1800s: What You’d Find in a Surgeon’s Bag

Herb GardenJust like Mary Poppins’ magic carpetbag, medical bags of the 1800s carried surprising things. The medical profession was more advanced than we may think. Did you know, for instance, there was more than one bag a doctor might have carried to a house call? Depending on the type of call, a doctor would have grabbed his or her general medical bag, an obstetrical bag or a surgical kit. A simple surgical kit would include scalpels, tweezers, razors, scissors. They would have carried suturing material and gauze bandaging as well.

Throughout history, different cultures from around the world have used various materials for sutures. Human hair, cotton, flax, silk and catgut, for example. Catgut was the most common in North America. It didn’t come from cats but the intestines of sheep, cows or horses. Surgeons discovered catgut was much stronger than plant fiber, so wouldn’t disintegrate in the body and the wound would not open up unexpectedly.

In earlier times, doctors sometimes used hair from a horse’s tail. My heroine does this for an emergency in THE DOCTOR’S HOMECOMING. In another one of my books, THE COMMANDER, the surgeon uses violin strings (historically made from catgut) when all supplies run dry on the battlefield. When he returns home, he cherishes that violin for many heart wrenching reasons.

If you sew, you may recognize some of these suturing patterns: the interrupted stitch, figure 8, and running stitch. My medical graduate in 1880 Montana practices her stitching techniques on deerskin.

Bullet probes and extractors were a very big deal. They looked like bent tongs or forceps. They came in various lengths to extract a bullet, depending where it was located in the body.

Other items in the bag included: stethoscope, glass thermometer (3 inch mercury ones started around 1867; up until then they were longer at 6 inches, sometimes 12), splints for broken bones (versus casts we use today), large knives and saws (ours are often powered by electricity—yuck!), vaginal specula, forceps for labor and delivery, and bloodletting instruments. Blood pressure instruments started to develop in the 1880s but were inaccurate. But by 1910, most American physicians had a portable one that was accurate, as they realized the importance of a blood pressure reading.

Surgeons would have various painkillers at their disposal.

What about anesthesia? Nitrous oxide (called Laughing Gas because it made patients laugh) was first used as a dental anesthetic in 1844. Ether was used for general anesthesia starting in 1846, and chloroform in 1847. Chloroform anesthesia became very popular after it was administered to Queen Victoria in 1853 for childbirth.

Today, surgeons specialize. To name a few – ENT (ear, nose, throat), cardiothoracic (heart and lungs), orthopaedic (bones) and pediatric.

Historically, when did the medical profession start to specialize? Here are a few dates, but keep in mind surgeons were becoming experts on an individual basis before the associations were formed. So if you’re a writer, you don’t have to limit yourself to these dates. Your surgeon might be known in the territory for being an expert in bone surgery. What he or she carries in her surgical bag might be based on this.

American Medical Association, founded 1847, Philadelphia.

American Surgical Association, founded 1880.

American Orthopaedic Association, founded in 1887, the first in the world.

The Western Ophthalmological, Otological, Laryngological and Rhinological Association (eyes, ears, throat and nose) was founded in 1896 (dubbed the WOOL society.) It’s now the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Most medical associations began on the eastern seaboard due to population patterns. However, doctors in the West may have become members. They may have received a quarterly newsletter, or a monthly subscription to a medical journal. Newsletters would announce new methods of surgery, recent research, upcoming guest lecturers, or visiting doctors from England, where they had a close bond.

Picture a surgeon stranded on a Montana mountaintop, devouring every page of a one-year-old medical journal, desperate for news. Or bartering his saddle for one. In THE DOCTOR’S HOMECOMING, my hero barters away the heroine’s medical bag, much to her fury, to save their lives.

Maybe the surgeon in your novel is reading one of these major publications: Journal of the American Medical Association, founded 1883. (Today it’s the world-renowned JAMA.)

Or the British Medical Journal, started in 1840, then called The Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal. Today it’s the world-renowned BMJ.)

Back to Mary Poppins and her magic carpetbag. What is your handbag like? Are you a one-purse woman or do you have several, and switch back and forth? Is yours so big it gives you a backache? In a pinch, would you be able to pack clothes for an overnight getaway in your purse? Or do you, like me, prefer them as small as possible?

I’m not crazy about handbags, but I love briefcases. I’ve got them for all occasions—huge ones to haul books for booksignings, slender ones for carrying notes to a workshop, pretty ones that can double as a purse.

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