Out of the black bag: Doctor collects medical gear that evokes a bygone era

During the mid-1800s , if Doc Landon walked into a farmhouse with medicine for shivering children, o

People who lived in Iowa during the mid-1800s knew when Oren M. Landon was on the job.

If Doc Landon walked into a farmhouse with medicine for shivering children, or traveled to the blacksmith’s shop for a hammer-smashed thumb, he always carried his black case. Thin vials of pills and powders were stored inside the travelling apothecary. So were tools of the doctor’s trade.

Landon’s good work has ended, but more than 100 years later, part of the medical man remains alive with Jack Spring. The retired Capital Region orthopedic doctor keeps the Landon “buggy bag” on prominent display inside his study, a home medical museum.

Connection to past

“It gives me good vibrations, knowing who touched it and all the lives that he touched,” said Spring, 71. “It gives me a connection to the past.

“I get a good feeling in here,” he added. “I do some work, reading, correspondences and enjoy showing it to people when we have guests at the house.”

The elegant space off the living room is full of other connections to history. Spring is happy to show visitors such medical treasures as a wooden hearing tube, leech bowls, pharmaceutical bottles, crutches, books and other equipment once considered marvels of the age.

An oak medicine cabinet and desk, both from the 1800s, are also in the room. A black top hat and black coat from the period are in one corner. Spring doesn’t know the original owner, but the clothes would have been an authoritative and authentic look for a medical man from the 1800s.

“This is one of my favorite pieces,” he said, standing next to a framed reproduction of a World War I recruiting poster. A nurse — compassionate and confident — is shown with a blue coat draped on her shoulders, the Red Cross insignia on her white cap and apron. “She’s a beautiful, passionate nurse. I think I’d get better immediately, if she was taking care of me.”

Spring, a trim man with a closely clipped white beard, entertains visitors to his museum with a sense of humor. Some might not expect a shotgun from the 1840s in a room full of old-fashioned medical equipment, but Spring is ready with a joke.

“That’s how we settled our malpractice cases with the lawyers,” he said, admitting the gun was used more realistically to hunt game.

Country doctor

Spring began collecting pieces from the past during the late 1960s. As a doctor stationed with the Air Force in Montgomery, Ala., during the Vietnam War, he performed part-time work for a country doctor in Lafayette, Ga., on the weekends. He liked all the old gear the doctor kept in his office.

“He was a very gracious gentleman, and he gave me some stuff,” Spring said.

Trips to flea markets, hospital sales and auctions followed. Friends and family learned about Spring’s hobby, and they started looking for old bottles, splints, books and other artifacts to wrap up as presents. He retrieved one piece, a wooden examination table, from a landfill.

When the former Kerste’s pharmacy on Union Street in Schenectady went out of business, Spring considered buying some of the firm’s vintage pharmaceutical bottles. But he didn’t like the prices, so he left them on the shelf.

“My wife, Donna, went down after I did and got them for me for Christmas,” Spring said.

Donna Spring, a nurse, loves the room and loves the hobby. She said she sometimes “feels the spirit” of the people — both physician and patient — who were once part of medical dramas with the books and tools.

“It has so much meaning, so much reverence, I think, for those who came before us,” she said. “And the suffering and the skill that was attempted.”

Parts of Spring’s medical library also came from people who shopped for him. His books include “Parisella’s Textbook of Pharmaceuticals,” in Latin from 1570 and a copy of “Gray’s Anatomy” from 1898.

Spring owns the books and other pieces. But he believes all the curios are on extended loan.

“I’m just a caretaker,” he said. “They’ll go to somebody after I pass away. I have a thing about books — they’re really not yours. They’re yours to take care of until you can pass them on. It’s the same thing with any of these antiques.”

Spring can tell stories about the equipment. An ether mask was used in the days before serious anesthesia was used by medical men. A drop of ether was placed on a piece of gauze, and the mask covered the gauze. The patient would quickly fall asleep.

Primitive hearing aid

The hearing tube worked simply enough. A metal coil covered with fabric was capped by a small nozzle at one end, and a wooden, bell-shaped cup at the other. The nozzle went into the ear; the cup collected sounds in a room for the hearing-impaired of the 1800s.

“It worked pretty good for one ear,” Spring said. “It must have been double when they used both ears.”

Some pieces supply their own details. Thirty-two ounces of cod liver oil once filled a clear glass bottle that came from Paine’s Drug Store, once located long ago at 24-26 East Main St. in Rochester. “Pure Norwegian,” and “Highest Quality” reads the label.

And a framed photo shows young doctors in stiff collars who graduated from Albany Medical College in 1898.

Dr. Landon’s medical diplomas are framed on a wall near the back of the room. They used to hang in Spring’s medical office. A patient once noticed, and told Spring she had known Landon’s family. Oren’s people supplied the buggy bag; it was a gift from Landon’s daughter, Barbara.

Spring’s got a bone saw, plus assorted instruments that once pierced skin and let doctors watch their patients bleed.

That’s where the leeches came in, too. Physicians once believed they could better heal people by eliminating poor blood.

“To go to a doctor in that time period was almost a death sentence,” Spring said. “The cure was often worse than the disease. The treatments weren’t based on science, they were based on proclamation.”

One story says physician Benjamin Rush — a big proponent of bloodletting — once treated George Washington’s laryngitis by submitting the great man to an extended drain. “If he wasn’t bled so badly, he might be alive today,” Spring said.

Serious leg injuries often meant amputation.

“They would measure a surgeon’s skill by how fast he could take a leg off,” Spring said. “There’s a story about the English surgeon Robert Liston who took a leg off in 20 seconds, but he lost his assistant’s two fingers.”

During the 1800s, Spring said, doctors often could not do much more than hold a patient’s hand. “That’s lacking in today’s world,” he said.

Modern technology

Other methods and equipment have changed, too.

“When I first started in orthopedics, there was a young girl who was in a bad accident and we had to amputate her leg,” Spring said. “But with the technology in orthopedics today, we could have saved it. We’re talking 34 years, that’s all.”

He can wonder what doctors of 2109 will think when they look back at the modern practices of today. And he wonders, with a little worry, what the future will bring.

“I’m a little concerned about the rationing of health care for older people,” he said. “If you’re 90, you won’t get a coronary bypass because it’s too expensive and your longevity isn’t that much. Will they, because of the expenses, ration health care? It probably wouldn’t be rationed to the politicians’ parents, but to us lay people, it would be.”

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