Time Travel: What You'd Find in a Surgeon's Bag

sb1Just like Mary Poppins’ magic carpetbag, medical bags of the 1800s carried surprising things. The medical profession was more advanced than we may think. Did you know, for instance, there was more than one bag a doctor might have carried to a house call?

Depending on the type of call, a doctor would have grabbed his or her general medical bag, an obstetrical bag or a surgical kit. Here’s a photo of an antique surgical kit that contains scalpels, tweezers, razors, scissors. They would have carried suturing material and gauze bandaging as well. 


Throughout history, different cultures from around the world have used various materials for sutures. Human hair, cotton, flax, silk and catgut, for example. Catgut was the most common in North America. It didn’t come from cats but the intestines of sheep, cows or horses. Surgeons discovered catgut was much stronger than plant fiber, so wouldn’t disintegrate in the body and the wound would not open up unexpectedly. 

In earlier times, doctors sometimes used hair from a horse’s tail. My heroine does this for an emergency in THE DOCTOR’S HOMECOMING. In another one of my books, THE COMMANDER, the surgeon uses violin strings (historically made from catgut) when all supplies run dry on the battlefield. When he returns home, he cherishes that violin for many heart wrenching reasons.

If you sew, you may recognize some of these suturing patterns: the interrupted stitch, figure 8, and running stitch. My medical graduate in 1880 Montana practices her stitching techniques on deerskin.

Bullet probes and extractors were a very big deal. They looked like bent tongs or forceps. They came in various lengths to extract a bullet, depending where it was located in the body.

Other items in the bag included:  stethoscope, glass thermometer (3 inch mercury ones started around 1867; up until then they were longer at 6 inches, sometimes 12), splints for broken bones (versus casts we use today), large knives and saws (ours are often powered by electricity—yuck!), vaginal specula, forceps for labor and delivery, and bloodletting instruments. Blood pressure instruments started to develop in the 1880s but were inaccurate. But by 1910, most American physicians had a portable one that was accurate, as they realized the importance of a blood pressure reading.

Surgeons would have various painkillers at their disposal. (see my previous article—Painkillers of the 1800s – under Categories — Medicine — in the sidebar.)

What about anesthesia? Nitrous oxide (called Laughing Gas because it made patients laugh) was first used as a dental anesthetic in 1844. Ether was used for general anesthesia starting in 1846, and chloroform in 1847. Chloroform anesthesia became very popular after it was administered to Queen Victoria in 1853 for childbirth.  


Today, surgeons specialize. To name a few — ENT (ear, nose, throat), cardiothoracic (heart and lungs), orthopaedic (bones) and pediatric.

Historically, when did the medical profession start to specialize? Here are a few dates, but keep in mind surgeons were becoming experts on an individual basis before the associations were formed. So if you’re a writer, you don’t have to limit yourself to these dates. Your surgeon might be known in the territory for being an expert in bone surgery. What he or she carries in her surgical bag might be based on this.

American Medical Association, founded 1847, Philadelphia.

American Surgical Association, founded 1880.

American Orthopaedic Association, founded in 1887, the first in the world.

The Western Ophthalmological, Otological, Laryngological and Rhinological Association (eyes, ears, throat and nose) was founded in 1896 (dubbed the WOOL society.) It’s now the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Most medical associations began on the eastern seaboard due to population patterns. However, doctors in the West may have become members. They may have received a quarterly newsletter, or a monthly subscription to a medical journal. Newsletters would announce new methods of surgery, recent research, upcoming guest lecturers, or visiting doctors from England, where they had a close bond.

Picture a surgeon stranded on a Montana mountaintop, devouring every page of a one-year-old medical journal, desperate for news. Or bartering his saddle for one. In THE DOCTOR’S HOMECOMING, my hero barters away the heroine’s medical bag, much to her fury, to save their lives.

Maybe the surgeon in your novel is reading one of these major publications: Journal of the American Medical Association,  founded 1883. (Today it’s the world-renowned JAMA.)

Or the British Medical Journal, started in 1840, then called The Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal.  Today it’s the world-renowned BMJ.)

One of the many reference sources for this article was ANTIQUE MEDICAL INSTRUMENTS by C. Keith Wilbur. Others can be found on my website www.katebridges.com.

Back to Mary Poppins and her magic carpetbag. What is your handbag like? Are you a one-purse woman or do you have several, and switch back and forth? Is yours so big it gives you a backache? In a pinch, would you be able to pack clothes for an overnight getaway in your purse? Or do you, like me, prefer them as small as possible?

