Mission

On Making a Medicine Chest

103 posts in this topic

I am still pondering my period(ish) medicine sea chest for holding all my potions and instruments and I thought those of you with experience in other sea-going chests might be able to help me out. Note that there are no known extant medicine chests from anywhere even near period. The best we have is a drawing from William Clowes which was first printed in one of his books in 1588. You can see it below.

Clowes%20Medicine%20Chest.jpg

There are a number of problems with using this particular chest as a template for a sea surgeon's medicine chest IMO. First is the date, which is about 100 years before period. For the time being, we'll leave that aside. Second is the size. Of course, it is almost impossible to say the size since there is no scale. I have seen a photo of one that was built by someone using this sketch as a model. (This picture is from this site.)

surgeonchest.jpg

I would guesstimate that this is no bigger than 2' or 2.5' square, and possibly smaller. What is wrong with this sizing is that it would not fit one of the key instruments that Woodall implies was stored in the chest - the large bone saw. According to Alex Peck Medical and Surgical Antiques, who sold a saw almost exactly like the one Woodall depicts in his book The surgions mate, the saw would have been about 25" long. Such an instrument would not fit in the box Clowes has shown. The third problem I note is the design of the drawers. In the reproduction, you'll notice that the drawers are shown filled with bottles. However Woodall -who not only wrote the book on stocking Surgeon's Chests, he did so for the East India Company for several decades as well as for the British Royal Navy for several years - explains that the Saw and most of the other capital surgical instruments went into the chest. So these drawers appear to me to be impractically designed to house the sort of materials that the primary source we have on the topic says they housed.

It is my considered opinion that this chest was for land-based surgeons, which is sort of supported by the doodlings Clowes has shown of men walking around in the background along with buildings. Land-based surgeons would have more ability to store multiple chests and boxes and would be able to purchase those things which they might need if they did not have them. Sea surgeons must take everything they need with them. This much for Clowes chest.

My thought is that a surgeon's chest would be long and somewhat like a seaman's chest, except with drawers. Woodall explains that some drawers contained some instruments (although this is not well explained by any stretch of the imagination). I conjecture that it would be like a machinist's chest:

01Box_Main.jpg

...although perhaps without the front as it is shown. (The front is shown folded into the very bottom of the above chest. It can be partially pulled out to serve as a shelf for the machinist as well as being removed and placed into a slot along the bottom of the chest to enclose all the drawers.) On the other hand, Clowes' chest sort of looks like it might have a front like that, so I could be wrong.

What are the cognoscienti's thoughts? I have some notes relating to the surgeon's chest that I may bring up in another post, but for now I'm interested in ideas on type of wood, approximate size and appropriate hardware.

Since these surgeon's chests were created by the Apothecaries for the Navy, I wouldn't think they would be of the fine quality of a captain's desk. But because they were for surgeons (warrant officers - and necessary ones at that), I wouldn't think they would be of the rough timbers of a lowly seaman's chest. I would expect the hardware would be of the common sort, but not the base sort.

Any ideas?

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Have you seen this one: Naval Surgeon's Amputation Kit?

Yes, it is 100 years late but it does raise the question that perhaps tools and medicines were kept in different chests? Also, Goddard seems to think that little changed from Woodall's to Napoleonic times (The navy surgeon's chest: surgical instruments of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic War).

Another maritime medicine chest.

Edited by Quartermaster James

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Have you tried searching on antique auction sites? They frequently give the provenance and dimensions of the pieces up for auction.

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Have you tried searching on antique auction sites? They frequently give the provenance and dimensions of the pieces up for auction.

Like this? Trinity Marine

Edited by Quartermaster James

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Have you tried searching on antique auction sites? They frequently give the provenance and dimensions of the pieces up for auction.

Like this? Trinity Marine

Well, just like that, yes.

Or this:

http://www.artfact.com/auction-lot/a-surge...98-c-1cbaa50524

http://www.artfact.com/auction-lot/a-part-...-8-u-8f2dfe123e

Those are both 19th century, but it's a start.

EDIT: Wow, James, your find is AWESOME. Much better than mine. Mission, I think that's a pretty good start.

Edited by Bloody Jack Madd

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...although perhaps without the front as it is shown. (The front is shown folded into the very bottom of the above chest. It can be partially pulled out to serve as a shelf for the machinist as well as being removed and placed into a slot along the bottom of the chest to enclose all the drawers.) On the other hand, Clowes' chest sort of looks like it might have a front like that, so I could be wrong.

