Category: Warren Anatomical Museum

The BackBlog: The Rise of Homeopathy

By , May 27, 2020

While some items in the backlog took lots of research to identify, this one did not. A card labeled “HOMEOPATHIC DRUG BOX” made the former contents of these bottles clear. 

Homeopathy is a medical practice based on the concept of “like cures like”. Homeopathic treatments are dilutions of a substance that would cause adverse symptoms in a healthy person but are believed to cure those symptoms in someone who is sick. For example, onion is used in remedies for seasonal allergies that result in itchy or sore eyes. Nux vomica, which comes from the strychnine tree, is used to treat nausea and hangovers. Most homeopathic preparations are so diluted that there are no longer any molecules of the original substance left. 

Photograph of a small chest containing small corked bottles. The chest is black. The lid is not attached and is sitting next to the part containing the bottles. A card that reads "HOMEOPATHIC DRUG BOX" is propped up against the chest.

Homeopathic Drug Box. From the Warren Anatomical Museum in the Center for the History of Medicine, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine (WAM 22249)

The practice of homeopathy was founded in the late 18th century by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843). Hahnemann’s student, Hans Birch Gram, brought homeopathy to the United States in 1825. In the beginning, most practitioners of homeopathy—or “homeopaths”—were German immigrants. The first homeopathic medical school in the US was founded in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1835.  The American Institute of Homeopathy was founded in 1844. Once these institutions were developed there was a rise in the popularity of homeopathy. More patients were interested in homeopathic treatments, and more Americans became practitioners. 

There were many reasons for this rise in popularity. One of the biggest was that homeopathy was considered safe compared to other medical treatments. Surgery often led to infection due to the lack of aseptic practices. The common treatments for diseases like cholera were unpleasant and ineffective. There were no active ingredients in most homeopathic remedies. Because of this, they could not cure an illness, but they also could not create negative side effects. Patients who were treated by homeopaths and recovered often reported a much better experience than their counterparts who had conventional medical treatments. 

Homeopathy also gained popularity because it was compared to another emerging medical practice: vaccination. Around the time that Hahnemann was creating his theory of homeopathy, Edward Jenner (1749-1823) was experimenting with giving people small doses of cowpox to prevent smallpox infection. Like homeopathy, vaccination involves exposing yourself to a small amount of something that would make you sick in a larger quantity. The two practices are different for many reasons, but this similarity is what people focused on. The success of vaccination likely led to the widespread use of homeopathy. 

Although it was widely used, homeopathy was not accepted by everyone in the medical field. One of the harshest critics was Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (1809-1894), who was dean of the Harvard Medical School from 1847-1853. In 1842 Holmes published a book titled Homœopathy and Its Kindred Delusions, based on two of his lectures. Holmes criticized the basis of homeopathy and stated his belief that the positive results patients saw were due to the placebo effect. He compared homeopathy to other ineffective medical treatments, like Perkins tractors and the royal touch—the belief that the laying on of hands by a monarch could cure a sick subject. 

Homeopathy lost popularity in the early 20th century as surgery became safer and new treatments became available but saw a resurgence in the 1970s. Homeopathic preparations are often sold in pharmacies alongside conventional treatments. While this case from the backlog and the tiny bottles inside of it might look different from the homeopathy that we see today, their contents were not dissimilar from what you might find on a shelf today. 

The BackBlog: J. W. Farlow’s Tools for Tonsillectomy

By , April 6, 2020

As I sorted through boxes of ear, nose, and throat instruments, I was excited to discover a clear collection forming. There were numerous instruments that had been carefully tagged with a description of the instrument and the name “Dr. J. W. Farlow”. This was particularly exciting because it wasn’t only a clear collection, but it all revolved around one particular subject. Before I knew anything about who J. W. Farlow was, I knew based on his collection that he was almost certainly a laryngologist.  

What was even more exciting was when I began looking at the names on the objects. Amongst objects with names like “Hajeck’s nasal punch” and “Roe’s septum forceps”, I found an object labeled “Farlow tonsil ecraseur”. J. W. Farlow wasn’t just a doctor, he was also an inventor.  

