It can be fascinating to explore the cutting edge of medical and surgical interventions, but we should not forget that modern day innovations have their roots steeped in a rich history of medicine. One place to explore these roots is Phisick.com, which we have featured before on Medgagdet and particularly when we showcased a fine surgical kit from the 1800s. Phisick is the brainchild of London-based general practitioner Dr. Laurie Slater, who named it after the term used in 16th century England to mean “medicine.”
Phisick has recently been given an overhaul and the content on the site has been rewritten from the ground up. To learn more about what we can expect, Medgadget reached out to Dr. Slater via phone and e-mail, who gave us an insight into some of the fascinating old medical instruments featured on the website. Dr. Slater has ambitious plans for the site, which he hopes will eventually contain the pieces from a number of different collectors, enabling it to rival the collections of many brick-and-mortar museums.
What inspired you to do the upgrade on Phisick?
When I first started collecting it was just a bit of fun really and I built the site myself using a basic HTML editor called FrontPage. In its day this software was fine for writing a personal homepage, but as the site grew in size I realized that it was not well suited for displaying a large number of items. It was a static site, which means that each item on show had its own page and each of these pages had to be individually linked to other pages within the menu system. By the time I had a few hundred pieces, the addition of a single new item had become an incredibly time consuming process and in the end the site had turned into a bit of a “dinosaur”. I needed a database-driven website and as this was beyond my level of expertise I realized that I was going to need some professional help.
I found a bright young Australian web designer Chris Sealey who despite his tender years was already publishing his own articles on design with a strong focus on the user experience. He agreed to take on the project and we spent a lot of time on Skype and hundreds of emails thrashing out the design and functionality of the site before getting started. I had a pretty clear idea of the features I wanted and not only was he able to deliver these but he also encouraged me in directions I would not have gone which turned out to be spot on; it was a really good combination of efforts. It probably took us the best part of six months to knock the site together from concept to final product. I could not have made a better decision in using him because he has done a fantastic job and has delivered a future proof site which works like a dream, is easy to maintain and looks great.
Can you give us a summary of what is new on Phisick?
The front end doesn’t look that dissimilar to the original in terms of overall appearance because having already had a number of regular visitors I wanted to retain something that was recognizably ‘Phisick’. Under the bonnet though, it is a completely different beast. The categories in the left hand menu are similar but have been expanded. Quackery is no longer listed as a discrete category because so many of these old instruments which were considered mainstream in their day are now thought to be of questionable benefit. Instead quackery can be selected with a filter, as can age, or use (educational, diagnostic or therapeutic) or media (books, models, pictures) etc. One of the site’s strong points is the ability to drill down on a massive amount of information within the database and so the search window is now a central feature. Boolean searches can be applied individually, or stacked on top of category or filter searches which results in a very powerful tool. You can identify items by a host of different criteria such as maker, or country of origin, or material of construction in various combinations. So the site is more functional and users should now find it much easier now to find what they are looking for. The aesthetics have also been improved and the photography is now easier to view through a light box and the overall appearance is clean and clutter free.
In terms of content the number of antiques has been added to and this is an ongoing process with many pieces yet to be photographed and more to be added each month. A new feature is the ‘Article’ section which can be found on the top menu. I wrote a number of articles for a GP magazine a few years ago which I am converting into a web based format and I hope these will pique interest in some of our visitors. I also plan to invite experts with a particular interest to write pieces on their specialty.
What are your plans for the future of Phisick?
Dynamism is an essential feature for any website and the ones which do not change can so easily turn into internet graveyards. So one of the longer term goals to keep the content varied and changing. The biggest constraints with building any collection tend to be space and resources. After a few years of collecting, what could once be accommodated on a shelf overflows into a room then an attic or a garage. Piled high and gathering dust is not the best way to celebrate the beauty and craftsmanship of these objects and this is where the web site comes into its own—as a tardis-like display case.
But there are limits to what one can do as an individual. What I would like to do is to invite collectors to join the site. At the moment Phisick is a single collection but I have invited a German obstetrician friend who is a collector to add his pieces. Over time, the process of inviting others to join us will make it possible to build a more comprehensive collection than could any one individual. We will be able to choose collectors from around the world with specific interests and invite them to display their collection within the same basic structure of the website. Who knows, in the longer term we might even compare well with some of the bigger museums in terms of the number and quality of pieces that are shown.
As time goes on, expanding the website also turns it into a more functional resource. Having a database of instruments, dates, makers, country of origin and the materials of construction makes researching other pieces less of an arduous task. So one of the things that I am hoping to do, beyond displaying this information already on the site, is to develop an on-line database which other collectors, historians or researchers can access to look up that information. It makes perfect sense and would take a lot of the headache out of identifying or dating an instrument.
