Artifact Corner: Victorian Syringe

Hi everyone and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we are looking at a piece that was part of Fannie Delord Webb Hall’s medical equipment. This is a syringe that she used to help treat the poor of Plattsburgh. Fannie made it her life’s work to ensure that people without means could still receive medical attention when they needed it. This syringe is made with glass, cork, metal and a thread that was likely soaked in beeswax to act as the plunger. This syringe is likely very late Victorian or early Edwardian. Let’s learn a bit more about the history of syringes.

According to Chambers dictionary a syringe is a medical instrument for injecting or drawing off liquid, consisting of a hollow cylinder with a plunger inside and a thin hollow needle attached or a similar device used in gardening, cooking, etc. The parts of the syringe are as follows: the needle is the sharp hollow tube which pierces the skin and enables medication to be injected into the body, or fluid to be removed from the body. The barrel is where medicine is held in the barrel before injection and is usually transparent. The plunger and piston work together to help control the amount of medicine that you receive for an injection. Now, syringes of multiple shapes and sizes, and made from a myriad of materials have existed since the Roman times. During the 1st century AD Aulus Cornelius Celsus mentioned the use of them to treat medical complications in his De Medicina. In the 9th Century the Iraqi/Egyptian surgeon Ammar ibn ‘Ali al-Mawsili’ created a syringe in the 9th century using a hollow glass tube, and suction to remove cataracts from patients’ eyes, a practice that remained in use until at least the 13th century. Pre-Columbian Native Americans created early hypodermic needles and syringes using “hollow bird bones and small animal bladders.”

In 1853 we have the invention of what would become the modern hypodermic syringe by Scottish doctor Alexander Wood. His goal was to treat pain in just one area of the body. He attached a hollow needle, an earlier invention by Irish doctor Francis Rynd, to a plunger. Using his newly invented hypodermic syringe he was able to inject pain relief medicine to the area which was causing pain. His first patient was a woman experiencing neuralgia, which causes intense pain after nerve damage. She was injected at the site of her pain with the pain relief medicine morphia. Morphia was a mixture of sherry and morphine, a powerful pain relief medicine. What made this syringe different than others before is the ability to inject small, measured amounts into an area without creating a cut, or incision, in the skin first. The glass sides of Wood’s syringe made it easy to see the dosage, and the plunger allowed more control over dosage of the medication. Soon the syringes were developed further, and measurements were added to the sides, allowing even more control. And the overall design of syringes has changed very little over the last 170 years.

Our syringe is in quite good condition, despite it’s age and use. It does not have a needle installed in it because it is currently on display in our Cumberland Bay Works exhibit where we have a selection of Fannie’s medicine and equipment, and we wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt while checking out the collections. This is a fascinating glimpse into our medical past, and we are so lucky to have it in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by.

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Sunny Morning by MusicLFiles
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