For the LOVE of Medical History

For our final #MuseumWeek post we’re talking about why we LOVE medical history and why we hope that love is contagious! #loveMW

It’s not uncommon for the Dittrick Medical History Center to be referred to a bit like a cabinet of curiosities,  a niche museum, or perhaps more kindly, a “hidden treasure.” Although we’ve always worked to make collections accessible and major public engagement efforts are underway, we still often have to make the case for the (sometimes not so) implicit question “Why should I care about medical history?”

The answer tends to go a little like this:

Medical history is the history of how we come into the world. Our Re-conceiving Birth gallery is not only about doctors, nurses, and midwives — it examines the experiences of women and babies from the 18th century to the 1940s. Beyond the particular questions of labor position, pregnancy diet, and types of forceps, this gallery calls visitors’ attention to larger, still pertinent questions: Is birth a normal or pathological event? Who’s experiences and knowledge are important during labor? Should birth hurt? How are difficult decisions made when both the mother and infant are at risk?

By framing these questions through history, we hope to add to modern debates that these are not new concerns and that “traditional” approaches are not singular or homogenous.

Medical history is the history of how we change and respond to our environments. Humans have faced a range of emerging health concerns through travel to new places, movement into cities, changing diets, and exposure to industrial hazards. Many of the museum’s exhibits examine both the impact of these shifts, such as crowded city-dwelling facilitating the transmission of infectious diseases, and how we respond to these novel health environments. For example, Cleveland was racked by a deadly and disfiguring smallpox epidemic in 1901 and 1902, which was halted through a coordination of efforts to develop and widely distribute a safe vaccine.

These stories speak to the dynamic relationship between humans and their environment and cautions against assumptions that medical progress has eliminated any risk of new health challenges.

Medical history is the history of how we manage pain and suffering. When visitors arrive at the museum, they are greeted with display cases that detail “If you were sick in…” various years throughout history. These exhibits contextualize both the conditions and therapeutics Americans encountered in 1810, 1860, and 1910 including purgatives and emetics of humoral medicine and the sanitizing devises and techniques developed under germ theory. The types of surgeries, pharmaceuticals, and instruments used by practitioners and the popular advertisements for health restoring or ensuring products reveal the way the body and illnesses are understood.

Conceptions of the body and what it means to be healthy are not static, but reflect contemporary challenges and concerns. For example, medicine during WWI developed ways to address mass trauma in the form of gunshot, shrapnel and shell wounds and fractures through pain-free, sterile surgeries that prevented patient shock and hemorrhage. Meanwhile, home front practitioners sought to ensure the continued well-being of citizens living under rations. We’re taking a closer look at these wartime public policies and their attempts to ensure health on April 7th.

Medical history is the history of how we mediate sexual relations and family size. The museum prominently features the Skuy Collection on the History of Contraception, the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of historical contraception artifacts. This space provides a chronological look at the way fertility has been understood and managed, starting with early texts like the 17th century Aristotle’s Masterpiece, through the 19th century Comstock Laws, the development of the birth control pill, to modern contraceptive devices. Controlling fertility is not a modern pursuit, but has been shaped through history by contemporary social and cultural values regarding family size, appropriate sexual behavior, and the alignment (or not) between biomedicine and popular beliefs about reproduction.

Today’s discussions about access to fertility controlling pharmaceuticals and procedures is part of a longer history of politicized decisions about what is best for certain bodies and for the general public at large. The gallery highlights that “best medical practices” have been occasionally overruled by social pressures against contraception, as well as how a lack of oversight in the development and use of some contraceptive technologies lead to suffering or death of unprotected citizens.

Medical history is the history of how and why we die. Even the way death is depicted — as a failure of medical treatment or an inevitable end — is shaped by the unique historical ways health has been understood. For example, diphtheria, once a deadly disease for children in the late 19th century, became both relatively treatable and preventable within a few decades through use of diphtheria antitoxin and large-scale immunization efforts.