Do you carry anything unusual in your purse?

I’m not crazy about handbags, but I love briefcases. I’ve got them for all occasions—huge ones to haul books for booksignings, slender ones for carrying notes to a workshop, pretty ones that can double as a purse.



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35 thoughts on “Time Travel: What You'd Find in a Surgeon's Bag”

  1. Good morning, Pam! Thanks! You’re so right about that–getting lost in research. I always have to pull myself back. But I never know when I’ll come across something that’ll spark another book, lol… As I’m sure it is for you with your novels, too–that little spark that conjures a hundred images. 🙂

  2. Very cool info, Kate!

    I am a one purse woman. I have a bunch of purses in my closet that I’ve been given, tucked away in case I ever decide to switch purses, but for the most part, I use a small-mediumish black purse, with 3 large pockets, 2 small, and mostly all I carry is my billfold, keys and key chains, ink pens, small Post-it Super Sticky 3 x 5 notepads (In bright green, hot pink, purple or blue) in case i need to jot ideas for novels or a cool line I thought of, or to-do-lists while I’m away from the house.

    Occasionally I’ll carry the checkbook and a calculator or other lists for shopping, but very rarely. I can’t pack clothes for an overnight stay, unless it’s my 5 year old’s clothes. LOL

    I guess the most unusual thing in my purse is my keychain collection- A Raiders loop handle, a bead chain that says “Whatever”, a solid brass flat teddy bear, a die with a smiley face, a couple of hearts, flower, yin yang symbol and peace sign. Two different butterfly ones, a wooden one with my name carved in it I got at a fleamarket years ago, a “key” that says “God never shuts one door without opening another.” A Wulitzer jukebox, a 50’s Rock and Roll dancing couple, one with a rainbow that says “God Is Love”, an old purple rabbit’s foot my sister got me when she went to Myrtle Beach I think, and a footprint that has the last part of “Footprints” written on it.

    I’m a keychain junkie. :o)

  3. Hi Taryn! It’s very interesting to hear about your keychains. You are a junkie! 🙂 I’m generally a one-purse woman, too, mostly because it takes too long to transfer my stuff from one purse to another. The post-it notes are a great idea–I think I’m going to use that, thanks!

  4. Good morning, Kate. Wow, lots of great info on your blog today. It’s interesting to see how forms of anesthetics have evolved over the years. Thanks for sharing the cool antique book of medical instruments. It got me to thinking when sterilization came into play (for instruments and patients)… I think I read the turn of the century or later. Or was it sooner than that?
    Thanks for sharing your expertise!

  5. Hi Charlene! I’m still suffering from a bit of jet lag from California, but slowly getting over it. It was great to see you. You live in such a beautiful part of the world!

    Great question about medical sterilization. There’s evidence that ancient Greeks used to boil their instruments, but the practice died out in the Middle Ages. (And the death rate from surgery went up.)

    In the 1800s U.S., sterilization came around at different times in pockets around the country. Louis Pasteur (in France) was one of the fathers of microbiology, discovering pasteurization in 1862. They started laboratory research with germs in-depth then. In the 1870s, American doctors were taking things seriously. I’d say by 1880, most boiled their instruments. Careful hand-washing followed. But certain hospitals may not have made it a by-law yet, so that’s maybe why you’ve heard of the later dates. A smart doctor in the 1880s would’ve understood the importance of cleanliness, though.

    There was a time sadly, up to about 1860 and maybe even later, that a person’s chances for survival in a hospital were poorer than out, due to infection. Especially for labor and delivery, because doctors didn’t wash their hands between patients. Ugh! Midwives in hospitals were cleaner that way than doctors, and in 1841 when one famous Vienna doctor (guy named Semmelweis) pointed that out midwives had lower mortality rates than doctors, he was promptly fired.

    Even without germ theory, the heroes in our books always wash their hands, anyway, lol! Just good hygiene.

    It’s a good topic for a future blog! With the advance of germ theory, vaccines started.

  6. Hi Kate,

    Wow, loved all the info you shared today. I just added the antique medical instrument book to my “to buy” list of research books. Looks like there are lots of great photos. I get so excited with research I have a hard time sticking to the origianal quest. I never carry a purse, I’m a knapsack person. I started using one when I was nursing my first baby and had to carry a breast pump and assorted related items to work. Twenty years later I still carry one-a knapsack, not a breast pump-though if I have to run to the store I just grab my wallet.
    Anyway, thanks for passing along the contents of the doctor’s bag. The info on pain killers was great too. Thanks!

