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When Medicine Was New: Viewing Medical History Through Medical Antiques

An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Health is wealth. Your body is your temple. These common mantras demonstrate that health is at the root of humankind and a fundamental part of how we live our lives. Hippocrates believed that health was the greatest of human blessings and encouraged an exploration of medicine that continues today.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw a series of some of the greatest advancements in medical science. The Industrial Revolution led to the development of new medical tools and machines, and advancements in knowledge meant an increase in formal training, infection control and more specific treatments for disease. Although the field would still have a long way to go, this was a pivotal time in the history of medicine, and medical antiques of the era can provide a fascinating glimpse into human progress.

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.

Medicine underwent vast changes in the 18th and 19th centuries. As people began to move from small villages to crowded urban centers, many died from diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis, measles and pneumonia – infections that could spread quickly and easily thanks dirty, overcrowded living conditions with poor sanitation and unclean drinking water. However, understanding of the body also greatly increased during this time and, with it, great advances in medicine, such as vaccination and microbiology, blossomed.

General Practice


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.



29-2999 George II Mahogany Tripod Physician’s Cabinet


George II Mahogany Tripod Physician’s Cabinet

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.


30-3997 Gold Handled Doctor’s Cane


Gold Handled Doctor’s Cane
30-2132 French Military Doctor’s Cane


French Military Doctor’s Cane

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.



30-9251 French Naval Surgeon’s Kit


French Naval Surgeon’s Kit

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.



29-6375 Dutch Pharmacy Gaper


Dutch Pharmacy Gaper



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.



30-8428 Phrenology Cane


Phrenology Cane

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.



28-8917 Creamware Leech Jar


Creamware Leech Jar

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.



30-5401 Domestic Medicine Chest by Thompson & Capper


Domestic Medicine Chest by Thompson & Capper



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.”



29-8333 The Rosenfield Penny Weight Scale


The Rosenfield Penny Weight Scale

Click here to explore M.S. Rau’s fascinating collection of medical antiques, or read our guide on Collecting Medical Antiques to learn more about starting your own collection.



A Brief History of Pharmacy. Accessed April 14, 2020.

Invisible Invaders: The Discovery of Germs and How They Cause Disease - Breakthrough!: How the 10 Greatest Discoveries in Medicine Saved Millions and Changed Our View of the World - Jon Queijo. Accessed April 14, 2020.

Morse, Minna Scherlinder. “Facing a Bumpy History.” Smithsonian Institution, October 1, 1997.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Leeching.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., November 21, 2018.

Toledo-Pereyra, Luis H. “Birth of Scientific Surgery: John Hunter versus Joseph Lister as the Father or Founder of Scientific Surgery.” Surgical Revolutions, 2011, 75–85.



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