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Six strange objects from the history of medicine


Nelson’s Spyglass plucks 101 curious objects from British history. From Beowulf’s manuscript, to Queen Victoria’s ballet shoes and, of course, Nelson’s spyglass, author Sophie Campbell provides a weird and wonderful look into history’s best kept artefacts dating back to early times through to the Tudors and on to more recent history.

One reoccurring aspect is the various medical implements used throughout the ages. Here are six strange objects used to help heal:

Black Death crosses

Although these Black Death crosses might not technically be a medical instrument, they were still used as a defence against the plague. Killing 200 million people across Europe, the Black Death was the worst plague that ever hit London. These ‘trading crosses’ were therefore erected to so victims could trade without passing an infection.

A Tudor doctor’s bullet extractor

The Tudor invention of a ‘bullet extractor’ was developed in response to the appearance of the earliest firearms in the 1200s. These instruments consist of hollow shafts that were inserted straight into the wound. Once in, the central screw turned to pierce the embedded bullet, then the whole thing was withdrawn.

Lady Fanshawe’s plague cure recipe

The plague returned with a vengeance in the seventeenth century and this time people were a little more inventive. Lady Fanshawe came up with her very own recipe to conquer the plague. The concoction of malmsey, sage and pepper would perhaps have been more cheering than efficacious, but she was confident that: ‘In all your plague time under God trust to this: for there was never none died of the Plague that tooke it’.

Edward Jenner’s lancets

Modern medicine owes a lot to these particular artefacts, as they were instrumental in the discovery of the vaccination for Smallpox. Jenner used ivory points coated in pus from a cowpox blister to scratch the skin of a healthy patient in order to defend them against smallpox, which killed 10 perfect of the population at the time. These steel lancets, in their handsome tortoiseshell case, were used for bloodletting as well as vaccinating.

Livingstone’s medical case

Lined in purple velvet, this medicine chest has quite a past. It was owned by Scottish explorer David Livingston, who took it on his last trip down the River Nile. The case contained liquid ammonia (for treating snakebite), a lancet, a plaster, a brass weight and a caustic pencil. Livingstone’s last act was to call for his medicine case, take out his bottle of calomel (mercuous chloride, used to induce vomiting) and say, ‘All right; you can go out now’. He was found kneeling by his bed later that same night, quite dead.

The first asthma inhaler

Inventor Hiram Maxim, the same man that invented the machine gun, ironically labelled the first inhaler as a ‘pipe of peace’. Edwardian asthmatics rushed to buy this swan-necked glass tube inhaler which was used to calm breathing using warm-water vapour and a drug called ‘Dirigin’. Maxim was then advised to put aside his chemistry; as if he wanted to make money he should ‘invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s throats’. That’s when he invented the machine gun.

Extracted from Nelson's Spyglass.

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