  7. Hi Kathy! I’m glad you found the info helpful. I think you’ll get a lot out of that book. It doesn’t have any photos per se, but it has hundreds of hand-drawn sketches of instruments, descriptons of how doctors used them, and timelines of how the instrument developed. It’s great for detailing a novel, and mostly for building confidence as a writer, knowing that what you’re writing is accurate.

    Thanks for dropping by!

  8. Good morning, I am thankful for the sterile atmosphere of my doctor’s office of today, but enjoyed reading all of your information.
    I love purses, handbags, totes or whatever you want to call them. I have large ones, small ones and polka dot purses. I am trying to carry a very small one but find myself without essentials. When my husband was traveling with the Profesional Archery Association, and someone neededsomething, they would just say go ask Connie, she probably has it and I ussually would. My purses then were huge.

  9. Kathy, I forgot to mention, your comment about the knapsack had me smiling. I can so relate! It’s always one of our carry-on pieces of luggage when we travel. LOL on the breast pump.

  10. Connie, lol on the evolution of your purses! I love looking at different purses and I appreciate the ladies who match them up with their outfits, I just don’t have that ability. Your polka dot one must be pretty.

    Oh, and yeah, thank goodness for today’s sterile hospitals.

  11. Hi Kate;

    Thank you for such an interesting blog!!!

    In so many historicals that I have read, I’ve been amazed at things that doctors were able to do so early on. I think we have a habit of assuming that ALL advancements were made in the 20th century.

    I’ve often wondered which events throughout history produced the biggest advancements in medicine and I wouldn’t be surprised if wars were a great part of that.

    I can imagine that doctors in army ‘hospitals’ (tents?) would experiment with any technique if it might save a dying soldier. Or would they not take the time? Were there so many soldiers that they were considered expendable?

    In your research, have you seen any evidence of war as a tool for medical advancement?


  12. Good Morning, Kate!

    It’s just turned afternoon here in Florida, but I’m still thinking it’s morning. What an incredible blog. Incredible.

    I love your research and I love all the information. You must have quite a background in this. Do you? Did you go to medical school by any chance, or is it just a subject that is interesting to you?

    I need to keep your blogs for my historical references. : )

    Thanks again for such a great blog.

  13. Mary–so nice of you to drop by! Thank you. That’s a really great question about wars. I never thought of it like that before, but I’m sure you’re right. It’s never been stated openly in my research books, but I know for sure morphine injections for pain really came about during the Civil war. They used to give it orally before that, but morphine’s not as potent or fast-acting that way. You are a smart cookie! 🙂

    Hi Karen–must be nice and warm in Florida. Thank you so much for the compliment on the blog, and I’m thrilled you’re getting something out of it. I worked as a pediatric intensive care nurse for 10 years before I got into writing. Then I found my novels often had medical characters, or emergency situations where regular people have to deal with medical stuff (like KLONDIKE FEVER out now). I didn’t plan it that way, the writing just led me because of my natural curiosity about medicine, I guess. Thanks for your comments!

  14. This is great stuff, Kate. I remember you saying you were going to write about a doctor’s bag. I need this for my Work in Progress. A burned out doctor who’s medical skills are badly needed. But he’s so emotionally wounded he sees himself as someone who hurts everyone one he touches.

    These kind of details from your post are wonderful.
    The books sound great, too. I’m going to get a copy of yours and use it for reference … as well as for entertainment. 🙂

  15. Karen–I forgot to mention. I no longer work as a nurse, but I’m still a part-time freelance medical writer. I write brochures for drugstores, etc, on educational topics like Arthritis, Common Breathing Problems in Children, etc. I do most of my research on-line these days, and it keeps me fresh and up-to-date with medicine. Lots of work, though! And double-checking of facts a gazillion times before anything goes to print, lol!

  16. Hi Mary C–Welcome! I remember you saying you were working on a novel with a surgeon. He sounds great, with lots of depth. I guess there’s something in his past that triggered his belief that he hurts everyone he touches. Ah, poor guy.

