Advances in medicine have demanded regular replacement of equipment in the doctor's surgery, and the discards can make an intriguing collection.
High on a shelf in a modern doctor's consulting room sits a large earthenware jar. It is now empty but the legend 'Leeches' leaves no doubt as to its original contents. On the shelf below are three stethoscopes. Two are made of wood and resemble small trumpets - they are both monaural, that is, made to be listened through by one ear only. The longer of the two kept the doctor at a comfortable distance from his more unsavoury patients. The third stethoscope is binaural and is more familiar with its two ear-pieces and flexible tubing. Introduced at the end of the 19th century, it allowed the former owner to observe his patient as he listened Close by, an old brass microscope by Watson and Sons of London, last used many decades ago, would have served to add a scientific air to the original doctor's room.
Sitting side by side on a small table next to the shelves are the doctor's two bags. One, an obstetric bag, would have accompanied him to births he was called to attend. Nestling inside the
bag, are delivery forceps, not unlike today's instruments, perforators, decapitating hooks, vaginal speculums, opium to relieve pain and ergotamine to stop bleeding. The larger bag, a black, leather Gladstone bag, holds the items he would have needed to deal with general emergencies - scissors, bandages, sutures, needles, eyebath, lancets, scalpels and bottles of antiseptic liquid.
Doctors' bags and their contents have become very collectable. They usually opened down the middle, perhaps by the pressing of a small catch, and could then be pulled wide apart to reveal all the implements. Often black, they were also made in brown leather and some were designed as a miniature surgery with separate compartments for instruments and medication. These are highly prized f all their contents are found intact.
Other collectable medical items are those relating to the many quacks and charlatans of the 19th century and before. What they lacked in education, these characters made up for with hyperbole and curious ointments. Many of their ointment pots survive today and are fascinating not only for their period decoration but also for the bold curative claims printed on their lids. They make a handsome display on shelves or in a cabinet.
Although perhaps likely to be of interest predominantly to those with a medical background, a collection of medical antiques is a fascinating catalogue of the evolution of modern medicine. The doctor's equipment had to be made to see out years of daily use, and thus much of it is still with us. This kind of collection is certainly a specialist field, but it has many dedicated followers. Many pharmacists, for instance, collect bottles and jars to make attractive shop displays.
Popular artefacts range from simple bottles and jars to precision-engineered brass microscopes, and from Gladstone bags to surgical implements. Many of the jars
tell a story; for example, that for an ointment called 'Poor Man's Friend', sold by Beach & Barnicott of Bridgport in the 1840s, is a reminder that those who were badly off were forced to rely on dubious lotions and potions as a substitute for expensive medical expertise. Brown's Herbal Ointment was claimed to be an amazing panacea that could cure everything from soreness of the chest to liver trouble. These jars can be readily found in markets at reasonable prices, though others, specific to a particular area, are rarer and of greater value.
LOTIONS AND POTIONS
The doctor's function in the first half of the 19th century remained the alleviation of symptoms, and his dispensary was stocked with an array of drugs for this, the efficacy of many stemming from folklore. Syrup of
pale roses, crabs' eyes, pearls and various exotic elixirs jostled for space with more valid substances such as castor oil, witch hazel and digitalis.
Patients would store their medicine at home in a medicine chest. Generally made of mahogany or walnut, medicine chests were the forerunners of the modern bathroom cabinet. They were made by firms such as Thompson & Capper and Allshorn. The latter also made domestic medicine chests for homeopathic medicine, which would hold in the region of 50 bottles and have separate compartments or drawers for powders. These items of medical furniture are often attractive and can make an interesting collection in their own right.