Other exhibits tell about the detective-like work of medical practitioners in discovering the causes of death. For example, development of the stethoscope allowed physicians to hear inside the body, however what they heard was not immediately clear. Doctors used the stethoscope to listen to ill patients’ breathing and heartbeats in the early 19th century and attempted to treat their conditions. When the patients almost invariably died from their diseases, the practitioners conducted post-mortem  examinations to match the sound they’d heard with internal abnormalities. The Blaufox Hall of Diagnostic Instruments illustrates how this process led to an improved ability to diagnose pathologies in living patients while providing directed treatment for their particular needs. Understanding why and how we die improves how we interpret our bodily experiences into symptoms and causes for concern.

Our forensics collections offer a different way of understanding causes of death. New methods to detect poisons or cause of death not only reveal how our bodies function, but also speak to larger stories about personal relationships and the integration of science into courts of law.

Basically, medical history is the history of people. Through a shared focus on the biological, environmental, and social aspects of people’s lives, engaging with medical history not only allows for a more nuanced perspective on how people have lived, but tells us something about the diversity of challenges and responses that await us.


Mosquito or Man — “Steadily or Surely Conquered”

With the recent global attention on the Zika virus (we won’t say emergence, as Zika virus itself is not new), public health programs focused on controlling the mosquito vector enter a debate with its own long and storied past.

Pick up any early 20th century book on infectious disease management and you’ll find confident statements assuring the victory of humans over illness and death. One text from 1909 called Mosquito or Man? speaks of this inevitable triumph over disease with an air of colonial domination, stating:

The tropical world is today being steadily and surely conquered…The campaigns show that the three great insect-carried scourges of the tropics–the greatest enemies that mankind has ever had to contend with, namely Malaria, Yellow Fever, and Sleeping Sickness–are now fully in hand and giving way, and with their conquest disappears the depression which seems to have gripped our forefathers. Now the situation is full of hope. The mosquito is no longer a nightmare; it can be got rid of.

Most European and U.S. medical attention in diseases of the “tropical world” peaked only after these conditions negatively impacted colonial interests. For example, the deaths of tens of thousands of workers from yellow fever or malaria infections (from the then-unknown mosquito vector) contributed to the failure of the 19th century French attempt to construct a canal through Panama. To create such a canal—an infrastructure project which would accelerate trade and establish imperial power—required “the economic control or eradication of the disease-conveying species…that affect personal comfort or real estate value” (LePrince and Orenstein 1916, p. 3).

Man using a knapsack carrier to spray larvicide or oil in a ditch, 1916.

By the time, the United States began their own efforts to build the Panama Canal in 1904, U.S. public health officials had already instituted extensive sanitation projects informed by new epidemiological and entomological discoveries. These measures included draining stagnant water, controlling insect-breeding areas by spraying oil and larvicide or introducing larva-eating fish, fumigating buildings, and installing mosquito netting and window screens. Although canal laborers experienced less mortality from disease than their predecessors working for the French endeavor, medical staff continued to treat thousands of cases of mosquito-borne illnesses.

The hard fought results from these projects came with their own costs. Draining wetlands and adding larvicides (a combination of resin, carbolic acid, and sodium hydroxide) and crude oil into the remaining standing water wrecked havoc on the local ecology (Becker et al. 2013, p. 408). During mosquito control efforts in Panama, mosquito brigades poured an estimated 160,000 gallons of oil poured into the water in a single year of construction (Canfield 1908). Meanwhile, the time and money required for mosquito control campaigns could not be permanently sustained, making the comparative ease of mosquito eradication through DDT a welcome alternative. Mosquito resistance to insecticides has renewed interests in vector control, but today’s program developers are additionally informed by the historical challenges of managing mosquitoes.

