RCP Unseen: tools of the trade
RCP Unseen: tools of the trade
Tools help us understand how doctors diagnosed, treated and cared for their patients in the past.
But medical tools are not always the objects you might first think of. When fighting disease, a survey gathering information about leprosy may have been as powerful a tool for doctors as a lancet was for vaccinating against smallpox.
Our rare book, archive and museum collections show that doctors had a wide range of resources to call upon to support their work.
Corrigan's button cautery, Mid-19th century
Corrigan's button cautery, Mid-19th century, (X495)
Cauterisation was used widely for treating wounds and removing growths. The metal cautery tool was heated to a dull red glow and then applied to the skin. The resulting tissue damage helped to stop bleeding of a blood vessel, close amputations, and remove unwanted warts. This type of ‘button’ cautery was invented by the Irish physician Sir Dominic John Corrigan (1802–1880).
Cauterisation was believed to prevent infection. However, we now know that it actually increases the risk of infection, because the burning from the metal cautery damages tissue and creates an ideal environment for bacteria to grow. Today electrocautery and chemical cautery are used to remove warts and stop nosebleeds.
First edition of The Lancet, 1823
First edition of The Lancet, 1823, Europe, 19th century
When the founders of a new medical journal in 1823 needed to name their publication, they wanted something that would make its medical nature clear – they chose The Lancet. A key part of a doctor’s toolkit, lancets were small blades used for bloodletting and vaccinations.
Left: Tortoiseshell lancet guard, with ‘Jones’ scratched into it.
Centre: Silver lancet case used for vaccination
Right: Silver and agate lancet case engraved ‘F. Smith from his affectionate Mother’
Lancets and their cases were individual, personalised possessions. Some are made from luxurious materials, showing the doctor’s wealth and status. Others are engraved with the owner’s name, perhaps to prevent unauthorised use. Some indicate what they were used for, while others are gifts from loved ones or professional connections.
LEFT: Silver lancet case with four tortoiseshell lancets, with ‘Jones’ scratched onto the lancet guards. Place of production unknown, c.1800. X467
CENTRE: Silver lancet case used for vaccination. France, c.1833. X453
RIGHT: Silver and agate lancet case engraved ‘F. Smith from his affectionate Mother’. England, 1800–50. X114
Vattoru-pota (a doctor's manual)
A vattoru-pota (a doctor's manual) Sri Lanka, c.1800 (MSTR66)
Written in Sinhala, this doctor’s manual was produced in Sri Lanka, around the time the British took over the island from Dutch colonial rule.
British doctors travelling to South Asian British colonies like Sri Lanka had very little knowledge of local diseases or the tropical climate. They had to look to local practices and practitioners to identify the causes of disease and find treatments.
Unlike most books produced in Europe, this item is made from palm leaf, within wooden covers, held together with fibre cords. This was a traditional method of book production in Sri Lanka at the time.
Ether vapouriser and glass bottle
Ether vapouriser and glass bottle, Manufactured in London by Ferguson, 1847 (X715 and X718)
This facemask and breathing tube apparatus were originally believed to have been used to administer anaesthetic to Queen Victoria during childbirth.
While this cannot be proven, we do know that it was designed by John Snow (1813–1858), a pioneer in obstetric anaesthesia. Snow designed the apparatus to safely administer ether and chloroform to his patients. He personally administered chloroform to Queen Victoria when she gave birth to the last two of her nine children, Leopold in 1853 and Beatrice in 1857.
Reproduced courtesy of the Wiley Digital Archives © John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.
Table showing occurrences of leprosy
Table showing occurrences of leprosy in the families of patients in Chennai, India, by Henry Porteous, Chennai, 1864 (MS4119/147)
Leprosy was believed to run in families in the 19th century. Dr Henry Porteous, who had been treating patients with leprosy in India for 13 years, presented this table to the RCP as evidence that leprosy was not hereditary. The RCP rejected Porteous’ arguments and published a report supporting the idea that the disease was hereditary.
When Britain expanded its occupation of India, it became politically beneficial for the government to be seen to be taking public health seriously. The RCP conducted a survey of doctors, seeking their expertise. Porteous reported that leprosy disproportionately affected poorer people who lived in unsanitary conditions. However, the RCP and other medical authorities were reluctant to change their views, and the government was therefore slow to implement measures to control the disease.
Petrus Hispanus (later Pope John XXI), The treasure of the poor or summary of medical experiences…etc, Place of publication unknown, 16th century (MS352)
Petrus Hispanus – or Peter of Spain – wrote several works on philosophy and medicine. This book is a comprehensive manual of diseases and remedies. He is also credited as having produced an early work on pharmacology.
Peter of Spain is usually identified as being Peter Juliani, a Portuguese scholar and physician, who became Pope John XXI in 1276. He is one of the few popes to also be a physician, although his time in office was very brief. He died in 1277 when his newly built apartment collapsed with him inside.