Sunday, October 22, 2006

Medical Mystery Solved

Many years ago, my wife and I were exploring rural Pennsylvania and decided to stop at a road-side antique store. I was collecting antique medical instruments at the time and asked the lady inside the store if she knew of any items relating to medicine. She didn't recall seeing any. But because the store was packed with various items of all types, we decided to look anyway.

Toward the back of the store we noted lots of luggage and handbags. I looked through them and found this:

Upon opening this bag I peered inside and much to my delight, found this:

Careful inspection disclosed surgical knives, a tourniquet, trephining burr (used for boring holes in the head to remove demons causing epilepsy, insanity, or worse) and a saw – likely used for amputation. In the corner of the kit, was this sterile catgut suture dispenser, for No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 catgut suture, made by Johnson & Johnson, of New Brunswick, NJ, USA. (Hence the "hint" of my prior post: a "cat's gut"... my apologies to cat lovers out there ...)

The only markings on the equipment were those of the packages of sutures and bandages inside. At first I thought the kit was a post-mortum surgical kit, but the findings of the trephine and the sterile catgut (why would a mortician need sterile catgut?) made a surgical amputation kit near the turn of the 20th century more likely. Although I have not been able to identify which company made the kit, I was able to find some information on the Johnson and Johnson website that helped me date the kit. From Johnson and Johnson's website:
By 1890 Johnson & Johnson was treating cotton and gauze dressings by dry heat in an attempt to produce not only an antiseptic product but a sterile one. In 1891 a bacteriological laboratory was established and, early in the following year, the Company successfully met the requirements for a sterile product through a continuous method of handling dressings so they were kept under aseptic conditions and subject to repeated sterilization during production.

The new sterilization processes, first by dry heat and then by steam and pressure, were the genesis of the Company's slogan: "The Most Trusted Name in Surgical Dressings." In 1897 the Company developed another major contribution to surgery, an improved sterilizing technique for catgut sutures.
I have often wondered about the history of this kit. Was it ever used? If so, on whom? What were the circumstances of their injuries? Was anesthesia used? I imagine a solution or a spray of carbolic acid bathing the operating room and the patient in a foggy mist while the surgeon operates in street clothes with a blood-spattered frock coat worn like a badge of honor.

Despite all of our modern-day rants, it certainly reminds us that Medicine has come a long way...


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing.