1879 Surgical Catalog: Mail-Order Smallpox Vaccine

July 27, 2010 Anonymous

Cover of medical catalog
Cover of Codman & Shurtleff catalog. Courtesy of The Bakken Library and Museum

Guest post by Robert D. Hicks, Ph.D.

Director, Mütter Museum & Historical Medical Library

William Maul Measey Chair for the History of Medicine

As the recipient of a research grant, I recently had the opportunity to travel to Minneapolis to spend a week at The Bakken Museum. Founded in 1975 by electrical engineer Earl Bakken, a pioneer in medical devices including the first wearable, externally-worn, battery-powered pacemaker, the Bakken’s collection of artifacts and texts have promoted the study of electricity in medicine. The mission has expanded to embrace electricity in American life. The object collection features about 3000 artifacts dating to the 18th century, including electrostatic generators, batteries, various devices for physiological application, and other medical stimulators. The library’s collection of 11,000 books, journals, and manuscripts illuminates “the history of electricity and magnetism with a focus on their roles in the life sciences and medicine,” to quote the Bakken. Among its treasures is a primary source collection of trade ephemera including advertisements, catalogs, pamphlets, postcards, and circulars. “Ephemera” is libraryspeak for literature never intended for permanent use or retention. Last year’s catalogs usually end up in the trash bin. Historians are grateful for all of those people who do not toss out such stuff. My own research involved electro-medical devices during the Civil War, which I will apply to designing a future exhibit on Civil War medicine at the Mütter Museum.

I was particularly eager to see the trade catalogs, an important source in the history of science and technology. Among those I examined was a Codman & Shurtleff catalog for “surgical instruments and appliances,” dated March 1879, including, among other things, Dr. Chadwick’s Gynecological Table and Dr. Lister’s Spray Atomizer. The significance of the latter is the advent of antisepsis in surgery. Of all the catalogs I inspected, only this one featured smallpox vaccine virus and vaccinating instruments.

Unlike most other suppliers of medical instruments, Codman & Shurtleff, advertises that they maintain their own herd of cows from whose lymph vaccine samples are obtained, under the supervision of a physician. The ad notes that the cows come from “Beaugency” stock. During the 1860s in Europe, physicians and government officials debated the best bovine sources of lymph for smallpox vaccine. Breeds intermixed so frequently that regulation of vaccine production became a problem, or at least inhibited public confidence. Many Dutch and Belgian providers of lymph for vaccines cited Beaugency cows (named for a region in France) as best.

Vaccines from Codman & Shurtleff catalog. Courtesy of The Bakken Library and Museum.

The background to this controversy reminds us that many physicians injected smallpox virus into healthy cows in order to turn the cows themselves into lymph-producing vaccine machines. Those ordering Beaugency lymph from Codman & Shurtleff could buy a crust (scab) or “ivory points” impregnated (“charged”) with lymph for use as vaccines, all mailed in air-tight, sealed containers. Likely, the “ivory” appurtenances were animal bone. Customers may, however, order “humanized virus,” the samples obtained “from healthy children … by physicians of undoubted reliability.” The company assures customers that it will warranty all samples and will provide a fresh supply “in case of failure reported within fifteen days for Points, thirty days for Human, and ninety days for Kine [bovine] Crusts.” The ad also offers several different kinds of vaccinating tools, from lancets to a steel scarifying tool, illustrated in the ad. (Vaccinating instruments from a document in the College’s Historical Medical Library are shown below as well.)

Codman & Shurtleff, Inc., remains in business, having been founded in Boston in 1838. According to its web site, the firm “develops and markets a wide range of diagnostic and therapeutic products for the treatment of central nervous system disorders.” Founder Thomas Codman began the company with the successful invention and sales of a device for applying ether, signaling its introduction as anesthesia in surgery, first publicly demonstrated at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846. Codman’s son, Benjamin, a graduate of Harvard Medical School, teamed with Asahel Shurtleff and expanded the range of instruments. Before the Civil War, the company grew through the provision of atomizers for respiratory diseases, and during the war was a leading manufacturer of battlefield surgical instruments. The Bakken catalog attests to a diversified and expanding medical tools business with an atypical, but very entrepreneurial, line in smallpox vaccine.

The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Information Upon the Subject of the Prevention of Small-Pox, by Vaccination. Eastern Dispensary of the City of New York, 1859.

For more information, see the following:

The Bakken Museum

Codman & Shurtleff, Inc.

S. Monckton Copeman. “The Milroy Lectures on the Natural History of Vaccinia.” The British Medical Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1951 (May 21, 1898), pp. 1312-1318. Available at http://www.jstor.org/pss/20254612