M18578.1-27 | Medical case

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Medical case
1869-1878, 19th century
15 x 7 cm
Gift of Mrs. D.A.Murray
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  Medical case (2)
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Keys to History

For less serious complaints, doctors frequently practiced phlebotomy, or bloodletting, using a lancet to pierce a vein in the patient's neck, arm or shin. This operation was meant to restore the balance of the bodily humours (fluids), particularly the proportion of blood. Leeches and suction cups were used to extract small quantities of blood.

Even in the late 19th century, some doctors believed that health depended on the balance of the four elemental humours of the human body: blood, yellow bile, black bile (watery stools) and phlegm (nasal secretions). Illness, on the other hand, was attributed to an imbalance caused by either too much or too little of one or other humour.

The proposed treatments - laxatives, emetics or expectorants - were aimed at restoring the equilibrium of these fluids. This ancient concept of illness is at the root of such familiar expressions as "she's in a bad humour", "my blood is boiling", "the failure was galling", "don't vent your spleen" and "he has a phlegmatic (bilious, sanguine) disposition".

Traité élémentaire de matière médicale et guide pratique des soeurs de charité de l'Asile de la Providence (Montreal: Imprimerie de la Providence, 1890), pp. 1-81.

Source : Cures and Quackery: The Rise of Patent Medicines [Web tour], by Denis Goulet, Université de Sherbrooke (see Links)

  • What

    This small medical instrument case holds several folding knives called lancets, which served to bleed patients. As was common, these lancets are sheathed in mother-of-pearl.

  • Where

    Lancets were widely used by doctors in Europe and North America. Phlebotomy, or bloodletting, was usually practiced on the patient's neck, arms or legs, depending on the location of the ailment.

  • When

    This type of lancet was introduced in Canada in the 18th century and used until the 1860s. Bloodletting gradually lost favour with doctors as the practice of clinical medicine developed.

  • Who

    In North America, bloodletting lancets were generally employed by doctors. In Europe, the procedure was performed by barber-surgeons until the 18th century.