Medicine Through The Ages
“First, do no harm”
For much of history, humans believed that illness was due to divine displeasure. A judgement from the gods, demonic forces or a curse caused someone to fall ill, and the only way to recover was through prayer, priestly intervention and penance. A break in this way of thinking was made when the ancient Greek scholar Hippocrates, called the father of modern medicine, theorized that disease was caused naturally and could be prevented and treated effectively through science rather than superstition. He also developed a high standard of ethics focused on the patient’s well being that is still used by physicians today. Thus began the centuries long march towards progress in the medical field.
With these advancements, physicians were much better equipped to treat disease and had many tools in their arsenal. Take this Georgian physician’s cabinet; it allowed doctors to be highly organized in their practice and includes writing surfaces, a bleeding bowl and candlesticks for light.
Walking sticks were carried by practically everyone in the 19th century, and physicians were no exception. These two antique walking sticks show that a simple cane could be a valuable tool for a doctor making housecalls, including a plethora of medical tools. These antique canes’ toppers unscrew to reveal a hollow interior containing essentials like syringes, vials of medicine, gauze and lancets.
Early Surgical Procedures & Antique Medical Kits
Although surgical advances had been made earlier, particularly regarding battlefield injuries, the first surgical procedures based on scientific scholarship were established in the late 18th century by English surgeon John Hunter. Hunter rejected traditional beliefs and prevailing medical practices of the era and instead based his work on a thorough understanding of anatomy and physiology. He conducted experiments using the scientific method, earning him the nickname “the father of scientific surgery.” His surgical standards and methods would prove invaluable to doctors of the 19th century.
Surgical knowledge was of the utmost importance on the battlefield, and innovations in surgery came on the heels of new weaponry. Warfare of the 19th century was brutal, and doctors worked overtime tending to the sick and wounded. While antique medical kits like this French naval surgeon’s kit look rather crude and even macabre, they were essential military tools at the time. The instruments contained inside these cases were extensive, with uses ranging from repairing soft tissue damage, removing foreign bodies like bullets, maintaining blood levels, amputation and even dentistry.
A glaring flaw in these early surgical kits was their unsanitary nature. Instruments were used from patient to patient and not sterilized properly in between procedures. Surgeons would wipe or rinse their tools, but because the handles were often made of wood or hard rubber instead of metal and were contained in cloth-lined cases, nothing was sterile, leading to infection. This would change with the most important medical discovery of the 19th century — the discovery that germs cause disease.
Up until the late 19th century, doctors had very little idea what caused infection and disease. The existence of germs had been established centuries earlier, but it was thought that they were a result of disease rather than the cause. Scientists like Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch helped establish germ theory in the late 1800s, which was followed by breakthroughs in antiseptics and cleanliness standards. Death rates dropped dramatically, especially in field hospitals. This revolutionized surgical practice, as surgical implements became all metal and were carefully maintained and sanitized.
The first privately owned apothecary shops were established as far back as the 8th century by Arabs who had separated the practices of the physician and the pharmacist. Europe followed suit many centuries later, and King James I established the first Western pharmacist guild during the 17th century. These community pharmacists prepared and dispensed medicines and gave medical advice to customers.
Because these early apothecaries were public resources for a population that was still largely illiterate, pharmacists used visuals to help their customers. This 19th-century Dutch pharmacy “gaper” or “yawner” would have been placed outside of an apothecary. The gaper’s wide open mouth holds a pill made of a pearl on the tongue, indicating that medicines could be purchased there. The figure also wears Moorish dress, alluding to the fact that at the time, much of the West’s herbs and medicines came from the East through burgeoning trade routes such as the Silk Road.
Early medicine was rife with pseudoscience; potions advertised as panaceas for a multitude of ailments, bloodletting and the curious practice of phrenology. Phrenology was developed by Viennese physician Franz Joseph Gall in 1796 and was very popular with Victorians until the mid-1800s. It was the study of bumps on the skull, and it sectioned the head into parts that corresponded with certain character traits and functions. For instance, the base of the skull was thought to house your “amativeness” while the top held “veneration” and “hope,” and phrenologists believe that one could modify certain qualities by exercising them. It was such a popular theory that practitioners and enthusiasts would even carry canes, like the antique walking stick below, with a diagram as a topper to practice phrenology on the go.
This practice is now considered a pseudoscience, but it was an important historical advance towards neuropsychology, and it was influential in the development of psychiatry and psychology in the 19th century. Although Gall’s science was shaky, his theory that mental functions were localized in the brain was correct and quite the breakthrough.
Another prominent pseudoscience was bloodletting. The first documented evidence of medicinal leeches dates back to ancient India, but they became an indispensable medical tool in the 19th century. Although we know today that this science is dubious, it was believed that many diseases were caused by an excess of blood in the body, and physicians turned to leeches to remove the excess. Bloodletting, as it was called, was used to “cure” a plethora of ailments from headaches to gout, and doctors and pharmacists always kept them on hand. The practice was so common that these professionals earned the unfortunate nickname “leeches.” Millions of leeches were used annually in hospitals, and doctors and nurses became responsible for their storage and care. Antique earthenware jars like this one, complete with a perforated lid for ventilation, were used specifically for storing the creatures.
Personal Healthcare & Household Medical Antiques
By the 19th century, public and personal health had come a long way, and individuals, armed with more knowledge than ever before, were active participants in their own wellbeing. Domestic medicine sets like this one first appeared in the late 1700s and became common additions to the average household in the 19th century. They contained a multitude of jarred medicines and various instruments for administering those medicines, and they could be customized based on an individual’s particular medical needs. Chemists would create the medicines inside, and the neatly organized cases were crafted by skilled cabinetmakers. For those living in more remote areas without a doctor readily available, this antique medical kit would have been the first and perhaps only way to treat illness or injury, and they were precursors to the ubiquitous first aid kits of today.
Health was becoming such a fascination for the public that there were even vending machines that helped people monitor their health and weight without visiting a doctor. Placed in drugstores, amusement parks and supermarkets, these were popular among soldiers trying to keep an eye on their weight while on leave, and a study conducted in 1937 by the U.S. Department of Commerce concluded that, “Penny scales were the principle means of over 130,000,000 people keeping in touch with their weight and health.”
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