Background As there is a shortage of scrub nurses in many hospitals, automatic surgical tool exchanging mechanism without human labour has been studied. Minimally invasive robotic surgeries (MIRS) also require scrub nurses. A surgical tool loading mechanism without a scrub nurse's assistance for MIRS is proposed. Many researchers have developed minimally invasive surgical instruments with a wrist joint that can be movable inside the abdomen. However, implementation of a distal rolling joint on a gripper is rare. Methods To implement surgical tool exchanging without a scrub nurse's assistance, a slave manipulator and a tool loader were developed to load and unload a surgical tool unit. A surgical tool unit with a roll-pitch-roll wrist was developed. Several experiments were performed to validate the effectiveness of the slave manipulator and the surgical tool unit. Results The slave manipulator and the tool loader were able to successfully unload and load the surgical tool unit without human assistance. The total duration of unloading and loading the surgical tool unit was 97 s. Motion tracking experiments of the distal rolling joint were performed. The maximum positioning error of the step input response was 2 degrees. Conclusions The advantage of the proposed slave manipulator and tool loader is that other robotic systems or human labour are not needed for surgical tool loading. The feasibility of the distal rolling joint in MIS is verified. Copyright (C) 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.