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Antique Medical Kits: The History of Healing

Whether you’re intrigued by surgical practices of the Civil War era or fascinated by the beginnings of modern dentistry, collecting antique medical kits can provide endless insight into the practices our ancestor’s invented and endured. Medical conventions of the 18th century might have dictated bloodletting, the placing of hot coals on the body or blistering — using caustic powders to raise blisters on the skin — in order to draw “bad humors” from the body. Less-adventurous patients might have looked to apothecaries where quack cure-alls flourished, keeping patients in dulled states of inebriation. The very poor who could afford neither a physician's treatment nor a chemist's potions most likely relied on folk medicine and homemade remedies. Despite the prolific horrors of medical history, interest in antique medical kits and instruments has grown steadily among medical professionals and general collector. American Civil War-era surgeon’s kits are among the most sought-after medical antiques, along with enema kits, bloodletting devices, suture sets and apothecaries. Older medical antiques dating to the Georgian era, Medieval and even ancient time periods fascinate collectors, as well, yet these relics of healing are scarce and bear a hefty price-tag. While the sight of drills, saws, knives and other tools can bring a grimace to the squeamish, a macabre fascination often fuels the passion of many collectors. Read on for a complete guide to collecting antique medical kits and instruments of healing throughout history.


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Collectible Instruments

The catalog of medical instruments and their development has filled volumes and the reasons for collecting them are just as numerous. Many collectors use their own profession or specialty as a springboard for choosing how to build a collection. The ear, nose and throat specialist may find the “tonsil guillotine” of particular interest, while the ophthalmologist may be more interested in procuring a set of instruments used for early cataract operations. Other collectors choose items that are ornate or those that have a particular historical significance, like Civil War amputation kits or instruments whose provenance shows that they were used on famous — or infamous — characters in history.


Amputation Saws & Surgical Kits

For centuries, amputation was the prescribed method of treatment for everything from broken bones to gangrene. Early versions of the amputation saw were extremely heavy and unwieldy, with highly ornate handles made of horn, wood, silver or ivory that were very difficult to grasp tightly. Later refinements made the strenuous job of a quick amputation a little easier on the surgeon — if not always on the patient. The beginning of the 18th century saw the emphasis shift from decorative appeal to ease of use and easier grip, thereby making saws plainer and lighter. During the Civil War, field surgeons working under the most deplorable conditions imaginable were faced with literally tens of thousands of wounded men at a time. It is unsurprising that this long, vicious war’s surgeons became notorious for the number of amputations performed on the battlefields. Heavy, soft lead bullets distorted on impact, causing large, gaping wounds filled with dirt and bits of clothing, shattering any bone they hit. War-weary surgeons, presented with these horrific wounds and the imminent onset of deadly infection chose amputation as the quickest and most successful means for saving lives, while the dismembered limbs of thousands of soldiers piled ever higher as the war raged on. Amputation kits used during this bloody conflict are in extremely high demand among collectors of medical antiques as well as Civil War buffs. Most amputation kits contain at least a saw, tourniquet, knife and suturing instruments, while many also include hooks, chisels, scalpels, spatula or interchangeable saw blades and come in portable, fitted cases. Prices are rising steadily, as examples are scooped off the market into private collections. Kits that cost $1,200 five years ago could easily command more than $5,000 today.


Brain Surgery Kits

Through archeology and written records, accounts of neurological surgery can be traced back to prehistoric times. Ancient remains also indicate that these primitive operations were often more successful than those that would follow thousands of years later. The Greeks first developed a conical shaped trephine (cylindrical saw used for opening the skull) made of metal with a serrated edge that, when turned, would cut a circular groove into the skull. Later instruments were developed that prevented the trephine, once past the skull, from sinking into the brain. And, even later, more elaborate, mechanically-operated trephines were developed.Surgeons also employed various skull saws, most often convex in shape with serrations on both sides of the central handle. Known as Heys Saws after their inventor, these saws had varying degrees of curve and design, and were used to saw through the cranium. Most neurological instruments are found in boxed sets with earlier and rarer 16th- and 17th-century examples being more ornate than later models. A typical neurosurgery set might include a set of skull saws, at least two trephines of varying diameter, scalpel, elevator for raising the bone after it has been cut, a brush for removing small skull particles, cranium forceps and a lenticular for depressing the brain.


