Mandrakes, from Mythology to Museum Collectable

The following blog post was written by 2014 Collections Technician Katrin MacPhee*

“… Not poppy, nor mandragora,

Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,

Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep

Which thou owedst yesterday.”

Shakespeare: Othello III.iii [1]

Earmuff-clad, Harry Potter and his friends wrench unyielding mandrake plants from their cozy earthen beds to replant them in pots large enough to accommodate their growing bodies. The mandrakes are described as having anthropomorphic forms and features. While the wails of the adult mandrakes are fatal, Professor Sprout assures her herbology students that the cries of the young plants would only “knock them out for a few hours.” [2] As the narrative of the Chamber of Secrets unfolds, the mandrake’s power to revive victims of petrification proves crucial to the plot.

As Harry Potter was (as you may have guessed) a much-adored part of my childhood (and, ahem, adulthood) I was familiar with J.K. Rowling’s vision of mandrakes. Imagine my delight when I learned, while sifting through pharmaceutical artefacts within the Museum’s collection, that the Museum of Health Care possesses eight mandrake medication containers or trading cards.

Flint's Mandrake Pills trade card, N. Ballin ,1883, Collection of the Museum of Health Care,   996001419

Flint’s Mandrake Pills trade card, N. Ballin ,1883, Collection of the Museum of Health Care, 996001419

What, I thought to myself, were such whimsical fancies doing outside the herbology classroom and in my very own hands? Fans of Rowling’s series are likely aware that many characters, names, and objects within Harry’s world were inspired by a variety of mythological traditions. As I take you on a whirlwind tour of various perceptions of the mandrake, you will discover how firmly rooted Rowling’s mandrakes are within long histories of medical, literary and folklore practices. Continue reading

Snakes, Mistakes, and Mythology! The Use of the Rod of Asclepius and the Caduceus in Modern Medicine

The following blog post was written by 2014 Collections Technician Katrin MacPhee*

While handling an artifact from the Museum’s collection, a familiar sight piqued my curiosity. Stamped onto a pin awarded by the Canadian Medical Association was a snake coiled around a staff. I had seen the same symbol on the badges of emergency health service workers, emblazoned on ambulances, and on pharmaceutical logos. I wondered, what were the origins this symbol? Why was it significant to medical organizations? Through what process had so many health professionals adopted it as a representation of their work?


Medical pins from the Collection of the Museum of Health Care, 1976.33.3p5, 1900-1930

Medical pins from the Collection of the Museum of Health Care, 1976.33.3p5, 1900-1930

Medical pins from the collection of the Museum of Health Care, 1976.33.2p4, c. 1908-1933

Medical pins from the collection of the Museum of Health Care, 1976.33.2p4, c. 1908-1933

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Mental Health: Tracing the History of Stigma

The following blog post was written by Abbey Cressman, Summer 2014 Public Programs Assistant  

When researching ancient diseases, their symptoms, and treatments, I have often been struck by the correlation between the magnitude of lives lost and the health care standards of the time. I have read staggering statistics that throughout the nineteenth century, the number of soldiers killed in battle was far outweighed by the number soldiers lost to diseases . Since then, standards of hygiene have improved tremendously, there has been a powerful push towards improving public health resources, and diseases like smallpox that plagued our ancestors are virtually eradicated. What seems to be the next epidemic though is dangerously invisible in its symptoms, but just as potent in its hold; it is one of the leading causes of death among Canadian youth from ages 15-24, and directly affects 20% of all Canadians.[1] Continue reading

Lydia E. Pinkham: Life and Legacy

The following blog post was written by 2014 Collections Technician Katrin MacPhee*

Amidst a recent donation of artefacts from Parks Canada Agency’s collection to the Museum of Health Care, a woman’s face peers up at mine. “Yours in Health,” the line of slanted cursive below her steady gaze reads. Behind this seemingly innocuous packaging lays a historical figure whose life and work continues to intrigue to the present day; a woman at the intersection of gender, medical, advertising and regulatory history and of great importance to those who study these topics.

One of two Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company artefact recent  donated to  the Museum

Recent donation to Museum of Health Care collection.

