Cabinets of cure-osities: collecting medical antiques

By Geoff Harris

In a recent blog we mentioned the growing popularity of online antique marketplaces, which are becoming a regular shopping destination for antiques fans.

They are also a great way of saving valuable antiques for the nation. At the end of January, a crowdfunding campaign was set up to buy a medicine cabinet believed to belong to Sir William Beatty, who was the surgeon onboard HMS Victory when Admiral Nelson was fatally wounded.

The cabinet was put on the 2Covet site by Charles Wallrock of Wick Antiques in Lymington, Hampshire. After spotting it for sale, members of the Royal Medical Service set up the ultimately successful crowdfunding campaign to buy it. The intention is to put the cabinet on display at the former Royal Naval Hospital Haslar in Gosport.

“When we saw the cabinet it struck us as such an important artefact that we ought to try and buy it for the new museum planned for the Haslar site,” Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Jo Laird told the Antiques Trade Gazette.

Sir William Beatty joined HMS Victory in 1804, with the battle of Trafalgar taking place on October 21, 1805. To give the crowdfunding campaign every chance of success, dealer Charles Wallrock generously reduced the asking price to £15,500.

When you consider the historical importance of this cabinet, that seems a reasonable price. So what is the market like generally for antique medical and surgical equipment? The good news is that you can pick up curious and often macabre items without your bank balance needing a lot of anaesthetic before, or a long period of recuperation afterwards.

Worried about your next check up? At least you doctor isn’t wielding this scary collection, onsale at sellingantiques.co.uk

For example, the sellingantiques.co.uk site had 12 antique medical items for sale at the time of writing, priced from £315 to £1,750. Before taking the plunge however, it’s worth spending some time thinking about what kind of collection you want to put together.

If scalpels freak you out, check out this fascinating medical slides collection with mahogany boxes, onsale at sellingantiques.co.uk for an affordable £650

It might be medical instruments with a historic and connection, for example, and or to do with a particular discipline – surgery or dentistry for example. Hanging a saw used for amputation in 19th or early 20th wars over the mantelpiece might not be to everyone’s taste, but there are a lot of incidental items which can be very attractive – bottles used for medicine, pill containers, or antique medical cabinets, which are often beautifully made (and can be used for a wide variety of other purposes).

Meanwhile, quirky items, such as old false teeth or glass eyes will certainly be a great conversation starter. Or what about jars used to store leeches, or old anatomical models – remember the skeleton proudly displayed by Richard Beckinsale in Rising Damp?

Then there are antique hearing aids and hearing trumpets; although hearing loss is no laughing matter, the most extreme and decorative examples will often raise a smile.

Once you start to build a decent collection it can even become a money-spinner in its own right. Collector David Burns, for example, transformed a small antique medical instrument business started in 1983 into a 3,000 square foot warehouse in North London.

Over the last 30 years, he has supplied numerous collectors and museums with antiques, and even supplies items for movies and TV. If you need a Victorian operating theatre, with stained glass arch windows, working ceramic sluice and all the props you could need available on site, David is your man.

If old operating theatres and medical instruments for cutting, prodding and probing just seem a bit too grisly, what about collecting items associated with quacks and snake-oil sellers? These are harder to find, but even well into the 20th century, dodgy remedies and questionable pills and potions were being peddled to gullible or desperate patients.

A great place to read up about some of the more outlandish examples is the Museum of Quackery. Items range from the laughable (soap that claims to wash off excess pounds) to the worrying – a device that sends electrical currents to the male nether regions to increase virility and help cure prostate problems!

So to conclude, you can pick up medical antiques for a reasonable price, although items with the most historical connections and provenance will obviously go for a lot more. It’s a curious and fascinating niche to explore (and one that reminds you how lucky we are to have the modern NHS). Worth bearing in mind the next time you are browsing antiques portals or auctions online, or able to attend an antiques fair…

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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