Monday, January 31, 2011

Researching medical artifacts, part 1

Many of the reference questions we get from the general public are about medical equipment, supplies, and other paraphernalia we archivist types call "artifacts." Some people have equipment they've inherited from a family member, while others are collectors, or just found something neat at a flea market and want to know more about it. While we try to help everyone as best we can, we aren't always able to perform the in-depth research these questions demand. In these cases, we try to refer our patron to some resources that will help get them started on their own.

Today I want to highlight just one of the terrific resources out there for researching medical artifacts.

The American Armamentarium Chirurgicum is a catalog produced by George Tiemann & Co., a leading 19th century manufacturer and retailer of surgical equipment. HC&A's History of Medicine Collection includes the weighty, 846-page catalog from 1889. The catalog's preface anticipates the reasons that the American Armamentarium Chirurgicum is a valuable resource to this day:

"In surgical works many of the instruments for performing operations are not illustrated. In illustrated catalogues, on the other hand, a description of the modus operandi is wanting. A good drawing of an instrument imparts an accurate conception of its form and construction. A description of the application added to this gives a clearer idea of its suitability to the end proposed."
Following are hundreds of pages of elegant technical drawings and descriptions of state-of-the art equipment, such as these medicine cases:


A contemporary reviewer even predicted, "The future student of surgical technics will find this work a rich mine for his explorations."

The 1889 American Armamentarium Chirurgicum is also available in a centennial edition facsimile, and the 1879 catalogue can be consulted free! free! free! via Google Books.

Watch for more posts on researching medical artifacts!

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