Lydia E. Pinkham was born in 1819 to a Quaker family in Lynn, Massachusetts. Her family were avid abolitionists, at one time hosting Frederick Douglass in their home. They were also followers of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish theologian who taught about the virtues of vegetarianism and means of direct communication with the dead. Although she only turned to the commercial creation of medicine during the last eight years of her life, Pinkham experienced within that brief timeframe meteoric success as a producer of medicines marketed exclusively for women. Her vegetable compound became “the most successful patent medicine of the century.” [1] Her remedies claimed to treat ailments ranging from menstrual cramps and reproductive disorders to menopausal symptoms. Within her lifetime, Pinkham became a cultural icon. [2] Speaking of her fame within a reflective biography published in the Globe and Mail decades after her death, the author wrote “Mrs. Pinkham was the first business woman in the United States to become widely known. Her features, as we have said, became better known than the features of any of her contemporaries. There could hardly have been a person in the United States-and perhaps in Canada, too-who would not have recognized her by sight in a crowd.” [3] By 1898, fifteen years after her death, her most successful product, a vegetable compound, had become one of the most heavily advertised products in the United States. Indeed, a biographer has compared the familiarity of Pinkham’s advertisements within turn-of-the-century North America to the brand recognition enjoyed by McDonald’s Corporation by modern Americans and Canadians. [4]  Continue reading

From Variolation to Cowpox Vaccination: The First Steps Towards Eradicating Smallpox

*The following blog post was written by Samantha Sandassie, Queen’s University PH.D candidate/teaching fellow

Edward Jenner looms large in the history of vaccination.  Known today as the “father of immunology,” Jenner is most famous for developing a vaccine against smallpox in the 1790s.  The vaccine brilliantly made use of common knowledge.  Milkmaids were known for having noticeably clear and smooth skin.  They had, it seemed, managed to develop an immunity to smallpox by suffering (and surviving) a bout of the much milder cowpox.

As the popular narrative goes, Jenner observed this and speculated that it would be possible for others to develop immunity from smallpox if they were infected successfully with cowpox.  To that end, he collected the pus from cowpox lesions on the arm of a milkmaid named Sarah Nelms and used it to infect the eight year old James Phipps.  James suffered some symptoms and once well, Jenner attempted to infect him again – this time with pus from a smallpox lesion.  Luckily for James, his body had since developed antibodies to counter the virulent disease.[1]  James was deemed immune, smallpox inoculation spread, and the legend of Edward Jenner was born.

L0026138 Edward Jenner. Pastel by John Raphael Smith.

Edward Jenner. Pastel by John Raphael Smith.Wellcome Library, London

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Dispelling childhood fears about medicine and the hospital

The following blog post was written by Derek Oxley,  2013-2014 Work Study (Queen’s University) Curatorial Assistant

Although my own recollections are a bit hazy, my mother will attest to the fact that when I had to be taken to the doctor as a small child I behaved like a perfect hellion: stomping feet and throwing toys and acting out in a way I would never do anywhere else. More recently as an adult, I spent an afternoon babysitting my cousin’s toddler while he took his eldest in for a check-up. What started as a pleasant afternoon was soon filled with unexplained tears and unpredictable mood changes. My cousin later told me that my nephew had admitted to “being afraid of having to go to the doctor when HE got older” (having apparently forgotten that he had been to the doctor before). Both my case and that of my nephew stemmed from a fear of the unknown, namely, that which goes on in the confusing world of doctors and hospitals. My curiosity was piqued and I set out to discover whether there were any good ways of dispelling childhood fears about medicine. Continue reading

The Technological Progression of Female Hysteria Treatments

The following blog post was written by Julia Blakey, Summer 2013 Public Program Assistant  

In the Western canon of medicine, from as early as the second millennium BCE,[1] hysteria was a commonly diagnosed and well- documented disease.[2] It was characterized as a chronic illness that affected females predominantly, with symptoms ranging from anxiety to irritability, to edema (swelling) of the genitals and insomnia.[3] The term “hysteria” derives from the Greek word hystera, which translates to “uterus” or “womb”, thus inextricably linking the condition to women.[4] The Hippocratic Corpus includes reference to the necessity of vulvar stimulation as treatment for hysteria. This perspective carried into the centuries following.[5] For example, in his 1653 text on medical observation, Pieter Van Foreest wrote that treatment sessions with a doctor were necessary for those diagnosed with hysteria.[6] Over the span of 4000 years, various medical texts mention the need for hysteria treatments, indicating its importance in the medical discourse.[7]

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