It's no wonder the ladies needed smelling salts

December 16, 2005

It is amazing what passed for a surgeon's instrument in Victorian England.

The "Vee-Dee electro-massage machine", an intriguing device that is likely to have caused much amusement more than a century ago, forms the centrepiece of a collection of 6,000 medical instruments compiled by doctors in Devon.

The collection is now used for research and teaching purposes by Exeter University's Centre for Medical History.

Without living testimony we can only speculate on where and how the massager was employed, although the imagination may play some part in this.

If an electro-massage does not do it for you, then you could try a razor-sharp scarificator for bloodletting, a trepanning drill for boring into the skull or a sinister-looking amputation set if things get desperate.

This collection was supported by the Wellcome Trust and was designed to educate school pupils about medicine in the past and present.

Christopher Gardner Thorpe, consultant neurologist at the Devon and Exeter Medical Society, said: "Often it is equipment that doctors have used for many years, items picked up as curiosities, or things with sentimental value such as an old medical bag from the 1920s passed from father to son."

Based on this collection, you could be forgiven for suggesting that medical progress reached a climax during the 1800s - certainly for the doctors if not for the patients.

Mark Jackson, director of the Centre for Medical History at Exeter, said:

"The massager was probably used as a treatment for nervous disorders such as anxiety and hysteria, of which there was an explosion in the late 19th century particularly among women."

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