What exhibition about medicine would be complete without a black leather bag— you know the one—double handles, maybe a strap and buckle on the side? This bag remains linked to the popular image of the doctor, even fifty years after the almost complete disappearance* of the house call.
It was, and some argue still is, an indispensable piece of medical equipment, in use since at least Hippocrates’ time. “For your trips, you will carry a simple and portable kit,” Hippocrates advised in his treatise on doctors’ decorum. “The most appropriate is the one which follows a methodic layout, because the physician cannot keep everything in mind.”
Hippocrates emphasizes that everything a physician needs should come easily to hand, and many modern bags fit the bill.
Not only do bags like this offer specialized storage pockets for a wide variety of equipment, they may also have a thermal lining to maintain the temperature of medications a physician might carry, solving an old problem. (See a 19th century solution for this problem here.)
A doctor on a house call had to be prepared for routine illnesses and life-threatening emergencies, hence the need for a roomy and well-organized bag. To see what might have been in a 1911 doctor’s kit, check out this Canadian Medical Association Journal article from the Museum of Healthcare at Kingston (Ontario). In the 1950s and 60s, Dr. Glass could check your eyes, ears and throat, reflexes and blood pressure, and listen to your lungs. He could take samples to do a blood count.
Medications change constantly, but the list of basics includes some constants: sedatives, antibiotics, analgesics, a diuretic, an anti-psychotic, asthma and heart medications, and much more. A contemporary list from the United Kingdom, where house home visits from the doctor are still prevalent, emphasizes just how prepared medical professionals must be.
*coming soon: house calls for the 21st century
Written by exhibit curator Karen Falk.