Photograph of a tonsil ecraseur. The object is made of metal and is shaped in a straight line with finger loops at the bottom and center of the object. There is no wire.

Farlow Tonsil Ecraseur. From the Warren Anatomical Museum in the Center for the History of Medicine, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine (WAM 22220)

The instruments belonged to Dr. John Woodford Farlow (1853-1937), who was a laryngologist in Boston. At the time that Farlow was practicing, tonsillectomy—surgical removal of the tonsils—was a common procedure. In the early 20th century it was the most frequently practiced surgical procedure in the United States and would have made up a large portion of a laryngologist’s work. Because of this, there were many innovations in the tools used for these surgeries. Farlow made his mark with his tonsil forceps and the tonsil ecraseur (or tonsil snare) that is part of our collection.  

The tonsil ecraseur was an alternative to the tonsillotome or tonsil guillotine, allowing the physician to remove the tonsils in their entirety. It was often favored over other instruments because it removed the tonsils cleanly and because many believed—although it was disputed—that it reduced the chances of hemorrhage during surgery. Farlow’s ecraseur had a straight handle with a “cold wire”, meaning there was no heating element like some other devices. The wire was attached to a screw that could be rotated using the finger loops at the end of the handle. This allowed the physician using the device to carefully and gradually pull the wire, which gave Farlow’s design a distinct advantage over lever-based snares, which did not offer as much control. 

Farlow was associated with many hospitals in the Boston area throughout his career, including the Boston Dispensary, the Staniford Street Dispensary, the Free Dispensary for Diseases of Women, and the Boston City Hospital. He was on the Harvard Medical School faculty as a Clinical Instructor of Laryngology from 1892-1906. In 1902 he served as President of the American Laryngological Society. He was also very involved in the Boston Medical Library, which was the subject of most of his publications. Because of this, he is remembered more as a librarian than a laryngologist. His tonsil ecraseur and the rest of his collection are a reminder of his important contributions to his medical field.

The BackBlog: Color Perception and Cards of Wool

By , March 19, 2020

This object came up in one of the first boxes we took off the shelf for our backlog project, while a group of Center staff was still trying to figure out exactly what our sorting process was going to be like. When we first opened the box and saw all of the yarncovered cards we were confusedThis looked more like a crafting set than a medical device. We were even a bit concerned that this box might have been donated to the museum in order to display a set of toxic dyes. But when we saw the name “B. Joy Jeffries” on the stationary in the box, we knew that it must be some sort of color blindness test. 

Photograph of a wooden box containing 24 wooden cards. Each card is wrapped in a different color of yarn with varying striped patterns.

Donders’ test for color blindness. From the Warren Anatomical Museum in the Center for the History of Medicine, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine (WAM 22251)

Benjamin Joy (B. Joy) Jeffries (1833-1915) was a 19th century ophthalmologist. His work focused primarily on the causes and identification of color blindness. He even wrote a book titled: Color Blindness: Its Dangers and Its Detection. His writing on the subject is extensive and passionate. At the time that Jeffries was writing, color blindness was not commonly identified. It was a seriouhazard for railroad workers and people in similar occupations. A misinterpreted signal due to not seeing the right colors could result in a dangerous or even deadly situation. Jeffries’ work on the subject and advocacy for testing resulted in a much deeper understanding of color blindness and a safer railroad system. 

Identifying this particular test, however, was a bit of a challenge. It was labeled as “Holmgren’s Worsteds” in our accession record and on a label accompanying the objectHolmgren’s method of identification was Jeffries’ preferred method, and he wrote about it extensively. But while that test uses the same type of yarn, it involves matching small yarn bundles of the same color. Jeffries’ description made it clear that the object we found was not Holmgren’s test. 

Photograph of a piece of stationery with handwritten notes describing Donders' test for colorblindness. B. Joy Jeffries' name is imprinted at the top of the paper.

