What’s In The Lab: Revolutionary War Medicine

Written by Grace White, Special Collections Conservator

I recently had the pleasure of treating a group of the Philip Turner Papers from the History of Medicine collection held in the Rubenstein Library.  Philip Turner was a Surgeon General for the Continental Army during the American Revolution, and this particular bundle of papers contained military hospital returns for 1778.  The 30 papers record soldiers’ injuries and illnesses such as dysentery, fever, scurvy, rheumatism, inoculations for smallpox and occasional battle wounds.

21 before after

The papers had been crudely stitched together with thread, making it nearly impossible to lift and read any one page.  The bundle had also been folded and creased, and there was evidence of water damage with stains, mold and many tears and losses.

I removed and saved the thread and began my treatment of the individual papers.  I surface cleaned them all to remove dirt and loose mold spores, and then I washed them with water and solvents to kill any remaining mold and to reduce staining and acidity.  Finally I mended and flattened the papers and housed them in a folder.  They are much safer for researchers to use now, and their visual appearance is also much improved.  These kinds of projects are so rewarding.

before and after

As a side note, one interesting discovery I made was that several of the papers are watermarked with a crowned “GR” for George Rex, the king of Great Britain and Ireland.  Using imported British paper was probably not uncommon in the colonies, but the Georgian watermark is an irony for papers of the revolutionary army.

GR watermark




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