Tag Archives: medical artifacts

Photographic Research on Obstetric and Gynecological Instruments

Auvard Weighted Speculum from the L. M. Draper Collection..
Auvard Weighted Speculum from the L. M. Draper Collection.

With generous assistance from the History of Medicine travel grant, I traveled to Duke University to view and photograph historical obstetric and gynecological tools housed in Duke’s History of Medicine Collections at the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.  There I viewed various artifact collections donated by practicing regional doctors, including the L. M. Draper Collection, the George D. & Evelyn Wilbanks Collection, and several anonymous collections.  I also viewed anatomical lift-the-flap guide books, lift-the-flap anatomical fugitive sheets and the Trent Collection of Ivory Anatomical Manikins, all of which were used to teach medical procedures, including delivery.

Having access to Duke’s collection was an incredible experience.  I treated it like a short artist residency.  I set up my lights, a pop-up tent, my camera and a tripod in a study room within the library.  Every morning, a cart was wheeled in with OB/GYN tools, anatomy text books and glass slides.  It was exciting (and a little nerve-wracking), opening up boxes and not knowing their contents.  For some items, I felt I was discovering the files for the first time.  In a way I was: besides the archivists who received and catalogued them, some of the items had never been requested.  I often felt as though I were in the medical field—donning nitrile gloves, carefully removing the items from their boxes, gently lying them down on the fabric of my pop-up lighting tent, careful not to harm them in any way.  I found myself photographing them as abstractions or as jewelry, a style of cataloguing unlike other projects I have photographed.

Smellie-Style Obstetrical Forceps from the George & Evelyn Wilbanks Collection.
Smellie-Style Obstetrical Forceps from the George & Evelyn Wilbanks Collection.

My work focuses on historical and contemporary women’s lives and I am particularly interested in the past’s technology and how it relates to today.  I have previously done photographic projects on antique vibrators, social media and the practice of keeping a commonplace book and with this project, the history of labor and delivery technology.  While the process of getting pregnant has changed with IVF and the location of delivery may have changed, the actual process of delivery has not changed.  Although American society emphasizes new products & experiences, and the medical world uses recent technology & procedures, women continue to deliver only one of two ways—vaginally or via Cesarean section.  Prior to my arrival at Duke, I assumed the tools used in labor and delivery were harmful to the infants and delivering women.  I also wondered how deadly labor actually was—in fictionalized accounts in both books and screen, no female who delivered a newborn ever lived, and seldom the child.  I expected antique tools to be brutal and different in appearance than today.  It surprised me that many of the tools I photographed resembled contemporary tools, only with time’s effect through rust or evident aging.

My research at Duke is the beginning of both my project and into further research on the history of the OB/GYN tools and their uses.  Although in its early stages, I plan to study these tools’ history, as well as their use & influence today.  The final images may be printed as slides, emulating turn of the twentieth century magic-lantern plates or late-twentieth century educational slide shows.  Whatever form these images take, I was particularly inspired by the anatomical lift-the flap books & broad sides and will create an artist book influenced by these interactive educational guides.  I look forward to sharing future developments of this project. Thank you to everyone at Duke University’s Rubenstein Library for their assistance during my stay.

Post contributed by History of Medicine Travel Grant recipient Lindsey Beal. Beal is a photo-based artist and professor in Providence, Rhode Island.  Her work and further information can be found at lindseybeal.com.

Glass eyeballs and amputating saws and enema syringes, oh my!

As Curator for the History of Medicine Collections in the Rubenstein Library, I often feel I have one of the best jobs in our library.  I have the opportunity to work with wonderful people, but also remarkable rare books, manuscripts, and a wonderful collection of material objects.

amputating saw

Amputating saw

Over the years, a number of generous donors have given a variety of instruments and artifacts to the History of Medicine Collections. These items are often used in classroom instruction and teaching, and enrich and enliven exhibits and displays. The depth and breadth of this collection represents advances made in science and medicine, and reflect the importance of our historical understanding of material culture.

glass eyeballs

Glass eyeballs

Artifacts range in date from the 17th century to today, with many aspects of medicine highlighted in the collection: surgery, gynecology, pediatrics, and more. That “more” category includes items like our prosthetic glass eyeballs, the irises of which are all blue. These hand-blown glass items were intended to serve as prosthetic eyes. In a box reminiscent of a Whitman’s sampler, these eyes were made in a variety of sizes with differing tints of yellow and white. This box would have been used and carried by a traveling salesman of sorts – a person who visited doctors’ offices and sold them to patients in need.

A remarkable collection guide is now available to document the range of historical medical artifacts we have in our holdings.

enema syringe

Enema syringe

I’m often asked by students and researchers what my favorite item is. It really changes on a weekly basis. Currently, I’m intrigued by our range of microscopes. They are quite beautiful, span several centuries, and some include ivory specimen slides – with specimens!


Box mount microscope


Screw barrel microscope

Some of my other favorites? Female pills and dental keys. Why were these female pills created and what are they? When I ask students, they often answer that it’s really just Midol.

female pills

Female pills

The dental keys really illustrate how medical technology has evolved in tooth extraction. The illustration below shows how a dental key would be used. This image is from the monumental work by J. M. Bourgery, Atlas of human anatomy and surgery, that includes a translation of his work and colored facsimiles. Of note, we also have the nine volume original work of Bourgery.

dental chart


Dental key

A tremendous amount of thanks go out to so many people: our donors who have generously given such wonderful materials; previous staff of the History of Medicine Collections who researched these items, provided descriptions, and took photos that we can now share; and current staff from the Rubenstein Library’s technical services department and DUL digital projects – all who have made this guide possible.

What will your favorite item be?

Post by Rachel Ingold, Curator for the History of Medicine Collections in the Rubenstein Library.