Description of test written on B. Joy Jeffries’ stationery, found with WAM 22251

Based on the methods listed in Jeffries’ book, this is most likely Donders’ test. This test was developed in 1879 by the ophthalmologist Franciscus Cornelis (F. C.) Donders (1818-1889). Jeffries describes Donders’ test as being made up of a set of wooden cards with different colors of wool wrapped around them. On some of the cards, a second color—one that a person who was color blind would not be able to differentiate from the firstwas wrapped over the first, and the subjects were asked to identify which cards had multiple colors. Like Holmgren’s test, Donders’ test involved a fairly simple procedure that wouldn’t have needed the complicated equipment like colored lights and spinning disks that some other methods required.  

Although he preferred Holmgren’s method, it is not surprising to find another type of testing amongst Jeffries’ collection. It is clear from his book that Jeffries tried every method for testing colorblindness that was available to him. We do have a few other color blindness tests in the museum, but as far as we know, this is the only one that belonged to B. Joy Jeffries. This simple wooden box with different colors of yarn—an object that I had originally thought looked like crafting supplies—turned out to be a fundamental piece in the history of color blindness research.

The BackBlog: Dr. Lloyd T. Brown’s Orthopedic Braces

By , February 25, 2020


In the early stages of the sorting process for this project, while we were still creating guidelines, I found a child’s leg brace in a box of miscellaneous items. The brace started with a hard shoe at the bottom connected to metal splints, which led up to a leather-covered metal band that went around the waist. The tag attached to the brace stated that it was made for a four of five-year-old child to keep the toes from pointing inwards. Later on, I found five other braces from the series in another box. Some braces were for daytime and some were to wear overnight. The smallest ones were for an infant, and the largest was for an eighteen-year-old.

Photo of a child's orthopedic brace with a shoe and attachments at the hip and knee

Orthopedic brace for a 4-5 year old. The metal post and waistband help to prevent internal rotation of the foot. Circa 1885. From the Warren Anatomical Museum in the Center for the History of Medicine, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine (WAM 13255.006A)

Luckily, each brace had a tag with a description, object number, and accession number. This gave me more information to start with than most objects in the backlog did. I was quickly able to find out that Lloyd T. Brown donated this series of braces to the museum in 1943. Based on my initial reading of the accession record, I was under the impression that Brown was the physician who had created the braces for a child. This made sense, as Brown was an orthopedic surgeon. However, the dates didn’t line up, as the earliest braces were made in 1880—the same year that Brown was born. With a bit more research it became clear that Brown was not the physician attached to these objects, but the patient.Lloyd T. Brown was born with a club foot. He was seen by the orthopedic surgeon Edward Hickling Bradford. At the time, Bradford was working at Children’s Hospital and had recently joined the faculty at Harvard Medical School. Bradford was well-known in his field. He co-authored “Orthopedic Surgery” in 1890, which was considered the standard text on orthopedics for many years. He was influential in founding the American Orthopedic Association and was the co-founder of the first school in the United States for children with physical disabilities.

Bradford created the orthopedic braces that I found in the backlog and used them as the primary treatment for Brown during his early childhood. However, this was not enough. Brown received tendon surgery, which helped for some time, and then, at the age of eighteen, a surgery to remove a small amount of bone in his foot. Bradford made one more brace for him post-surgery, and while Brown still had difficulties with his foot throughout his life, this was the last brace that he ever needed.

Brown was so inspired by this experience that he followed in Bradford’s footsteps. Like Bradford, Brown attended Harvard Medical School, where he eventually joined the faculty. He worked at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Children’s Hospital, where he specialized in chronic diseases and orthopedic surgery. During his career, Brown had many patients who were children with disabilities similar to his own. Brown wrote about and discussed his own treatment and felt that it put him in a unique position as a doctor, because he could speak to the results of the treatments later in life.

These orthopedic braces show that medical treatment can have an impact on much more than just physical health. They tell the story of a patient who became a doctor. Lloyd T. Brown chose to donate his childhood braces to the museum, suggesting that he wanted that story to be told. And now that we have rediscovered them, we can tell that story once again.

