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Museums and collections


Rosanna Evans, Museum Intern
Whipple Museum of the History of Science

Imagine a nineteenth century doctor strolling into a dinner party with a walking stick, and his companions remark upon what a handsome cane he has: it is at this point he reveals his party trick – that a secret compartment within the handle reveals a leech. Obviously, to a modern observer this seems absurd, and it is for this that I love this item. Moreover, the image gets increasingly far-fetched as you consider its context.

It is safe to assume that the leech compartment was solely included for showing off to his middle class friends (who perhaps thought he was a bit mad). This walking stick was expensive – it is silver, gilt and monogrammed ‘I. G.’. It is not likely that this doctor actually practiced bloodletting; it was mostly barbers and surgeons (often of a lower class) who would offer such an inviting service, and yet to him the practice was normal enough that he could own such a thing without it seeming ridiculous.

It is also impressive that bloodletting was such a popular practice that it became fashionable. This is not so surprising, upon reflection – in France alone, during the 1830s, 35 million leeches were used for therapeutic reasons. Imagine if your local GP was to show you his watch that had a secret compartment containing a single antibiotic. I would personally contemplate his credibility and perhaps consider changing practitioners. This one antibiotic would be completely useless on its own, and why invest in such an unnecessary and futile contraption? Additionally, Doctor I. G.’s contained medicine that was alive, and bloodsucking.

The history of medicine is often humorous to reflect upon, but it is also incredible to observe. The process of how an idea developed and improved upon is inspiring in its speed and complexity. It is as remarkable as it is funny to regard how humans went from a medicinal practice based on four humours, to bloodletting, to the comprehensive array of cures and therapies we use today.