Collecting Medical Ephemera

Delving into the medical ephemera of the past can give a historical insight into the practices and mindset of the people of the era.

Some claim it’s only a passing fancy, but collecting medical ephemera promises to become a long-term interest of mine. Fellow medics may be wondering what exactly are ephemera. Hint: Every doctor produces masses of it every day (though the paperless office may put an end to this, or perhaps open up whole new areas of collecting).

Bloodletting by leeches, Pittsburgh medical ephemeraEphemera are letters and documents produced in the course of day-to-day interactions of a personal or business nature, in any field. Old manuscripts, individual pages from old books, both written and illustrated, also fall into the category. Over the years much of this material is destroyed or deteriorates. Hence the contents of today’s landfill could be full of tomorrow’s collectibles. In general, the older the documents are, the more interesting they become. Personally, I’ve confined myself to material of more than one hundred years old, beyond living memory and preferably with a medical connection.

DocumentsMedical ephemera of this antiquity give a historical insight into the practices and mindset of the people of the era. For example, old prescriptions tell what drugs and compounds were once popular, and correspondence give an even better overview of conditions, and insight into personal interactions in a given time and place. Leaves from old books can give us an idea of what techniques and procedures were extant years ago.

For example, one letter I have in my possession, penned in 1722 by a Monsieur Le Couturier, reiterates a request for supplies to help stem an outbreak of contagion at l’Hopital de Pignans in Paris. Obviously hospital administration hasn’t changed much in almost 300 years. Repeated requests are still necessary today to get any government action!

Another two-page letter, penned on March 2nd, 1815, identifies its author as “Marc, docteur en medecine rue Coquilliere,” (the latter is a Paris street which still exists). In it he begs the Minister of the Interior to recognize him with the Legion of Honour. He argues his literary works on public hygiene and promotion of vaccination are noteworthy, as is his discovery of the use of sulfates for the treatment of intermittent fevers. He further points out that his services during the epidemic of Partin were particularly meritorious. Perhaps most importantly, he maintains that he possesses influence with the prestigious Comte Barthelemy, who will be intervening on his behalf.

The ornate and quite legible script suggests that physicians’ handwriting was not always as dreadful as it is reputed to be today. I tried to find out if Dr. Marc ever received the award he requested, but unfortunately the good doctor did not write down his first name (no doubt believing himself to be of sufficient renown that this would not be necessary). Consulting the appropriate French website I discovered that at least a dozen Frenchmen named Marc had received the Legion of Honour during the early 1800’s. Ruling out by birthday those who would have been improbably young in 1815 I still had four or five possibilities none identified as a physician. At least for the present it will remain unknown as to whether Dr. Marc ever was granted his request.

A lot of the ephemera on the market today owe their existence to an eccentric Englishman, Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872). Phillipps was once quoted as saying, “I want to have one copy of every book in the world.” By the time he finished his collecting career he had accumulated 100,000 books and 60,000 manuscripts, which are still being sold off today. Afraid of fire, he kept his books stored in coffin-like boxes, and his lack of a filing system drove visiting scholars crazy sifting through dusty stacks in search of a particular text. Phillipps’ was also reputed to have scattered logs around his house to attract beetles away from his books and manuscripts.

His passion to collect wasOld medical prescriptions at least partly augmented by the fact that he detested the heir to his estate, John Halliwell, who had married his daughter against his wishes. Lacking male offspring, his property was by law to accede to his son-in-law. Phillipps kept himself in near bankruptcy with his collecting, and allowed his house to deteriorate, a process no doubt accelerated by the tons of books lying around.

By the time Halliwell inherited the estate, the house was a ruin and most of the ready cash had been converted into stacks of paper. Phillipps even cut down the venerable oaks surrounding his house and sold them off to further spite his son-in-law.

Halliwell’s loss was the collectors’ gain, however, and many letters and documents, which would otherwise have been lost, have come to light due to Phillipps’ collecting penchant. The two medically related letters to which I referred both came from Phillipps’ hoard. Many other documents turn up in old buildings, libraries and archives. They can be purchased from dealers or the more adventurous can look for the material themselves in places such as the neighbour’s barn or even grandpa’s attic. It can be exciting to realize that you may be the first person to scan a document in 100 hundred years or more, possibly unearthing a nugget of heretofore-unknown history.

The study of ephemera can be a fascinating pass-time, giving a unique perspective on times and places in the past. A discerning collector is able focus on virtually any time, place or subject increasing his knowledge and possibly even building up a substantial financial asset at the same time. While run of the mill material is often quite affordable, an important historical document can fetch thousands of dollars or more. This can make a shift in the attic a bit like a treasure hunt.

So don’t bypass that old barn on the old family farm. If you don’t possess or have access to old properties, ephemera will sometimes surface at garage sales, antique shops and used bookstores. Who knows? If your clinic has been around long enough there may be some collectibles among your old files.

There are dealers who cater to this market including Toronto-based Ben Kay from whom I purchased my two letters. He can be reached at benbuysbooks@hotmail.com or by visiting his eBay site square.to.rare_ben.buys.books. Also, a search on eBay under “Antiques” and then the sub-category “Books, Manuscripts” can turn up some interesting items.


Photo Credits

“Bloodletting leeches advertisement”

“Ephemera”

“Old medical prescriptions”


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