C.F. Ponsbach in 1836, but by that time, had become a reputable instrument maker. For instance, Albert’s skills had caught the eye of Professor Anders Retzius, the inspector of the Karolinska Institute, and he arranged a scholarship for Albert to continue his training overseas. With this scholarship, Professor Retzius’s intention was to ensure that the Karolinska Institute and Serafimer Hospital would have access to a skilled instrument maker for the years to come.
In the fall of 1836, Albert Stille left for Germany, with Professor Retzius’s letter of recommendation in his pocket, and spent a few years in Hannover, Cologne and Heidelberg. During his travels, Albert sent samples of his instruments back to Sweden regularly, and on 13 August 1839, General Director Ekströmer of the Swedish College of Physicians presented
“A lithontriptic instrument conforming to Heurtelop’s innovation, improved by Charrière and produced by one of our countrymen, Mr. Stille, who for the past two years, has worked under the most renowned masters in foreign countries, and is now with Goerke in Heidelberg. His work won universal approval for its simplicity and beauty. But its strength has not been tested. Mr. Stille has also sent scalpels and hypodermic cannulae, which are also all of superlative quality.”
By 1840, Albert Stille was working with the world-renowned instrument maker Charrière of Paris, and after a period in London, he returned to Sweden in 1841.
Professor Retzius then appointed Albert to oversee and run C.F. Ponsbach’s workshop on the grounds of the Karolinska Institute. C.F. Ponsbach had died in 1834, and had been succeeded by his son, who never gained Professor Retzius’s approval.
In the archives of the Swedish College of Physicians from the 1840s, Albert Stille’s name is frequently mentioned. In the Journals for 1846-1847, the College Secretary regards, “as extremely merited by Messrs. Doctors’ attentions that the Society has recommended Mr. Stille’s production of surgical instruments, because they distinguish themselves through their low pricing and constantly increasing refinement, so that our surgeons do not hesitate to grant Mr. Stille’s instruments equal testimony to those produced by the English and French masters.”
Albert Stille continued to enjoy Professor Retzius’ patronage and goodwill, which gave him inspiration, courage and energy to continue developing a large number of successful products. These included a breast pump for nursing mothers, which was demonstrated in 1848.
In 1867, Albert Stille visited the World Exhibition in Paris, and in May of the same year, he presented an enthusiastic, but also critical, overview of his observations to the Swedish College of Physicians. From what he demonstrated to the College of Physicians, it appears that Mr. Stille increasingly desired to extend his range to bandage production, and from time to time, he also demonstrated prosthetics to replace fingers and hands.
On 17 March 1868, Albert Stille was elected a member of the Swedish College of Physicians. His recommendation was from Professors of Surgery at the Karolinska Institute, and Senior Surgeons Carl Santesson and Carl J. Rossander of the Serafimer Hospital, whose citation read:
The undersigned hereby nominate surgical instrument maker Mr. Albert Stille as a member of the Swedish College of Physicians for his services in surgical and obstetric instrument manufacture in our country, and his many innovations, and improvements of previous models, which have proceeded from him, and through which, he has ‘actively contributed to the practical application of medical science,’ which is one of the purposes of the College, as stated in paragraph 1 of its statutes. He has demonstrated that he occupies a superior position to what generally applies to his colleagues in our country. We view the great support and valuable assistance that many, and possibly most, of the College’s members have received from him, both in the capital city and rural areas, and indeed among the whole Swedish medical community, during their practical activities deserving of public recognition on the College’s part.”
After this recognition, and arguably with renewed and even stronger confidence, Albert Stille continued to develop instruments and products for Swedish medical community. In 1872, he demonstrated ‘a dual-joint rongeur’ for the College of Physicians. In the following year, he announced that he had been able to forge a bone cutter from Dannemora iron, with which he was able to cut into 1 mm thick new silver plate, and then writing paper, without any visible imperfections in the paper cut. Later, in 1873 or 1874, he demonstrated a rubber fabric for a surgical table, thin gutta-percha to be used as covers, hot water bags, ice bags and hypodermic needles coated in hard rubber. He also demonstrated an iron-sprung hospital bed.
In 1875, Albert Stille demonstrated a plaster cutter, a pelvic measurement device and a metal stethoscope. The plaster cutter, and future variations of it, was so good that it quickly became the standard for plaster cutters world wide.
Two years later he presented a prototype for a truss that resulted in a product that was manufactured and sold by Stille well into the 1940s.
Later in 1877, Albert Stille presented a significant new product—galvanized nickel-plated obstetrical forceps. By nickel-plating instruments, they became much more resistant to erosion from blood and pus, and were easier to clean. Nickel-plated instruments remained the standard right up until the introduction of stainless steel.
In 1880, Albert Stille handed over the technical management of Stille’s instrument workshop to his son Max. Until that time, Albert had put his soul and all his time into the company. According to his daughter, he was at the workshop from early morning until late at night and hardly paused to eat. Even Albert’s wife became involved, first by managing the bandage manufacturing activities and later as manager of the Stille store on Stora Nygatan in Stockholm.
But even after Max had taken over the technical management, Albert remained involved on the workshop floor and in the management of the company right until he was struck down by a stroke on his 70th birthday, which prevented him from working until his death in 1893.
Due to his solid knowledge of the field, his excellent craftsmanship and an inexhaustible curiosity and passion for developing new methods and tools to facilitate medical practice, Albert Stille had laid the foundations of a company that still today, 170 years after it was first founded, is recognized as a world-leader in the manufacturing of surgical instruments.