Ask Tucson, Ariz., ophthalmologist William J. Fishkind what attracts him to collecting medical antiques and he breaks into a wide smile.
“I was bit by the bug about 20 years ago because I’m fascinated by the way people saw things at other times,” Dr. Fishkind said. “You might be surprised to know that ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all took care of eye problems, but their care was very rudimentary.”
Dr. Fishkind’s collection focuses on eye instruments and eye diseases, but his medical antiques collection can be divided into three groups, ophthalmologic, general medical antiques from the 19th century and earlier, and antique medical books, usually those dealing with ophthalmologic issues. He counts about 150 items in his collection.
“The Egyptians named ‘cataracts’ because what they saw was milky-white in appearance against the dark part of the eye, which looked like the white-water areas of the Nile River,” Dr. Fishkind pointed out.
He noted that the Egyptians also treated cataracts with a technique called “couching,” where a dull probe was used to make a small incision in the eye to push the cataract behind the eye’s visual axis.
“They had to be very gentle in the procedure and do it without breaking the capsule or they would create immediate blindness,” he added.
Some of the unusual medical antiques in Dr. Fishkind’s collection include a number of bloodletting devices from the 18th and 19th centuries. It was believed at the time that some illnesses were caused by bad “humor” being built up in the blood and that by relieving the body of some of that bad blood the patient could be helped. Medical science has proven bloodletting to be useless as a treatment.
Other pieces in his collection include early “quack devices,” which were sold to treat various ailments. Dr. Fishkind has one such device made in the late 1800s and enclosed in a wooden box. The machine’s label calls it a “patent magneto electric machine for nervous diseases.”
“It was pure quackery,” Dr. Fishkind observed. “In the early 1900s when electricity came into more common use, some quack instruments used electricity to provide a shock, while others used tubes of gas powered by electricity that would cause a gas to be emitted.”
You would expect an eye care and surgery physician to collect items closely related to his profession, and Dr. Fishkind has many examples of ophthalmoscopes (from the mid-1800s to early 20th century models), and surgical sets (one early example made in 1803, and another circa 1890, for instance).
“What piques my interest are the early surgical and neurological instruments, and those are the kinds of items that collectors are seeking too,” Dr. Fishkind said.
But they usually don’t come up in great numbers because many of them are in private collections and only become available when those collections are liquidated, he noted.
“I also have a wonderful collection of old medical literature that’s been translated into English from their original languages and then bound,” he said. “They date to the early 1800s and were originally written in Latin and Italian.”
In addition to medical antiques, Dr. Fishkind also has a small collection of armor and aeronautical antiques. He has a full suit of armor, hand crafted as a replica in the 1800s of a 1500s suit of English battle armor. Other pieces include a Savoyard (French guards) helmet from the 1800s, a Spanish chest plate from the 1600s, and Victorian models of suits of armor made in the early 1800s.
His aeronautical antiques revolve mostly around autographs and ephemera. Dr. Fishkind has autographs of Orville and Wilbur Wright on both a photograph and a document, and an autograph of Wiley Post, the first man to try to fly around the world.
“I’ve always liked antiques,” Dr. Fishkind observed. “It’s the idea of the history of the items. The things you find give insight into how people lived or fought or took care of themselves.”