Dr. C. Keith Wilbur’s collection of antique medical instruments indicates that 150 years ago, his was not a profession for the fainthearted. The physician’s interest in these items first was piqued in 1983, when one of his patients gave him a wood-handled steel implement that neither she nor he could identify. Wilbur, who, prior to retiring, practiced family medicine in Northampton, Mass., eventually learned that it was a trephine, a tool that allowed doctors to relieve pressure on the brain by cutting a hole in the skull. “It was a lovely Civil War piece, a mint piece,” recalls Wilbur, now 83. “It got me interested in looking for what else was out there.”
In the years that followed, he assembled a collection that Skinner, a Massachusetts auction house, will disperse at its next Science & Technology sale on March 24 in Boston. Included among the 150 or more lots will be traveling surgical sets such as the one owned by Dr. Herbert H. Flagg, who practiced in Massachusetts in the late 19th century. Flagg was lauded in 1892 after he healed a man who had broken his neck, an injury that was considered impossible to survive. Flagg’s set is a highlight of Wilbur’s collection because it can be traced to a specific owner and because the tools it contains and the materials they are made from fix it firmly in the 19th century. The velvet-lined rosewood box contains a trephine, an elevator (which was used to lift the skin around the surgical wound and also the disc of bone that is cut from the skull during trepanning), bone forceps, a tourniquet, a brush (to clear away bone particles), large dissecting knives, and other implements.
The tools’ ebony handles are scored with cross-hatching marks, which made them easier to grip during the bloodier parts of a procedure. In the late 19th century, after scientists proved that many diseases were spread by germs, doctors abandoned instruments with such handles in favor of all-metal tools, which they could sterilize more easily. Nick Hawkins, director of Skinner’s Science & Technology department, says that Flagg’s set, which is complete and in very good condition, could fetch as much as $6,000.
A few of Wilbur’s items represent quack medicine, or ideas that lack therapeutic merit. Phrenology, a pseudoscience that claimed the shape of the skull influenced character traits, yielded the phrenology head, a plaster bust with a bald pate covered with such words and phrases as “conjugal love,” “self esteem,” “suavity,” “veneration,” and “combativeness.” According to phrenologists, a person with a larger bump in the section of the skull that covered the “conjugal love” area of the brain was likely to be a Casanova. The Skinner sale will include three phrenology heads. “A lot of people are enchanted by phrenology heads,” says Hawkins. “It’s a pre-Freudian, very visual way of looking at psychology.”
At his office, Wilbur used to display favorite items from his collection, including several jars that once held leeches: swamp-dwelling, bloodsucking worms that doctors employed in the days when they believed that an excess of blood could cause illness. Wilbur had a purpose in placing the objects where his patients could contemplate them. “Whatever I did in the treatment room,” he says, “was not as bad as what you saw on the shelf.”