Left: A mosquito breeding ground: shaded wetlands surrounded by brush.                 Right: The brush-free ditch dug to drain the area. 1922

Gone is the easy confidence that mosquitos “may be destroyed” (Howard 1902). Today’s public health officials instead advise people living in mosquito-endemic areas to make difficult sacrifices to preserve their health. Although an absolute victor in the “mosquito or man” competition is both ridiculous and unlikely, it is tempting to view recent events placing mosquitoes firmly in the lead. We should remember that government officials, scientists, and physicians actually made these bold claims in a time immense of suffering and death from mosquito-transmitted diseases. Perhaps a bit of this early conviction in success (sans colonialism, of course) is necessary to fuel large-scale projects and innovation, so we can live with, rather than against, this historic foe.

Appling Oil Using a Cart
Applying a layer of oil to a ditch using a horse drawn cart. Panama, 1916.



  1. Becker, N., Zgoma, M., Petric, D., Dahl, C., Boase, C., Lane, J., & Kaiser, A. 2013. Mosquitoes and their Control. New York, NY: Springer Science+Business and Media.
  2. Boyce, R. 1909. Mosquito or Man? The Conquest of the Tropical World. London, UK: John Murray.
  3. Canfield, H. 1908. Oil and Mosquitoes: Why the sanitary department used 3,200 barrels of oil or about 160,000 gallons during the last fiscal year. The Canal Record, Volume 1, p. 3.
  4. Hardenburg, W.E. 1922. Mosquito Eradication. New York, NY: McGraw Hill Co.
  5. Howard, L.O. 1902. Mosquitoes: How They Live, How They Carry Disease, How They are Classified, How They may be Destroyed. New York, NY: McClure, Phillips, & Co.
  6. LePrince, J.A. & Orentstein, A.J. 1916. Mosquito Control in Panama: Eradication of Malaria and Yellow Fever in Cuba and Panama. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
  7. Nuttall, G.H, Cobbett, L., & Strangeways-Pigg, T. 1901. Studies in relation to Malaria. Journal of Hygiene 1, 4-77.

Living (and Breathing) Museum Research

What is it? Does this inhaler featured in this 1875 trade card reside in the Dittrick’s collections?

When the museum receives donations from the community, sometimes little surprises find their way into unexpected collections. Frequently, we classify artifacts based on the donor’s description and our expectations. Until we dig into their stories for an exhibit, these unexplored artifacts sit on shelves among surgical sets, microscopes, and pharmaceuticals, waiting to be discovered. One such specimen found its way into our work space as we pulled items for a recent installation on Obstetrical Anesthesia from 1850 to 1890.

We were familiar with the Bennett Inhaler (Fig. 1), a handheld device intended to be filled with chloroform for laboring women to self-administer anesthetic. During childbirth, women using this inhaler would lose the ability to hold the item close to their face, their hand would drop, and they were less likely to experience a chloroform overdose. Although we were delighted by this object, there was one problem — it was patented in 1910, outside of our desired time period.

Fig. 1. Bennett Inhaler from the Dittrick Museum Collections.
Fig. 1.: Bennett Inhaler from the Dittrick Museum Collections.
Fig. 2: Bennett Inhaler Ad from the American Journal of Clinical Medicine, 1910.
Fig. 2: Bennett Inhaler Ad in the American Journal of Clinical Medicine, 1910.

A little digging in an artifact box entitled “Inhalers” turned up this item: a small, hard rubber device with two nozzles, a center cork, and a lid (Fig. 3). Other than being marked “Patented in 1873,” we had little else to go on, except the hope that it was used far earlier than the Bennett Inhaler in obstetrical cases, and could fit in our exhibit.

Fig. 3: Mystery Inhaler from Dittrick Museum Collections.
Fig. 3: Mystery Inhaler from Dittrick Museum Collections.

The first step was looking through lists of inventions from 1873, published in the Official Gazette of the U.S. Patent Office (1874)– a task made significantly easier with digitized records. We searched individual patents for all of the the objects listed as “inhaler,” “respirator,” or “anesthesia,” and compared the drawn plans to our item. Only one stood out as a possibility (Fig. 4).