What are the cognoscienti's thoughts? I have some notes relating to the surgeon's chest that I may bring up in another post, but for now I'm interested in ideas on type of wood, approximate size and appropriate hardware.

Since these surgeon's chests were created by the Apothecaries for the Navy, I wouldn't think they would be of the fine quality of a captain's desk. But because they were for surgeons (warrant officers - and necessary ones at that), I wouldn't think they would be of the rough timbers of a lowly seaman's chest. I would expect the hardware would be of the common sort, but not the base sort.

Any ideas?

The front (bit used as a 'shelf') would fold up and lock in place to obviously to keep the drawers in place... from the look of the cut in the first picture, the shelf does not look able to slide in under the drawers for storage. What is interesting to me is that in the drawing you posted there is a square on the side. If the drawers were not deep, perhaps there could be space beneath and behind them for stowing tools... although the drawing does show a lot of detail as to hinges and such and there does not appear to be any such devices regarding the square... so that could be just decorative... I have seen exterior drawers in a captain's sea chest from 1675 up in Salem and yet, there was SUPPOSE to be space behind the drawers like an ordinary chest... or so I was told by the museum... who STILL hasn't sent the pictures they keep promising me... sigh...

And then again, why not have one chest for tools and one specifically for medicines..??

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What is interesting to me is that in the drawing you posted there is a square on the side.

I believe that's the trap door from which the homunculi pictured in the lower right emerge.

Clowes%20Medicine%20Chest.jpg

Edited by Quartermaster James

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That could also just be of panel construction.

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That could also just be of panel construction.

Yes, but on the left side of the illustration you can clearly see a larger homunculus emerging from the chest as if he was being extruded a la Play-doh Fun Factory.

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Ya know.....

The whole problem with using these old woodcuts and period illustrations for reference is that they are generally terrible for judging size and proportion. I think we can be reasonably sure that the chest depicted in the picture was not really waist high, with drawers big enough to put an entire man's leg into, as the picture would suggest judging by the character resting his hand on the open lid. I also strongly suspect it was not actually built in the cock-eyed fashion shown in the woodcut.

You then have to fall back on using the old illustrations as a vague guide to general appearance. It becomes a judgement call on what would actually work and be practical. I think we can reasonably surmise that these surgeon's chests were custom built to the individual surgeon's needs, rather than to an "official" pattern.

>>>>> Cascabel

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hey mate- some things i've learned over time and notes from roy underhill. even though the boxes would have been standard design, they would still be well made. the wood needed to make a strong enough box would not have been cheap and only entrusted to master craftsmen to build- not apprentices. Being a master craftsman, the chest would have been his calling card. more than likely there would have been a couple of contracts for these- even if there was not, various carpenters within one shop would still have tried to one up each other.

now out of the contract and expanding on cascabels post- boxes were custom made for the owners needs. so you cannot find a period syrgens box, look at any sort of tradesmans box- caprenter, mason, gunsmith... each box is designed to fit that owners tools. If there were a surgeon on board a merchant vessel, would his supplies be the same as his naval counterpart?

Edited by bbcddutchman

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Interesting points raised with some great links. Keep 'em coming, I was not aware of some of those sites!

There are many things I do know about the surgeon's chest that I did not state in the original lengthy post that might be worth noting now.

First, as I understand it, the practice of medicine began undergoing sweeping changes starting around the early 1740s. Note that things during this period changed much more slowly than they do today. It seems from my reading that these changes continued slowly for about the next 100 - 150 years. (Yep, you read that right.) However, as a result, items found from the Napoleonic period are not necessarily going to be representative of what would have been around during the GAoP.

_____

Second, for surgeons of the East India and BRN, the surgeon's chests were standardized by the organizations who made them.

“Early in 1703 the Society [of Apothecaries] approached Navy Office with a view to obtaining the monopoly of all naval medical supplies other than the surgical chests provided from Surgeon’s Hall. If this were approved, economies could be effected, better control over quality and quantity exercised and supplies ensured.” (John Keevil, Medicine and the Navy 1200-1900: Volume II – 1640-1714 p. 272)

They may have varied by lot and year, but I would at least expect the design would be fairly consistent during the GAoP. (This is guesswork on my part, however. As I said, according to Keevil, we have no example of an actual original surgeon's chest from this period.) However, Woodall purportedly redesigned the Surgeon's chest and then detailed most of the instruments that were to go into it in his book, The surgion's mate which would have been around during period according to most accounts.