The BackBlog: The Origins of the Polygraph

By , February 18, 2020

Today, most of us are familiar with the polygraph machine, or, as it is commonly called, the “lie detector”. While some people have encountered the device in real life, most of us have learned about it through pop culture. We’ve seen people strapped to them in every procedural show. If a murder suspect fails a polygraph test or refuses to take one, it’s often considered “proof”—if not admissible evidence—that they are the killer. And of course, they’re a stable of daytime television shows that focus on cheating partners and paternity tests.

Because of this, I was surprised to find a polygraph machine in one of the boxes in our backlog. This machine was given to the museum by George Cheever Shattuck (1879-1972) in 1929. Shattuck was a prominent Boston physician, best known for his work in the field of tropical medicine. Why would a physician have a polygraph machine?

Photograph of a Mackenzie Polygraph. The case containing the object is open to show the parts of the object, which are not assembled.

George C. Shattuck’s Mackenzie Polygraph, 1906-1929. From the Warren Anatomical Museum in the Center for the History of Medicine, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine (WAM 22202)

Although the polygraph is known colloquially as a lie detector, that isn’t exactly what it does. The machine detects changes in bodily function that indicate stress, which could be a result of lying. This includes functions like breathing, heart rate, and perspiration—all of which are also important baseline health measurements. With this in mind, it makes sense that the original polygraph machine had nothing to do with lies and criminal investigation: it was actually a medical device.

At the turn of the century, Dr. James Mackenzie (1853-1925) developed the first ink-writing polygraph to track a patient’s irregular heartbeat. While simpler than the polygraph that most of us are familiar with today, this device works in much the same way. It features two rubber tambours, one of which was attached to a vein in the neck and the other to the wrist. These tambours would move with the patient’s pulse, and the waves of this movement would be sent down rubber tubing to two recording arms with needles. Then, the needles would record the pulse as a continuous ink-line on paper. The doctor could simply look at the paper to determine the pattern of a patient’s heartbeat.

At the time that he introduced the machine, there wasn’t an effective way for physicians to track the pattern of a patient’s heartbeat. It was replaced by the electrocardiogram machine (or EKG) shortly after, making the Mackenzie polygraph a short but important segment of the history of cardiology. Mackenzie probably never imagined what his machine would eventually become known for, but nevertheless, his legacy continues to this day.

The BackBlog: The Mystery of the Babcock Tester

By , February 11, 2020

I found this device in a box labeled “Misc. Med Equip / Early Autoclave? / + other un-Id’d stuff”. None of the labels on the box seemed quite right for this instrument. It didn’t look exactly like anything I had come across before. Luckily, the name of the object was right on the side, so it didn’t take too long to figure out what it was. The reason I couldn’t place it was that it wasn’t a medical device at all. It was an agricultural device.

Photo of a babcock tester, with a hand-crank and two centrifuge tubes

Hand-cranked Babcock tester, 1890-1940. From the Warren Anatomical Museum in the Center for the History of Medicine, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine (LEAN0931)

The Babcock Tester was developed in 1890 by Stephen Babcock to detect fat content in milk. The test was simple: place graduated vials of the milk you are testing into a centrifuge like this one and spin them until the milk is separated. Once the milk has separated, you can see the amount of fat that is present in the sample. This tester is a hand-crank model designed for a tabletop, but other iterations included covered centrifuges and table clamps. Sometimes, sulfuric acid was used to remove proteins and other milk components, leaving just the fat.

For the most part, the Babcock test was used by farmers to check the quality of their milk. Sometimes, it was also used to make sure that dairy farmers weren’t diluting their product to stretch the amount of milk they had. The test became incredibly popular and was the primary method for testing milk fat for decades. Not only was it easy and effective, but Babcock refused to patent the device. That made it accessible and affordable as well.

So, if this is an agricultural device, how did the Babcock tester end up in a medical museum? The answer is, we’re not sure. We don’t have any background information on who donated the object or what it was used for.

There are several reasons this Babcock tester could have been collected. It could have been part of a public health initiative regarding nutrition from milk. There might have been a particular physician who was interested in this aspect of nutrition. It’s also possible that someone used this device as a centrifuge for something other than its intended purpose, and it has nothing to do with milk. Hopefully, we will find more information about this device someday, and we will learn how it ended up here. For now, we can only speculate, and the Babcock tester remains one of the mysteries of the backlog.