1873 Patent Illustration for Crumb's Inhaler
Fig. 4: 1873 Patent Illustration for Crumb’s Inhaler
Fig. 5: 1873 Crumb's Inhaler Ad
Fig. 5: 1873 Crumb’s Inhaler Ad

William R. Crumb of Buffalo, NY patented an inhaler of a similar shape to the Bennett Inhaler used, not for anesthesia, but as a general means of treating any and all respiratory ailments. An ad in the Gem of the West and Soldier’s Friend journal in 1873 claimed the inhaler instantaneously improved catarrh (excessive mucous), bronchitis, asthma, and colds if used in tandem with Crumb’s other product — “Carbolated Chloride of Iodine” as an inhalant (Fig. 5).

As a proprietary medicine salesman, Crumb fashioned himself as an “MD,” to assure customers of his credibility. However, in 1881 the Buffalo Medical College of Physicians revoked his recent degree on the grounds of plagiarism, “having been proven upon examination that the thesis upon which the degree was conferred was written by a Dr. Walton.”

Fig. 6: 1886 Crumb's Inhaler Ad
Fig. 6: 1886 Crumb’s Inhaler Ad

Despite this news (and a move to Ontario), Crumb continued to improve his inhalers and advertised their popularity in later ads showing a model of the inhaler similar to our’s. It featured a lid so customers could easily carry the inhaler in their pocket and sleeker medication chamber (Fig. 6). At this point in our search, we felt more confident that the object in question was one of the 500,000 products W.R. Crumb had peddled by 1886.

Although we couldn’t use the inhaler in our childbirth exhibit, we reunited this object with its story and made our archivist, and future researchers, very happy.


[1] Mattison, Richard V., ed. 1881. The Monthly Review of Pharmacy and Medicine 9(6): 180.
[2] Crumb, W.R. Improvement in Inhalers. U.S. Patent 134858. January 14, 1873.
[3] United States Patent Office. 1874. Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, Vol. 5. p. 665.
[4] Crumbs Pocket Inhaler. Haviland, C. A. and Mrs. C. A. Haviland, eds. 1873. Gem of the West and Soldier’s Friend 7(12): 522.
[5] Crumb’s Rubber Pocket Inhaler. 1886. Hall’s Journal of Health 33(12): ix.

About the Authors:

Catherine Osborn, MA is a Research Assistant at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History and the Editorial Associate of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry. She enjoys pursuing historical tangents and proving she can find any source online.

Anna Claspy is a summer intern at the Dittrick Museum and a student of history at the College of Wooster. She enjoys causing trouble on social media.

A Look Back: 2014 Dittrick Events

Throughout 2014, the Dittrick Museum shared our enthusiasm for the history of medicine with a growing audience. Whether you’re from our home campus of Case Western Reserve University, the greater Cleveland area, or part of a larger digital community, we appreciate all of these opportunities to meet and learn with you.

Our growing public outreach led us to work with the wonderful Cleveland Bazaar, host a book talk for author Kate Manning, and hear a lecture on WWI medicine from scholar Beth Linker. We explored a cemetery, rare book archives, and museum galleries with diverse groups of visitors. What’s more, these events were beautifully captured by local photographer Frank Lanza.

We invite you to look back on the success of last year and join us for some of the great upcoming events planned for 2015.

The Spring-Lancet, A “Bloodstain’d Faithful Friend!”

The origins of blood-letting date back to Hippocrates in ancient Greece when the practice was recommended to both prevent as well as remedy illness. Galen also supported therapeutic bleeding because it fit with his humoral theory. According to humoral theory, illness is caused by an imbalance of the body’s four humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm [1]. Thus, maintaining a balance of humors by the removal of excess blood was thought to preserve health.

The spring-lancet was predated by the thumb lancet (15th century) and fleams (17th and 18th centuries) [2]. Both these devices required the user to apply pressure manually on the blades against the patient in order make an incision.