“[Woodall] addressed the problem of poorly stocked ships by redesigning the surgeons’ chests and implementing a system of checking each chest and sealing it before it was brought onboard.” (Glen Hazelwood, , “John Woodall: From Barber-Surgeon to Surgeon-General,” Proceedings of the 12th Annual History of Medicine Days, March 2003, p. 120)

Now, as to what a surgeon might have if he were not entering into the BRN or the East India Company, it would be impossible to say. However, most surgeons who went to sea did so because they were young, poor and inexperienced. The chests were very expensive to purchase outright, so they likely would not have been able to do so. Still, it could be argued that a ship owner might purchase a custom-made surgeon's chest that would differ from those given by the BRN or the East India Company.

_____

Third, Woodall suggests that everything was kept in the same chest.

The Surgeon’s Chest

Even the smallest ship must have carried a massive wooden iron-bound chest to contain Woodall’s long list of items. Presumably the salvatory of six to eight ointments, the plaster box with its basic first-aid kit and the barber’s case were kept apart. The latter was the mate’s responsibility who, in addition to equipment for trimming and shaving, was provided with an ear-picker, paring knives for corn cutting and some dental implements. It is unlikely the chest would accommodate medical, pharmaceutical and nursing paraphernalia such as cupping glasses, blood porringers, dishes, pots, funnels, mortars, pestells and two sets of scales, one to weigh ounces and one grains; nor splints, bandages, lanterns, tinder-boxes, ink, quills and the brass pail in the close-stool!” (John Kirkup, prologue to The Surgions Mate by John Woodall, p. xvii)

(Say, I just noticed something... What does he mean by iron bound?)

And, for reference and my own re-education, another description from his intro (Kirkup is my favorite author on GAoP medicine.)

“The account of ‘Medicines Physicall and Chirurgicall’ (p. 40, from The surgion's mate) discusses some 270 items of vegetable, animal and mineral origin; according to the folding plan inserted in the 1639 edition, each medicine is placed specifically in the upper, middle or lower part of the chest, although Woodall left the middle part ‘to the Surgeons experimentall ordering and view.’ The plan divided the upper and lower parts into 170 named compartments and thus the middle had to accommodate at least 100 items. The editor [Kirkup] has failed to trace, either a naval chest of the period or, a contemporary illustration closer in time than the 1588 military chest of William Clowes. Unlike the latter chest, one can conclude the East India Company’s chests consisted of four layers, the topmost within the cover of the lid containing instruments whilst the remainder are given over to pharmacy.” (Kirkup/Woodall, p. xviii)

And I could go on (and on an on) with references, but for the time being I'll spare everyone. :blink:

_____

So from this I got a wood chest (apparently iron bound?) with four layers and 170 little compartments for the medicaments.

I still wonder what sort of hardware. I am not inclined to accept that Clowes' chest holds the key to that one. What was common on middling chests during the GAoP?

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Oh, and one other interesting quote - to explain Woodall's involvement with the creation of BRN surgeon's chests.

“The year 1626 was noteworthy both for medical reform and Woodall’s pocket; firstly the Privy Council decided to pay the Barber-Surgeons Company fixed allowances to furnish medical chests for both the army and the navy, and secondly the company requested Woodall to supervise their provision, in addition to his long-standing commitment to the East India Company chests. As a result he wrote, ‘myselfe had the whole ordering, making and appointing of His Highnesse Military provisions for Surgery, both for his Land and Sea-service,’ (Epistle-Congratulatory, 1639) inducing him to extend the appeal of this later edition to military, naval as well as merchant marine surgeons (Frontispiece).

Despite dismissal as surgeon-general to the East India Company in 1635 for economy reasons, he retained a monopoly of supplying the Company’s medical chests until 1643, the year of his death at about 73 years of age, presumably in London. There is no evidence of a prolonged illness although when 69 he maintained that poor sight and impaired memory prevented him from writing additional matter for The Surgeons Mate.” (Kirkup/Woodall, p. xv)

This is, of course, about 50 years before GAoP, so even it may not be accurate to period. However, Woodall has one of the few references to the making up of the Surgeon's Chest other than obscure government naval notes, so I don't have much else to go on.

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iron bound- wrapped in iron strapping and corner angles. this is done to support potentially weak joints on boxes know to be carrying heavy loads and is also used as security for valuables- such as medicines.

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Not a surgeon's chest, but it might give you some food for thought:

b12.jpg

One day I'll get round to making one of these. It's an officer's chest (42 cm long, 29 cm tall) recovered from the wreck of the Swedish ship Kronan which sank in 1676.