The BackBlog: The Order of the Bifurcated Needle

By , February 4, 2020

As I was going through one of the boxes in our backlog, I found a small blue box. When I opened it up, there was a lapel pin inside. The pin was in the shape of a circle, with one end that went into the back of the pin and one end that was split like a snake’s tongue. There was also a small piece of paper inside with the words “Order of the Bifurcated Needle” in tiny, neat handwriting. I had a feeling that this Order was different than the Order of Saint Michael or the Knights Templar, and I was curious to learn more about it. What I discovered made this tiny object one of the most exciting things that I have found throughout this project.

Photo of a lapel pin in a blue box. The pin is made from a bifurcated needle that has been twisted into a circle.

Lapel pin from the Order of the Bifurcated Needle, 1976. From the Warren Anatomical Museum in the Center for the History of Medicine, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine (LEAN1158)

In 1966, Donald Ainslie (D.A.) Henderson (1928-2016) became the commanding general of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) smallpox eradication program. Ten years later, he saw that the end of this project was in sight and created something unlike any other honorary organization: The Order of the Bifurcated Needle.

Smallpox was a viral disease that caused a skin rash, resulting in permanent scarring and sometimes loss of vision. The disease had a mortality rate of 30%, with a higher rate amongst infants. Edward Jenner developed a vaccine to protect against smallpox in 1798. The vaccination was given using a bifurcated needle: a short metal rod with a flat, pronged head designed to hold a single dose of the vaccine. As vaccination rates increased amongst developed countries, the disease rate lowered dramatically, but smallpox still proliferated in areas where the vaccine was not easily available. Because of this, WHO determined that smallpox was a good candidate for eradication. They began a campaign for eradication in 1959 but did not see much success until 1966, at which point more funds were allocated to the project and D.A. Henderson became its leader.

At the time that Henderson took on the project, smallpox was endemic in 33 countries. There were an estimated 15 million cases of smallpox every year, with only about 5% reported to health officials. Henderson believed that in order to eradicate the disease, they had to focus on the number of individuals contracting the disease rather than the number of vaccines given. This led him to coin the phrase “Target Zero”, because the goal of the campaign was to see zero cases of smallpox.
After ten years of hard work, Henderson could see that the end was close. He wanted to do something to commemorate the dedication and determination of everyone involved in the eradication process. Together, he and his daughter came up with the idea of the Order of the Bifurcated Needle: an honorary organization whose symbol would be a bifurcated needle twisted into a circle to represent “Target Zero”. Henderson’s daughter, Leigh Henderson, created 700 lapel pins out of the needles, and these pins—along with admittance to the Order—were awarded at the 1976 WHO conference in Geneva. While the order itself may have been a joke, the recognition was sincere. Today, people who were involved in the project still list “Order of the Bifurcated Needle” under their honors.

The last known case of smallpox was reported in 1977, and the WHO declared the disease eradicated in 1980.

Right now, we are not sure who donated this pin to the museum. There was no other information with the box. We are hoping that we can find the answer somewhere in our records.

The BackBlog: Elisha Perkins and the Metallic Tractors

By , January 28, 2020

When I found these strange metal objects in one of the first boxes that I opened from the backlog, I knew exactly what they were. These were Perkins tractors: one of the strangest medical fads I had ever heard about.

In 1796, physician Elisha Perkins began selling a new therapeutic device called the Perkins tractor. These tractors were teardrop-shaped metal rods that were about three inches long and flat on the bottom. They were sold in pairs, with one tractor made of iron and the other made of brass. By merely touching these rods to your skin, Perkins claimed, you could cure rheumatism, inflammation, epilepsy, and any number of other medical maladies. The best part of all? There was no need to be a trained doctor in order to use them. All anyone had to do was touch the devices to the afflicted area, and their symptoms would disappear.

Photo of a pair of Perkins Tractors, two teardrop-shaped pieces of metal. One is silver in color and the other is gold.