Collections evolve over time. They can get bigger or smaller or change direction with developing interests. The nature of acquisition is one of purchase or trade and exchange. Once sold they may no longer be part of the collection but the time consuming process of photographing and documenting them should not go to waste. To this end the web site includes all pieces which have passed through Phisick but labels those items which are not current as ‘archives’. The old site had a separate section for archives but the beauty of using a database record is that they can be displayed together, or selected out at will with filters. The vast majority of people who come to the site want to look at interesting pieces and don’t have the slightest interest in ownership. Likewise those doing research or looking at one type of instrument to see if there are variations in design over time can benefit from being able to select from the whole database.
How did you get interested in collecting medical antiques?
I remember seeing my first old instrument, a polished steel tonsillotome (for removing tonsils) with a crosshatched ebony handle. I was struck by the remarkable quality of the materials, the craftsmanship and effort that had gone into making such an intricate mechanism. It was a thing of beauty in my eyes. This was the beginning of a long journey which has yet to finish. There are many factors which contribute to an item’s collectibility. Sometimes there is a great story which accompanies the provenance of a piece. Sometimes an instrument will be a “folly” which illustrates the beliefs prevalent in society at that time. Many of the items I collect are aesthetically pleasing or tactile, but this is less to do with looking “pretty” and more related to having some degree of symbolism. I find this difficult to explain because symbolism speaks a primitive, emotive and essentially non-verbal language. There has been much written on the blurred boundaries between magic, medicine and religion and perhaps it is related to this. A lot of pieces that you see on the website which are eye catching, or striking are more than just instruments. They talk to you in a subliminal way and although they born of science they are also works of art in their own right.
What are some of your favorites from the collection?
I am a sucker for ear trumpets. I love them; it is a bit sad, I know. One of the Rein ear trumpets, which is a big tabletop piece, is just wonderful. In the strictest terms it should probably be called a conversation tube. These have an ear piece at one end, a sound collecting device (trumpet) at the other and the two are connected by a flexible steel spring tube bound in silk. The user points the trumpet towards the person who speaks into it and this is an incredibly effective way of transmitting sound. If you were in a pub and you put most hand held ear trumpets to your ear you wouldn’t be able to hear a thing for all the amplified background noise. But on a one to one basis, this instrument is amazing and the faintest of whispers comes out crystal clear. Rein was a renowned 19th century maker of ear trumpets and some of his pieces with chased designs on silver plate were considered state of the art when ear trumpets were all the rage. He certainly threw a lot of love into making them and around the base of the ear trumpet is written ‘F C Rein and Son patentees sole inventors and only makers 108 Strand London’. It is such a cool thing to see this engraved by hand on every single piece this man made and helps you to appreciate not just the craftsmanship, the incredible care and attention to detail, but also the pride which went along with it. This particular piece is a monster of an ear trumpet bigger than a four-litre jug of ale. The silver tube coming off the side onto which the silk tube attaches reminds you once more of who made it. The whole thing is really just exquisite. One of the things that has always attracted me is the amount of time and effort invested in them by master craftsmen and the top quality materials that they were made from — there is nothing really to compare it with today.
Another of my favourite pieces is the Ophthalmophantome. This looks more like the sort of mask which would be worn to a steam-punk Venetian ball, but is in fact a model which was used by students of eye surgery. In its day, it would have been black but the paint has been removed leaving a darker than usual aluminium colour which looks almost like pewter. The brass eyes are made from coiled springs behind the eye sockets and in the centre of each eye is a pincer. What they used to do was secure real pig’s eyes in the pincers and then the student surgeons would try their hand at various eye operations. It is a remarkable thing to look at and this piece has real charisma and presence, the deadpan facies and the spirals of brass disappearing onto the eye socket giving it a hypnotic mesmerising quality. They are very rare things and hard to find as they don’t often get to market. It took me three or four years of hunting to find this one.