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It's an officer's chest

I'm going to sound sooo dang stupid.... but what would an officer need that many drawere for in a small chest?.... Ok the portable writing desk also had a buncha drawers..... I'm sure if I only had so much space, I could fill the thing up with stuff also....

A navigator would need a safe place to keep all of his stuff, but hummmm that many draweres.... unless they got filled with other stuff....

Sure it would be handy.... but something about it has me wondering......

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They found 54 individual items in the chest, including navigational tools (some of which are pictured), an ink well, pipe cleaner, coins, a pen, and a seal. If you look at the dimensions it's not that big a chest that it would take long to fill.

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Thanks Ed. It would appear that the drawer pulls with the hoops were popular for sea item chests based on your pic and the one offered by Clowes. As the medicine chest must also have several small drawers in the body that is probably a good model.

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You're very welcome. I posted it for the construction details, so I'm glad you got something from it.

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It's not a reference to construction (really), nor is it made out of wood.... But I thought this was on topic and interesting enough to warrant popsting. (I found it while looking for info on a different style of box)

From HERE from a facsimile copy of the London Gazzette from 1685. Some editting has been done on my part as these are done with horrible optical character recognition software that produces tons of spelling errors.

Lost on Saturday the 12th of this Instant, between Blackwall

and Stepney, a plain Silver Chyrurgions Box, with a

pair of scissars with silver Bowes and broke at the points, and a

pair of Steel Forceps, with several other Chyrurgions Instruments

in the laid Box. Whoever gives notice of it to Mr. Da

Kaines a Goldsmith without Bishopsgate, or to Brown Johns by *

Ludgate, shall have Ten shillings reward

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It's not a reference to construction (really), nor is it made out of wood.... But I thought this was on topic and interesting enough to warrant popsting. (I found it while looking for info on a different style of box)

From HERE from a facsimile copy of the London Gazzette from 1685. Some editting has been done on my part as these are done with horrible optical character recognition software that produces tons of spelling errors.

Lost on Saturday the 12th of this Instant, between Blackwall

and Stepney, a plain Silver Chyrurgions Box, with a

pair of scissars with silver Bowes and broke at the points, and a

pair of Steel Forceps, with several other Chyrurgions Instruments

in the laid Box. Whoever gives notice of it to Mr. Da

Kaines a Goldsmith without Bishopsgate, or to Brown Johns by *

Ludgate, shall have Ten shillings reward

This is probably a description of a separate box. John Woodall refers to a "Plaster Box" in the surgions mate:

Of the Plaster Box and what belongeth thereto and first of the Emplasters.

The Plaster boxe ought to containe at the least three kindes of several Emplasters as namely,

Emplast. – Stipticum Paracelsi, Diachalcitheus. De lapide calaminare.

for want of Diacalsithios Emplast. De minio may serve.

The uses of the Instruments due to the Plaster box follow next and are these.

Sizers. Forceps. Spatulae. Probes. Stitching needles and quill. Lancet. Burras pipe. Levatory. Vuula spoone.

There belongeth to the Surgeons Mate a carefull and especiall respect to be had concerning Sizers, namely, that hee have at least two paire of good sizers for to cut haire, that they be well ground, an kept cleane; as also in his Plaster box one paire, and that they be at all time kept

__

well. The manner of using them were lost labour to bee taught any Surgeons Mate, for if he be therein unskilfull he is unworthy of his place. Wherefore I onely recite them for remembrance sake, and likewise for order, having spoken somewhat of the several uses of each one of the former recited instruments.” (Woodall, p. 25-6)

My edition of Woodall has an intro by the excellent John Kirkup, which talks a little about this:

"Even the smallest ship must have carried a massive wooden iron-bound chest to contain Woodall’s long list of items. Presumably the salvatory of six to eight ointments, the plaster box with its basic first-aid kit and the barber’s case were kept apart. The latter was the mate’s responsibility who, in addition to equipment for trimming and shaving, was provided with an ear-picker, paring knives for corn cutting and some dental implements. It is unlikely the chest would accommodate medical, pharmaceutical and nursing paraphernalia such as cupping glasses, blood porringers, dishes, pots, funnels, mortars, pestells and two sets of scales, one to weigh ounces and one grains; nor splints, bandages, lanterns, tinder-boxes, ink, quills and the brass pail in the close-stool!” (Kirkup/Woodall, p. xvii)

