Science and Art Mix in Collecting Antique Medical Items

There’s a fascination about antique medical devices that seemingly belies logic.

Is it because we’ve made such progress in the medical field that medical tools from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries seem so crude and, even possibly, cruel? Or is it the knowledge that these early devices were actually used on humans with the intent of curing them of various ills? Or perhaps it’s because old medical instruments engender a love of history and an admiration for the quality of workmanship evidenced by the tools.

opthlamoscopes.jpgA case may be made that all those reasons, among others, cause us to look at antique medical devices as desirable, eye-catchingly interesting and highly collectible.

An example of an early ophthalmometer, used to examine corneal irregularities and astigmatism.

“It’s intriguing to think about the history of medicine and have original items in your hand to demonstrate that history,” said Douglas Arbittier, MD, a retired anesthesiologist in Watertown, New York. “Many old medical treatments and procedures are now passe, but they give a window into their history.”

Dr. Arbittier collects cased surgical instruments, art related to medicine and bloodletting antiques such as lancet sets, fleams, scarificators and leech jars. He says he collects items made before 1880 before the age of sterilization when the handles of surgical instruments were non-metal because the instruments were much more beautifully made then.

Medical collectibles include antique microscopes. Those made during the 1700s are much more desirable to a collector than one made in the 1800s, said Allan Wissner, PhD of Ardsley, N.Y. The earlier examples, he said, “are far more difficult to find, and when found, are much more expensive.”

Michael Echols, DDS, a retired orthodontist in Fort Myers, Fla., believes that the popularity of pre-1900 general medical antiques lies in the fact that they are still available, relatively inexpensive and that reference books about them can be found.

“As one collects earlier material, for instance, pre-sterilization circa 1870, then the prices begin to escalate rapidly, with the material from the Civil War era commanding very high prices,” Dr. Echols said.

Dr. Echols specializes in collecting American maker surgical sets and medical equipment produced during the Civil War for the US Army Medical and Hospital departments.“These sets are well marked and there’s good documentation about their use and composition,” he said. Dr. Echols also collects civilian and military-purchased medical books used by surgeons in the 19th century.

Antique spectacles and other eye-related instruments also command respect from collectors, according to Gary Edwards, MD of Honolulu, Hawaii. While the most popular kinds of eye-related collectibles are spectacles, another sought-after item is the artificial eye, he said.

“These (artificial eyes) were made by artists who were extremely talented at glass blowing,” Dr. Edwards noted. “The artificial eyes enjoyed great popularity in the past when many of today’s treatable eye diseases and trauma were untreatable. The only solution to replace the eye.”

While old examples of artificial eyes sell for between $20 and $30 each, Dr. Edwards pointed out that he recently sold a fitting set of about 50 hand blown glass eyes for about $1,200.

Robert E. Greenspan, MD of Alexandria, Va., believes that the most sought-after medical antiques are those of high quality, such as ones made of gold and ivory, as well as presentation instruments, cased sets or items with provenance.

“The value of an antique is what someone will pay, so collectors of specialty items will pay more for something in their specialty interest,” Dr. Greenspan said.

Medical items can be found around the world, in Dr. Greenspan’s experience. The latest medical antique he acquired was given to him by his sister-in-law who visited a small shop in Kenya and returned with an antique elephant backbone and rib that were used as a mortar and pestle by a Masai witch doctor.

Dr. Laurence “Laurie” Slater of London, England said that old medical instruments were often painstaking crafted by highly-skilled workers who produced impressive items that juxtapose art and science. “Some items, such as the intricate papier mache anatomical models created by Dr. Auzoux in the 19th century, are considered by many to be masterpieces in their own right and compare favorably to paintings and sculptures,” he said.

Dr. Slater noted that phlebotomy instruments continue to generate a lot of interest in the form of bleeding bowls, cupping sets and scarificators, which “make great conversation pieces,” as well as a Staffordshire leech jar “that can make a stunning display.”

Other antique medical items that are in demand include quality monaural (one earpiece) and early binaural stethoscopes, as well as ear trumpets.

Dr. Slater noted that the rise of sales on the Internet has caused a significant change in the price and availability of certain medical antiques. For instance, an 18th century boxed spring lancet (a mechanical bloodletting instrument) would have been a rare find and sold for $450 five years ago. But with the proliferation of goods on the Internet, such items have become more common and now run between $150 and $200. But by contrast, Dr. Slater said, higher quality antiques hold their prices better and remain in demand.
Getting into collecting medical antiques can be quite easy. Dr. Slater noted that a beginner could start a collection of ear trumpets relatively inexpensively, with simple tin varieties running from $100 to $200.

“A hand-carved, hallmarked silver trumpet with an ivory earpiece and signed is a truly rare find and could set you back $4,000 or more,” he said. “But you could purchase a single thumb lancet for $60 or a complete cupping set from $800 to $5,000.”

Medical Antique Resources:

Doug Arbittier, MD
Watertown, NY

Michael Echols, DDS
Fort Myers, FL
(239) 489-0587

Gary Edwards, MD
Honolulu Eye Clinic
1329 Lusitana St., Suite 806
Honolulu, HI 96813
(808) 526-0030

Robert E. Greenspan, MD
Alexandria, VA
(703) 550-4517

Dr. Laurence “Laurie” Slater
London, England

Allan Wissner, PhD
Ardsley, NY
(914) 693-4628