ThumbLancetAndFleamBased on the earliest records, the first spring-lancet likely originated in Austria during the 18th century. To use the lancet, the practitioner would pull back a lever, coiling the interior spring. When the lever was released and the spring recoiled, the silver blade would drive into the patient [3]. Proponents of the spring-lancet claimed it provided greater precision in nicking a vein so blood could flow steadily from the incision. These devices served two purposes: the general removal of blood from the body (usually in the spring, as humoral theory proposed that the volume of blood was highest during that season) and the localized draining of blood from an inflamed area. Thus the former prevented illness, while the latter treated it.


One of the benefits (?) of this design is that it allowed “untutored” bleeders the ability to make an incision over superficial veins. Thus, individuals without precise knowledge of the circulatory system could be fairly confident that they could remove blood without harming other vessels [4]. However, the French still preferred thumb lancets as they were less complicated and easier to use for physician/surgeons who were not ignorant of anatomy.

In the United States, the spring-lancet was much more economical than using other methods. One practitioner writing in 1813 stated “one spring-lancet, with an occasional new blade, will serve [a physician] all his life” [5, p. 281]. These devices were frequently very ornate and decorated with symbols that had a personal meaning to the owner. Unfortunately, spring-lancets were not indestructible. The spring could corrode due to trapped moisture acquired during use and cleaning [2]. Additionally, the mechanical complexity of the device made thorough cleaning difficult – making the transmittance of disease (not then a contemporary concern) much more likely. Despite these flaws, through at least the 1830s, every physician “without a single exception, carried a spring-lancet in his pocket, and daily used it” [6, p. 4].

In 1841, J.E. Snodgrass of Baltimore celebrated his apparatus in a poem entitled “To My Spring-Lancet.” The following stanzas allude to the frequent usage (and infrequent cleaning) of the spring-lancet for an American physician.

I love thee, bloodstain’d, faithful friend!
As warrior loves his sword or shield;
For how on thee did I depend
When foes of Life were in the field!  

Those blood spots on thy visage, tell
That thou, thro horrid scenes, hast past.
O, thou hast served me long and well;
And I shall love thee to the Last! [7]  

The conviction of Dr. Snodgrass’s ode may have been in response to the growing research and criticism against the efficacy of bloodletting. In the 1840s and 1850s, debate about the practice reached a peak when Dr. Hughes Bennett noted that rates of mortality from pneumonia decreased in a direct proportion to the decline in bloodletting [8]. Despite this, many physicians continued to use the spring-lancet to therapeutically bleed their patients. For example, Dr. A.P. Dutcher, at one time the President of the Cleveland Academy of Medicine, considered bloodletting to be “the most prompt and effective of all the known agencies that we possess to subdue inflammation” [9, p. 543].

Although the benefit of bloodletting as disease treatment was convincingly challenged in the mid-19th century, some physicians continued the practice for the next one hundred years. Fortunately, the growing acceptance of germ theory, as well as improved knowledge of the immune response, ushered in new aseptic surgical techniques. The reusable spring-lancet was no longer carried in every physician’s pocket, but instead “only found on the shelves of the medical curio cabinet” [10, p. 90].

N0029189 Pinprick device used in blood tests

Continue reading The Spring-Lancet, A “Bloodstain’d Faithful Friend!”

Exhibit Update

Check out the new window treatment for our balcony display of diagnostic instruments, as seen on the Dittrick Facebook page  I got the idea for the screened images from visiting medical history museums in Berlin andInglostadt.
Photo: The balcony gallery is a work in progress, a new exhibit on diagnostics will be opening this fall. The new shades were delivered yesterday!

As this work on the diagnostic exhibit — the most comprehensive of its kind in North America, thanks to the gift of the M. Donald Blaufox collection — winds down, I will get back to the Dittrick blog.  Very long overdue, I know…  In my next post, I’ll share some pics of the exhibits in the Berlin Museum of Medical History and the German Museum of Medical History in Ingolstadt.