Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Baunscheidt Lebenswecker

You heard me: Lebenswecker. (It means "life awakener" in German).

I confess I wasn't familiar with this term either, until a researcher from Australia contacted us for information about three Lebenswecker in our Medical Museum Collection here. Now that researcher, Dirk H.R. Spenneman, has published his findings in an 87-page article for the journal Studies in German Colonial Heritage (n.4, 2007). The journal is available online, and the article in question, "A Baunscheidt homeopathic medicine kit in the Jindera Pioneer Museum," can be found full-text here.

Once I got over the shock of seeing us listed with such repositories as the "Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum, the Mamiya Medical Heritage Center at the Hawai’i Medical Library, the Museum Boerhave, Leiden, the Newcastle Medical Museum, the Pharmazie-Historisches Museum der Universit├Ąt Basel, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, the Thackray Museum, and the University of Iowa Medical Museum," as holders of specimens of Baunscheidt Lebenswecker, I actually gleaned some great information from the study.

Carl Baunscheidt (here's the Wikipedia entry, for German readers) was born near Hagen, Prussia, in 1809. He received his education at the Fellenberg Institute in Switzerland, where he studied chemistry, physics, mechanics, and horticulture. After graduation, he joined the Institute staff and "acquired, through reading, a general understanding of contemporary medicine." I do so like it when inventors of medical devices have a passing knowledge of the health sciences. Besides the popular Lebenswecker, first produced in 1848, Baunscheidt developed a smallpox vaccinator, a breast pump, and an artificial leech. As Spennemann notes:
"Swelled by the success of his Lebenswecker and the associated oil, Baunscheidt also commenced to produce a range of pharmaceutical products - all without any formal medical education. He produced and sold collodium, a cream against eczemas, a mouth wash, drops against cholera, an elexir [sic] that was supposed to cleanse the blood, a balsam against rheumatic problems and gout, a balsam for the hair, and a treament of black heads."
Whew! The recipe for his trademark oil was secret, but critics charged it contained elements which were subsequently shown to be carcinogenic. Take-home message: Beware the amateur druggist.

The Lebenswecker did work, though, at least for some of the many illnesses it was purported to cure. Spennemann states that the application of the instrument and the patented oil "was in essence a mechanical replication of the mosquito bites." Sounds comforting, doesn't it? Baunscheidt suggested that it worked because it created "additional pores" in the skin, allowing toxic substances to be more readily exuded. Others believed that the instrument was akin to acupuncture, a connection which Baunscheidt himself denied. Whatever its healing properties, the Lebenswecker proved extremely popular; the company started by Baunscheidt in the 19th century was still producing the instruments when it was destroyed by the Allied bombing attack on Bonn in 1944.

Baunscheidtism is still embraced by many homeopathic practitioners today, in fact. A keyword search of our catalog for "baunscheidt" retrieves, fascinatingly enough, 19th century editions in the History of Medicine Collection as well as modern texts from the National College of Natural Medicine down the hill.

If every object in the Medical Museum Collection turns out to be this interesting, we may spend the rest of our careers on it!