A pair of Perkins Tractors, circa 1800. From the Warren Anatomical Museum in the Center for the History of Medicine, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine (LEAN0011)

It might seem obvious to a modern reader that these cure-all devices were too good to be true, but in the late 18th and early 19th century, they were a massive hit. While there were certainly detractors—Perkins was expelled from the Connecticut Medical Society shortly after he began marketing the device—many physicians and noteworthy members of society endorsed his invention. Perkins tractors were sold to physicians and congressmen. Even George Washington bought a pair. The sales were so successful that Perkins quickly branched out to Europe. While Elisha Perkins sold the tractors at home, his son Benjamin Perkins went to England to sell them there, and continued to do so after his father’s death in 1799. The family made quite a bit of money off them. Perkins tractors were sold for $25 a pair–close to a $500 value today.

In the end, however, the skeptics won. Many scientists and doctors felt that the devices were nothing but quackery. Multiple English physicians conducted tests in which some of their patients were treated with genuine Perkins tractors, and some were treated with instruments made of other materials. These physicians all found that all materials were equally effective, so long as the patient believed that they were being treated with genuine Perkins tractors. These were likely some of the earliest experiments into what we know today as the placebo effect: the idea that a person’s body can have a response to a treatment simply because they believe that it will work.

After these experiments were publicized, the Perkins tractors were ridiculed throughout society. Scholars published papers about their ineffectiveness. Poets and cartoonists lampooned the treatment in magazines and newspapers. Eventually, the tractors fell out of fashion, and people stopped using them.

Living in the 21st century, it’s easy to laugh off the Perkins tractors as obvious quackery. However, it’s important to remember that at the time it wasn’t so obvious. Although there were some skeptics, highly educated people fell for these devices. Cases like these remind us that if something seems too good to be true, it very well might be. And 200 years from now, we might be the ones someone’s laughing at.

The BackBlog: Shining a Spotlight on the Warren Anatomical Museum Backlog

By , January 21, 2020

My name is Theodora Burbank, and I’m the Collections Assistant for the Warren Anatomical Museum. In the fall of 2018, the museum created a plan to address our catalog’s backlog of medical instruments. A backlog is something that many museums have, and that can be difficult to get through on top of day-to-day museum work. I have had the pleasure of working on this plan and sorting through the backlog, and now I’m excited to share some of that work with you.

Photo of a row of shelves containing cardboard boxes

Boxes containing medical instruments from the backlog

The Warren Anatomical Museum’s backlog consisted of 104 boxes of historical medical instruments. The majority of these boxes contained objects that were previously housed in an off-site storage facility. Some contained items from a former gallery space. There were also a few boxes of unknown origins. With such a large number of boxes to get through, we realized that we would need to do something different from our usual cataloging process. We looked at all of the data that we would normally take when completing inventory for an object and decided which fields were “essential”—information that a researcher would need to have to find objects or conduct their work. We hoped that by focusing on these essential fields we could get items from the backlog available to researchers as quickly as possible without compromising necessary data.

Before the sorting process began, we didn’t know too much about what we would find. Outside of generalized labels like “Microscopes” and “Plaster Casts”, along with a few peeks into the boxes, the backlog was dark. After 250 hours of sorting through these dark boxes, we learned that the backlog contained almost 4000 individual objects. Some boxes only contained a few objects. Others contained over a hundred. The vast majority of the instruments were from the 19th century, with some as recent as the 1970s and a few dating back to the early 1700s. There were instruments that had been donated by some of the founding members of the Warren’s collection, including Henry Jacob Bigelow and John Collins Warren, as well as many other notable Boston-area physicians. The objects span a wide range of medical fields, with a large concentration of OBGYN and Ear, Nose, and Throat instruments.

In this series of blog posts, I plan to shine a spotlight on some of my favorite finds from the backlog. Some are exciting because of the stories that are connected to them. Others represent major moments in the history of medicine. Still others involved mysteries that needed to be solved. And, of course, some are simply interesting medical devices. Altogether, these objects can teach us not only about the history of medicine but also about the history of the Warren Anatomical Museum and its collections.

I hope that you enjoy this journey through the backlog as much as I have.

Panorama Theme by Themocracy