Yesterday was the first day of my internship at Sibbald Library in the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh (RCPE). It was amazing! Not only are the building and book collection stunning, but the collection of historic medical equipment is impressive, and I have a feeling that only a tiny portion of it is displayed. Unfortunately the quality of most of the display cases is not great, and their location is not ideal, tucked into a corner in a lower room. Iain Milne, my internship supervisor and the Sibbald Librarian, thinks/hopes that the display cases will be redone in the not-too-distant-future.
After a peek at the display cases and the amount of space available for the canes, which is what I will be working with for the first part of the internship, I spent a solid six hours looking at at a collection of just nine canes. Time flew by and I almost couldn’t believe it when around 13:00 Iain came in and asked if I’d like to take a lunch break – the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind!
This collection of canes date from the 18th through the early 20th Centuries. Canes were a symbol of status among early physicians and the tradition passed down into the early part of the 20th Century before it fizzled out. Some of the canes are beautiful, and in fact the one I consider the most aesthetically pleasing has no provenience and therefore not much historical value, as it were, but is nonetheless a gem. A couple of the canes have long and distinguished histories – one of them originally belonged to Dr. William Cullen, an influential physician in the Scottish Enlightenment who counted David Hume and Adam Smith among his friends.
The most interesting part of my day involved an odd and unattractive little cane, well worn and missing its ornamental head. It had recently been found in a cupboard. In fact, it was such a recent discovery that no one had done any research on it yet. Lucky me! It had a note with it that was basically just a list of names in various old scripts, with dates and/or locations associated with a few of the names. Because of this slip of paper, which was discovered rolled up inside the cane, I was able to trace the lineage of the cane back to Dr. Richard Bright (1789-1858). Dr. Bright was an innovative and influential British physician and a fellow of the RCPE. He encouraged his students to obtain blood and urine samples from their patients, but also to develop a delicate and amiable touch as a caregiver. Dr. Bright is known as the father of nephrology (the study of kidney diseases) and the malady today understood to be acute or chronic nephritis was historically known as Bright’s Disease… I always find it curious that physicians are flattered when devastating diseases are named after them… After Bright the cane passed down through a line of interesting and colourful physicians, until presumably sometime in the late 1950s or 1960s the cane ended up at RCPE, and eventually in the cupboard in which it was so recently discovered.
The table I spent my day at. I love it.
Besides the research I also worked on developing a new display for some of the canes. I narrowed it down to just two, as there isn’t much space to display them and didn’t want the display cabinet to appear cluttered. I wrote up descriptions of the two I chose and perused some images of the others which we may display as a descriptive document in the display cabinet. Next week will involve getting files of information on the canes organized for publication on the website, and hopefully a little more research.
After all the hassle and frustration surrounding this portion of my course, the internship portion, I feel extra lucky to have ended up at the Sibbald Library.