Bloodletting Devices

The practice of phlebotomy, or bloodletting, has been around for thousands of years and was based on the theory that an excess bodily "humors" (blood, phlegm and bile) caused toxicity in the body resulting in ailments. It was not uncommon for a bloodletting patient to lose up to a pint of blood daily. The practice reached its pinnacle during the 18th and early 19th centuries, and the widespread practice of prescribing bloodletting for virtually all ills eventually lost favor during the fading years of the 19th century. Bloodletting remained a viable means of treatment for afflictions such as apoplexy and pneumonia for a painfully long time. Bleeding bowls are most often distinguished by a single ornate handle and shallow, flat-bottomed bowl made of pewter, porcelain or silver. Many have measurement indicators inscribed on the inside of the bowl much like a measuring cup. Lancets can be found in many varieties with handles made of various materials including ivory and ebony. Thumb lancets have a small double edged blade that pivots between horn or tortoise shell handles. Ornate lancet cases are also highly collectible, though they are becoming more difficult to find in good condition with their lancets intact.


Cupping and Scarification Instruments 

Cupping and scarification, while ancient in origin, enjoyed a resurgence of popularity during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The purpose of cupping was to draw "bad" blood away from deeper areas of infection without actually allowing it to leave the body. A heated cup, when placed on the skin caused a vacuum which drew blood toward the surface. Favored areas included the temples, the base of the spine or behind the ears. Cupping instruments vary as widely as the ailments they were purported to cure and can usually be dated by their various innovations. Dry cupping brought blood to the surface without allowing it to escape. Wet cupping necessitated a series of incisions by scarificator followed by the placement of a cupping device to draw blood from the prepared area. Cupping devices are usually found in boxed sets of at least three and include a warmer and scarificator. Many sets include more "modern" cupping devices, such as the mechanical leech commonly used for treating eye infections and uterine afflictions, or valved cups. Complete sets are most desirable and valuable. The scarificator, introduced in the early 1700s proved more merciful than its predecessor for making incisions. Many scarificators are quite handsome in design and ornamentation and can be found crafted of silver, brass or steel and can often be found in decorative cases. Those made of brass are often less ornate. The premise of the scarificator was the spring action of several blades (anywhere from six to 20) that when triggered, would instantly create a series of parallel incisions in the skin from which the blood was suctioned.


Leeching Tools

The practice of leeching has intrigued collectors for more than a century. Leeching, while practiced to an extent by the Romans and the Greeks, was a matter-of-fact way of life during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Leeches could remove blood from very confined and restricted areas such as the eyes, the trachea and bodily cavities by attaching themselves to the skin with a small suction cup, then puncturing the flesh with sharp teeth and injecting an anticoagulant venom into the vein to keep the blood flowing. Hospitals and physicians housed literally thousands of leeches for use in bloodletting. While few people collect leeches, the demand for the jars that housed them is tremendous. Comparatively, the leech jar is considered by many collectors to be the most visually pleasing, if not always the most significant of all the medical antiquities. Vessels for housing leeches ranged from the very plain to the extremely ornate but, for the most part all possessed the same functional features. Authentic leech jars were most often made of glass, pottery or porcelain in the shape of an urn and possessed a turned lip to prevent the leeches from escaping. With exception of a few glass models, leech jars were fitted with lids outfitted with multiple air holes. Considering the widespread use of leeches, surprisingly few leech jars can be found in good condition. Ornate jars in mint condition are particularly scarce and bring a higher price. Depending on rarity and condition, leech jars can fetch astronomical prices, but can generally be found in fine condition for around $4,500. Leech carriers, made of pewter or other metals, came in many shapes and were used by physicians when making house calls. They are very difficult to find and are often overlooked by collectors who might not be aware of their use. Look for the telltale air holes punched into the lid or sides of the case.


