Medical Instruments: has anyone seen the film “Master and Commander”? Or visited Admiral Lord Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory in dry dock at Portsmouth in the UK? If so, they will remember the morbid fascination of the medical instruments used for treating the wounded during battles. Nelson was wounded and died just 30 minutes before victory against the French.
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Medical instruments have, indeed, been in use since ancient times. In Pompeii, a collection of instruments has been found. A scalpel, scissors, speculum and bone forceps, closely resembling modern surgical tools. However, they were made of bronze or iron. The speculum was especially sophisticated. A painting of the time shows a surgeon using forceps to remove an arrowhead. Delicate probes, fine-tooth saws and clamps are among other finds. Since there were no anesthetics, some doctors prescribed strange mixtures to help ease pain. For example lizard dung, pigeon blood, earthworm ash and fox liver. No wonder patients offered up prayers to the gods for recovery !
Other early history medical instruments
In China around the fourth century a form of anesthesia was used. This helped patients undergoing surgery. It consisted of a mixture of wine and strange herbs. In the Middle Ages Christian writings advise which saints’ days were favourable for blood letting. Leeches or small sharp lancets were used. This sometimes had a beneficial effect on blood pressure. In the US at the end of the eighteenth century, George Washington asked to be bled heavily after a throat infection. He was bled four times. However he died two days later in December1799. Some fifty years later in 1846 an American dentist, William Morton, demonstrated the use of ether as an anesthetic.
Miscellaneous medical instruments
Some medical instruments have hardly changed through the ages. There is a vast range for the collector to choose from. Large amputation instruments, material for ‘bleeding and cupping’. Plus many therapeutic procedures such as phrenology or electro-shock devices. Speculums were used to examine body cavities, such as the nose or rectum, the ear drum or the cervix. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a variety of means was used to improve illumination. For example, candles, sunlight or oil lamps with a glass mirror. Mouth gags were often used to hold open the mouth. As well as tongue depressors to peer down throats. Whereas the Romans used silvered circular bronze ‘speculum mirrors’.
Stethoscopes and thermometers
Stethoscopes are much sought after among medical instruments. The first one was a simple wooden cylinder described by Laennec in 1819. Later forms are made of a hollow tube flared at one end to form a cone. This could then be pressed on the patient’s chest. They can be found in wood, ivory, brass or silver. Very long stethoscopes were used in poor-houses. This meant that the doctor could keep his distance from the flea-ridden patient ! The first clinical thermometer was described in 1684. This had a bend of about 30 degrees in its length. The scale could be read easily when the bulb was in the armpit. Many later nineteenth thermometers are contained in attractive cases.
These medical instruments often come in boxed sets. Like saws from the last 200 years. One shudders to think of these saws being used with no anesthetic, the wound being cauterized with a hot iron. All the patient could do was drink a lot of rum and bite down on a strip of leather or wood. When looking for these boxed sets there should be no missing pieces and condition could be very important.
Vaccination and x-rays
Vaccination was first discovered in the eighteenth century. Thereafter, a wide variety of medical instruments appeared. The most easily available is a 12 cm long ivory rod with a series of spikes at one end. The other end contains a spatula for applying the serum to the skin. Early twentieth century glass x-ray plates are of special interest to doctors. They illustrate the advanced stages of diseases rarely seen today. Antibiotics and the discovery of penicillin came much later.
Space does not allow for more descriptions of medical instruments, such as ear trumpets. Or trepanning sets for operating on the skull; breast and enema pumps; domestic medicine chests. In addition, stomach pumps; microscopes; syringes; post mortem instruments. Some of these are highly collectable, many encased in beautiful rosewood boxes. Prices can vary considerably. A single glass eye could cost at least $40, an enema pump in a fitted box, c. 1880, at least $130. A boxed electro-shock machine could reach an estimated $150, whereas boxed sets of surgeons’ tools might arrive at $1,500. On the other hand, a rare early nineteenth century French marine surgeon’s set in a fitted wooden case is worth over $8,000. As said before, better to buy through reliable auction houses or dealers rather than face disappointment if the sets are not complete.