James Yonge also talks about trying to get his plaster box box in his Diary:

“[After capture by the Dutch, Yonge tried to retrieve some of his supplies.] I told Mr. Shepherd {who was helping Yonge] they had some of my books and my plaster box. The book, he told me, were taken away by the Lords, being journals and manuscripts, the box he would fetch me. My box was a plain thing and had but 3 silver instruments. He brought me a fine new Nisle skin [crocodile-skin] box, that he took from the chyrurgeon of the Swiftsure who died in the prison. I innocently said it was not mine, then he fetched the other, which I took, kissing his hand, bid him farewell. He often admired my honesty in refusing the better box, protesting he thought it had been mine.” (Yonge, p 99-100)

Note that the replacement box is covered in crocodile skin. I have not yet quite figured out what a plaster box might look like or be made of. (You would think it would be made of plaster, but my knowledge in this area is limited and I hesitate to state that.)

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Mission ,I`m not much of a pirate However I would like to make some suggestions in regards to recreating a surgen/medicine chest.

Having had time to study the above pic I would start first by trying to determine the size of the bottle(dia.) thus would give us a clue as to the size or scale of the chest.

One thing that seems ODD is it`s square shape .(Chests aren`t square)

What comes to mine is the Golden Ratio 1.62-1.(greek)

Observe that there is six divisions across and six deep for storing bottles, 36 divisions thus a square chest .Has the artist shortened the debth of the chest to be better proportion within the drawing?

For example let us start with an assumption that the bottle was 2.5" and would fit comfortably in a 3" square division as shown.That would suggest an 18" width .Now back to that Ratio. It would suggest 9 bottles or divisions deep which now totals 27" deep. 54 divisions. Isn`t that room enough now for the surgens 24" bone saw.

My thoughts on the panel, Why have a locked chest if there wasen`t a hinged panel.That panel folded up to secure the lower drawers. A dual action lock would then secure both lid and panel. I`v seen many fishing tackel boxes this way with two hinges below connecting the panel to the base of the case.

And one last observation, Where are the handles! I would assume there was to be one on the front panel to open and one at the rear together for lifting and transport.

Let me know your thoughts.

Regards,John

WWW.MACHINISTCHEST.COM

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Note that the replacement box is covered in crocodile skin. I have not yet quite figured out what a plaster box might look like or be made of. (You would think it would be made of plaster, but my knowledge in this area is limited and I hesitate to state that.)

My thinking is that a "plaster box" is a box containing "plasters", as in prepared bandages of some type, along with the instruments and medications to be used with them.

>>>> Cascabel

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cascabel- i'm reaching here, but i think you are right with the plaster box. I'm head scratchin, but i seem to recall (maybe from the physik in fredericksburg) plasters were used to draw inflamations and diseases from the body as well as casting breaks.

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Possibly...I'm not sure. It's a really good guess and since that means the box could be made of anything, I like it. (I really need to find someone who is knowledgeable on the topic of 17th century medicine to bounce some of these ideas off of.) The box does contain more than plasters, as the original quote I mentioned suggests:

“Of the Plaster Box and what belongeth thereto and first of the Emplasters.

The Plaster boxe ought to containe at the least three kindes of several Emplasters as namely...

The uses of the Instruments due to the Plaster box follow next and are these.

Sizers. Forceps. Spatulae. Probes. Stitching needles and quill. Lancet. Burras pipe. Levatory. Vuula spoone.” (Woodall, p. 25)

Although I have another quote that does seem to support the concept as well.

"The surgeon prepared each day a dressing-box with six or eight partitions, into which went pots of balsam and oils, and plasters ready spread. This, according to Moyle, was ‘carried every Morning to the Mast between Decks where our Mortar is usually rung, that such as have any Sore or Ailment may hear in any part of the Ship, and come thithter to be dresd’.” (Keevil, John J., Medicine and the Navy 1200-1900: Volume II – 1640-1714, p. 170)

Note that Keevil calls the box a 'dressing box'. I think Cascabel is right.

Dutch, you have it right about the plasters. We return to humoral theory:

"Then, the humours that obstinately refused to be purged or vomited away could be evacuated from the outer surface of the body, said Burton. This could be done by blood-letting- either by a surgeon’s knife, or by the use of leeches- or by the uncomfortable expedient of raising blisters by applying plasters or hot irons to the skin.“ (Williams, Guy, The Age of Agony, p. 154)

Woodall actually has pages and pages of plaster recipes in his book.

Edited by Misson

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