    I was thinking of you when I was writing this blog, actually, wondering if your guy has a specialty he “was” or “is” really good at, and what it is that terrifies him that he’s got to face. Good luck with it, I’m sure you’ll pull it off with finesse and humor. Nice of you to say you’ll pick up one of my books, thanks. KLONDIKE DOCTOR has a lot of medical stuff in it. KLONDIKE WEDDING came next, and I used a vet instead of a doctor in that one (that research was fun.)

  17. Hi Kate,

    You wrote such an interesting blog! Enjoyed seeing the medical instruments that were used back then and hearing the different methods of treatment. I always featured a doctor as having only one medical bag. Didn’t know they had several filled with different instruments. Interesting. I’ll have to rethink my view of the old west doctor. But I’m wondering if doctors in the old west had as many medical bags. It probably depended on the area and how settled it was.

    I finished your Klondike Wedding and loved it! The measles quarantine was a neat touch and kept Luke and Genevieve in close quarters. And then you had to throw in two murders. I tell you I was turning those pages fast and furious. And of course, your wonderful humor came through again. One of the funniest scenes was when Luke thought Genevieve was Penelope and grabbed her rear. I laughed too when Luke was going to kiss Genevieve’s cheek and ended up kissing her throat when she turned. I thoroughly enjoyed the story. Another excellent page-turner. 🙂

    As for the type of purse I prefer, I go for the in-between size. I don’t like the really small ones and I hate the big purses. I want to be able to carry most of the essentials, but not my whole wardrobe. And I switch back and forth between purses depending on where I’m going and what I’m wearing.

    Great blog! 🙂

  18. Lots of interesting info here. I still want to know who the person was that named it cats guts!!

    I’ve always carried large purses – I’m like a boyscout -always prepared. Now that my kids are grown I’m trying to go smaller but it’s a hard habit to stop lol.

    Just yesterday we went to an amusement park with my newly married daughter and the rest of the family. Said daughter totally has a fit that I want to wear a fanny pack but I do it anyway. Guess who made me carry her stuffed animal, sun glasses, meds and rain gear. yeah lol.

  19. Hi Kate, what an incredible post! Thanks for the terrific information. Last fall we visited the Shelburn Museum in Vermont which has a whole doctor/pharmacy/dentist building on display and the instruments and remedies were both fascinating and harrowing.

    I’m sure glad I live in this day of antibiotics and anesthesia. Watching HBO’s John Adams, when his daughter endured a mastectomy without anesthesia still gives me chills.

    My purse is usually a hodgepodge. I have a few I switch back and forth. But I like to have a few things on hand in case I get whisked back to another century like in Knight in Shining Armor.

    It was wonderful meeting you in SF!

  20. Linda, you’re so right about the variance in doctor’s supplies. It would’ve depended where they lived and how affluent they were. In an area of rich ranchers, like “Big Valley,” the ranchers would have made sure the doctor had the best of everything available.

    You’re such a sweetheart about my book. Thank you! I’m tickled you enjoyed it. Those two scenes you mentioned were two of my favorites. I especially had fun with the wrong rear end scene, lol!

  21. Jeanne, I was wondering where catgut got its name, too, and was searching for that but couldn’t find it. Maybe someone else can enlighten us? That’s very funny on you carrying the biggest purse and then everyone asking you to hold their things. I can relate! Us moms do all the chores, don’t we?

  22. Hi Tanya! It was so very nice to meet you, too! I hope you got home okay and settled back into your writing routine. 🙂 I think I’ve heard of the Shelburn Museum. I must’ve run across it somewhere while researching. We have an apothecary museum close to wear I live, and they’re wonderful. Not as gruesome as some of the other museums, if you know what I mean. I missed that John Adams special–oh, thank goodness! I can’t imagine that scene. Good thinking on the purse, in case you’re whisked back in time! Lol. I often think that when watching Survivor. After seeing the show upteen times, you’d think the contestants would learn that sometimes just the stuff they’re wearing on their backs is all they’re gonna get for a month. I’d strap everything I owned onto mine!

  23. Hey Kate – your blog post is fascinating. It reminded me about Dr. Quinn on the epidsode when a patient died on her table and she kept searching for the cause. She finally narrowed it down to bacteria on her surgical instruments and yet she always soaked them in – what – carbolic acid? – I think it was. Finally, she had to admit the bacteria was on EVERYTHING in her office so she had to take it all out and burn it – all her father’s medical books, her father’s (grandfathers?) Dr. bag – everything except the metal instruments which she then sterilized with this new – something ? – she’d discovered. A complete sterilization of the room before she started again. Sorry about the lapse in facts.

