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7 Items You Would Find in a Doctor’s Office 100 Years Ago

In many historical contexts, 100 years isn’t a very long time. But when it comes to science, technology, and medicine — particularly in the last century — it’s a veritable eternity. The seeds of modern medicine were just being planted in the early 20th century: Penicillin was discovered in 1928, physicians were still identifying vitamins, and insulin was a new breakthrough. 

The doctor’s role itself was different than it is today, as preventative care was not yet an established practice; there was no such thing as a routine visit to a doctor’s office 100 years ago. A visit to the doctor typically meant that you were ailing (though in some cases during the Prohibition era, it meant that you and your doctor had agreed on a way around the alcohol ban). Thanks to advances in technology, doctors’ offices in the 1920s were also stocked with very different items than we see today. These are a few things you likely would have found there a century ago.

Head Mirror

A metallic disc attached to a headband is generally considered part of a classic doctor costume, but what is the genuine article, exactly? It’s called a head mirror, and your doctor 100 years ago would’ve been wearing one. It wasn’t just an emblem; it provided a very core function, which was illumination for the examination of the ear, nose, or throat. The patient would be seated next to a lamp that was pointed toward the doctor, and the head mirror would focus and reflect the light to the intended target. Today, the easier-to-use pen light or fiber optic headlamp have largely replaced the head mirror, though some ENT specialists argue that the lighter weight and cost-effectiveness of the latter mean it may still have a place in contemporary medicine.

Floor-Standing Spirometer

One hundred years ago, a spirometer was a large floor-standing unit made of metal, used to evaluate pulmonary function. The patient would breathe into a tube, and a dial on the top would indicate lung capacity and respiratory volume, allowing the doctor to diagnose pulmonary ailments. Today, spirometers are still very much in use, but they are much smaller and made of plastic. In fact, they’re so compact nowadays that patients can hold the entire unit themselves while they’re in use. 

Electric Vaporizer

The electric vaporizer was similar to today’s at-home humidifiers, but it was more complex, and could be used to make vapor out of water or other liquid medication. In the doctor’s office, vaporizers were used to treat sinus or bronchial illnesses. Vaporizers were also used in hospital settings in order to administer anesthesia.

Wooden Desk

Considering that a doctor’s workspace is referred to as a “doctor’s office,” it follows that a classic wooden desk was generally present in one 100 years ago. There is something especially archaic-looking about a doctor seated at a wooden desk, though, since today we’re used to nonporous antiseptic surfaces in any space where medical exams or procedures take place. Indeed, it didn’t take long for the doctor’s office to shift in that direction: By the 1930s, most doctor’s offices contained furniture that was made of enamel-coated metal.

Syrup of Ipecac

Sometimes referred to as vinegar of ipecac, syrup of ipecac was (in small doses) an early form of cough syrup used as an expectorant to treat respiratory illnesses. In larger doses, it was used as a poison control agent to induce vomiting, especially in pediatric medicine. Available by prescription only in the early 20th century, it was eventually approved by the FDA for over-the-counter sale and recommended as an essential item for households that included young children. In 2004, the FDA began discouraging use of syrup of ipecac due to its lack of efficacy as a treatment for poison ingestion. 

Doctor’s Bag

The doctor’s bag (also referred to as a physician’s bag or a Gladstone bag) was an essential item in an era where house calls were still part of a general practitioner’s array of services. The bag was usually made of black leather, and carried the most important and portable medical equipment: a stethoscope, thermometer, bandages, syringes, a plexor for testing reflexes, a sphygmomanometer to test blood pressure, and more.

Sharpening Stone

The image of an early 20th-century doctor sharpening a knife may seem foreboding, even sinister. But in the doctor’s office setting, the sharpening stone was used to sharpen scissorsor knives for cutting bandages, not for any sort of medical procedures. The surgical discipline, meanwhile, used a cold sterilization method that prevented scalpel blades from dulling. Rest assured: Since at least 1915, scalpels have been a two-piece design that enable the blade to be discarded and replaced with a new one after each use, so there’s no need for sharpening.

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