Rarity is certainly one of the qualities which is attractive to collectors and these small metal rods, once very common throughout Europe and America are now hardly ever seen. The story of Perkins tractors almost defines quackery. Elisha Perkins, an American physician, “invented” his rods in the late 18th century and marketed them as being made from rare alloys. He presented them to the unknowing public (and unwitting medical profession) as being panaceas — cures for all sorts of illnesses. In fact, one of them was made from brass and the other from steel and they had absolutely no medical or curative properties whatsoever. However, his business skills were not lacking and he made a fortune selling his tractors to medics and laymen throughout Europe and England and America, along with his son who took over and continued a successful business, albeit one which was based on complete and utter fabrication. What is interesting is their commercial success in the face of what was more than a covert suspicion that this was quackery. In 1801, James Gillray a British caricaturist drew a fat cat having his face traumatised by metal tractors with a newspaper advert in view proclaiming the “Just arrived from America the rod of Aescalipius” (sic) etc. They are about two or three inches long and effectively just two small metal rods. Very few seem to have survived (one wonders if most have been unknowingly thrown out with the trash) and these are perhaps one of the rarer pieces in the collection. They have such a great story with Elisha Perkins as the “father of quackery” that they are very collectible.
A model eye which was used to teach students and ophthalomologists the art of fundoscopy (examination of the eye and structures within in it) and refraction. Made by the famous German lens manufacturer Leitz Wetzlar. A wonderful looking piece with amulet like qualities and a finishing touch of oh so human hair.
A simply beautiful dental model whose pictures tell you much more than I can.
Louis Auzoux was a French doctor who qualified in Paris in the early 19th century. Instead of going ahead to practice medicine as a career he built exacting anatomical models from plaster of Paris and made this his profession. The models he made were of a high standard and were anatomically perfect and he recognised a need for this commodity. Cadavers were often obtained by questionable means and decayed rapidly and wax models (fantastic examples though they were) were considerably more labour-intensive and expensive. So having good models made of plaster of Paris was a very real alternative. However, the nature of plaster of Paris is that it is a very fragile material and few have survived in good condition.
The hemi-section of the head and neck is a wonderful example and is unusually complete. This is a super sized model and about twice the size of a human head and this man has an unquestionable aura. There is pathos here, his doleful eyes speak volumes and over the years I have grown rather fond of him. They are beautiful pieces of art which make stunning displays and which tell a great story (the transition between cadavers and wax models to inanimate anatomy models) which is what makes them so collectible.
The other piece which I love is the brain, which again is super sized. Auzoux referred to his work as ‘anatomie clastique’ (literally anatomy which can be broken down) and all of his models dissemble into their constituent parts by means of brass pins and sockets or brass hooks and hinges. So it is not just from the outside they take the form of a complete anatomically correct model, but the whole piece can be stripped down, layer by layer like onion rings, or segment by segment to see all of the anatomical structures inside. Within the brain are plumes of fan-like paper representing the neurological tracts extending into the cerebral hemispheres. Behind the brainstem is a walnut shaped structure, the cerebellum. I remember when I first looked at this piece, detached the cerebellum, and realised that it opened its two halves like a book (it is hinged). On the inside of each half I saw these finely painted cerebellar tracts all done by hand to an incredibly high standard and realised that I was probably the first person to look at that surface for maybe 140 years. It is remarkable really that some of these papier-mâché models have survived this well. They are very beautiful pieces which blur the boundaries between art and science. This is the sort of antique which grabs me by the lapels and say “Buy me … or the species will die”!
A small medicine spoon from Paris, silver gilt hallmarked and dated to 1792 and with a simply exquisite spiraled handle. In the mouth of the French revolution!
This piece earned a place in my heart when I learnt that the inventor, an early 19th century Parisian dentist, was also a poet amongst whose works was a piece called “The art of dentistry”. He also was an early pioneer and advocate of the treatment of caries in the face of the widespread practice of extraction, as was the intended use of his mirror. The mirror itself is about as nice a dental mirror as anyone, even from the Palais Royal, could have hoped for.
The other qualities which make a piece interesting are those which tell you a little bit about the philosophies and ideas of the time and about how and when these changed direction or developed into different schools of thought. A lot of quackery devices point toward beliefs and ideas which were prevalent in society. Sometime people invented things which were useless, a bit like follies I suppose. Somebody tried something and it didn’t work. They made a few and then they moved onto something else. Because of their folly like nature, they tell a good story and they tend also to be rare and so collectible. The Davis Herniorrhaphy instrument is rather well constructed from three leaves of ebony, two joined with a hinge, mounted with silver brackets and an intersecting needle. It is a typical example of an invention that wasn’t so clever. Davis had the idea that if you put some foreign body (wood) into a wound that this would cause fibrosis and adhesions, which in the case of a hernia would seal off and secure any weakness in the abdominal wall. The rationale was OK, but the practice was not.
It is easy to look at them and laugh and to wonder what they were thinking of at the time. But I wonder if people will be belly aching at us in one hundred years when they see the interventions on Medgadget, which now seem so plausible!