    My purse is stuffed but I use it for everything. My current one is a 3 sectioned beige and tan canvas one with lots of inside pockets. It even came with a small matching cosmetic pouch but since I don’t wear make-up often, I use it for band-aids, daily meds and sample packets of meds, etc.

    I keep my wallet and chequebook in my purse, and yet, I tuck my keys, change, and debit card in my pants pockets so I won’t have to lug my purse around if I’m just running into the store for milk and bananas or something.

    No, I won’t be able to pack any clothes in it. I used to use a backpack for whenever I got called out to work b/c I need a min of 3 changes of clothes for the TV/film industry, but over time I’ve picked up other solid colored logo-free clothes that blend in with the scenes. This necessitated me to start using a duffle/gym bag for my work bag.

  24. I ordered the book, Kate.

    I like to stockpile books with huge dramatic events in them, fires, plane crashes, tornadoes, to use as references…..how many ways are there REALLY to say, “The wind blew hard!!!!”

  25. I use a specialized backpack to transport my laptop to church (I write the church blog) or wherever I’ll be writing – like sitting in the café while kids are at swimming, library, etc.

    But for the ACFW conf in Sep, we’ve been advised not to leave our laptops or other valuables in the hotel room and I didn’t want to ruin my ‘business’ clothes by swinging a backpack over my shoulder. So, I went on a recce and picked out and rec’d an early birthday present. 🙂 It’s a new combo laptop case/briefcase on wheels. I love it! It has pockets for my one-sheet/sample chapter folders as well for any other valuable I’d normally put in a purse. I’m kind of nervous about it since I’d rather not be the only one pulling my laptop along, but at this point, it seems to be the most sensible thing to bring.

  26. Hi Anita mae! I never saw that Dr.Quinn episode, but it sounds very authentic. Carbolic acid sounds right. They also used it as an antiseptic for the skin prior to surgery. Funny how she burned everything, though. By that thinking, she should have burned everything in her house, too, bedroom, everything. Doing away with the books seems very dramatic–but that’s Hollywood, lol. Gives me ideas for fiction, though, thanks!

    Your rollaway laptop briefcase sounds perfect! I’ve never seen one, but I bet you get a lot of people asking where you got it. And rollers sounds wonderful, so your back doesn’t suffer. Have fun at the conference!

    Estella–so you’re a large handbag woman, eh? LOL. All sizes are in right now, so there’s lot of choice out there. Thanks for dropping in!

    Mary C–LOL on the wind blew hard. Hope you enjoy the book! I hear ya on the stockpiled books. I’ve got a cartoon one of The Magic School Bus going through a tornado, I have yet to use for one of my novels. I’m sure the driver (Lily Tomlin–forget her TV name) will explain it all to me in basic terms I can understand!

  27. I’m a one-purse person! I have several in the closet
    including a red version of the black Coach that I
    carry everywhere. My Coach, which has stood up to
    much use, is 7 1/2″ x 7 1/2″ x 2.” In it I carry a
    checkbook, a tiny spiral notebook, a rosary in a
    zipper case, pens/pencil, a key ring attached to a
    lanyard, a vinyl case with my library and store
    cards, and my worry rock.

    Pat Cochran

  28. Hi Kate…Interesting blog ~ scary but interesting. It won’t happen in my lifetime but at some point I hope that eventually medical procedures will advance to the point of being able to automatically diagnose the entire person all at once regardless of what they present with…guess I better cut back on those sci-fi books, eh? [I read almost all genres.]

    I’m mainly a one purse woman and actually I hate carrying one at all but when I do it contains regular stuff plus small screw drivers, condoms, digital camera, dental floss, cell phone, tape measure, chapstick, Advil, lotion, emery board, TBB list (which is many pages) and most importantly a paperback.

    When I’m doing any serious shopping it’s a fanny pack all the way (much to my sisters chagrin) with only the essentials – TBB is considered essential. I’m into comfort and hands free….Nancy:)

  29. Hi Nancy! Your take on future diagnosis sounds great! Who knows…it could happen.

    That’s a lot of stuff in your purse. Okay, had to laugh at screw drivers and tape measure. Love the paperback! I admit to using a fanny pack sometimes, too. They’re so handy!

  30. I am researching my third book and have enjoyed reading about the different items that was in a medical bag back in the old west. Will be stopping by our local library and will be reading some of your books.

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