Kidney and Bladder Stone Cases

While little thought was given to preventive measures, and even less to root causes of many illness, much consideration was given to the tools by which symptoms could be alleviated and cures exacted. Kidney and bladder stones, for example, were common in 18th and 19th century populations when diets were poor and monotonous. The development of catheters, therefore, was the focus of much attention over the centuries. Unlike most surgeries, removal of a stone was one of the few operations from which a patient might hope to recover. It was also one of the few ailments whose symptoms were so painful, many patients considered the operation a blessing. Simply surviving such an operation was cause for great celebration and it was common for patients to save their stones as relics or souvenirs which they kept in ornate cases duly inscribed. These cases are equally prized today by collectors lucky enough to find one.


Dental Instruments 

For centuries, the only form of dental treatment available other than potions and home remedies was tooth extraction by way of yanking. It wasn't until the 17th century that dentistry as a separate science came into existence in Europe, and along with it the development of instruments specific to dental operations. True to the medical opinions of the day, bleeding, cupping or burning with a cautery were still considered practical means of treatment for a toothache. The tools of the dental trade are particularly handsome, and highly sought by collectors. Mother of-pearl, ivory, silver and gold were all employed to fashion dental instruments, many of which can still found in complete sets.


Functional Aids

Not all medical antiquities are surgical in nature. Many collectors concentrate on medically-related items such as ear horns, eyeglasses, infant feeders, false teeth, phrenology heads and even glass eyes. While most surgeons concentrated on developing instruments of the trade, others were busy creating devices to enhance the quality of life for those suffering from incurable illness or simply old age. For example, the ear horn — predecessor to the modern hearing aid — made it possible for the hard-of-hearing to participate more fully in conversation. Fabulously engraved silver, gold and rare tortoise-shell examples were used during the 18th and 19th centuries, and many ear trumpets were designed to blend discreetly with the fashions of the day, perhaps hidden in a bonnet or walking stick. Other medical-related aids with little surgical relevance were vital to practitioners and caregivers. Medical receptacles such as measuring spoons and inhalers are very popular with collectors. Because they were used by the general population in great number, many of these items are less expensive and more easily attained than surgical instruments. Inhalers, similar in function to a humidifier, have been used since Egyptian times and were widely prescribed during the 19th century. The most recognizable and affordable inhalers are made of pottery in the shape of a bulbous container with a spout and a mouthpiece of pottery or glass. Some very handsome examples, such as the "Dr. Nelson Improved Inhaler" with blue marbling in perfect condition can be acquired for as little as $600 or $700. Infant or invalid feeders are also popular medical collectibles. Unfortunately, ornate and pristine examples are getting harder to find, fetching handsome prices on the open market. The flat boat-shaped infant feeders of the 19th century are most often found made of pottery, porcelain and less frequently of glass with a central opening in the top for filling and a spout for attaching a nipple. Invalid feeders come in many shapes and forms and are most often made of pottery or glass. Earlier 16th- and 17th-century versions were less decorative and tankard shaped with a curved side spout.


Field Surgeon and Naval Medical Kits

Medical instruments whose design and function were primarily to treat injuries sustained in battle have remained popular for decades and are among the most prized pieces in any collection. Naval cases used aboard warships, field surgeon's kits and many post-mortem kits have all enjoyed an avid following of collectors. The prolific development of these instruments is certainly a sad commentary on the abundance of circumstances for which they were called into use.


Enema Kits

No other medical collectible, however, can raise eyebrows quite like the antique enema kit. While many rectal afflictions have been treated with various forms of enemas for hundreds of years, its popularity as a preventive measure blossomed during the Victorian era. Ladies and gentleman alike had a wealth of varieties from which to choose including the unusual "tobacco enema." Keeping with stoic Victorian tradition, these instruments were often highly decorative and discreetly ensconced in handsome, anonymous-looking cases. Browse M.S. Rau’s impressive selection of surgeon’s kits, medical instruments and other antique tools of healing, and start your very own collection today.


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