Today’s artifact is a leather doctor’s bag, owned and used by Dr. William Linthicum (1902-1991) of Rockville. The “Top Grain Cow Hide” bag is 16″ long and 10″ tall, and was made by Kruse in the early 20th century. Though currently empty (except for one last bottle), it originally held a variety of medicines and tools to aid the doctor in his housecalls.
A lifelong Rockville resident, Dr. Linthicum practiced as a GP and obstetrician for 60 years. He was the son of local doctor Otis Linthicum, and grandson of Dr. Edward E. Stonestreet; a 1982 article in the Montgomery Journal noted that the three generations “kept Rockville residents hale and hearty for 1.3 centuries.” When Dr. Stonestreet’s office was donated to the Historical Society in 1972, Dr. Linthicum helped us furnish it – but he did not give us his own medical items. Instead, a large collection of his instruments and office equipment was donated by his daughter-in-law Karin Linthicum, after his death.
In 1977 Dr. Linthicum compiled a charming little memoir, “He Never Left Home.” Though he shared wonderful stories of life in Rockville, and ruminated on his chosen profession, he did not mention specific items from his career; thus, the exact history of the bag is unknown. It’s clear, however, that it saw some action. The bag is sturdy and built to last, with reinforced stitching, a steel frame, and five metal feet; but the folds are worn, the corners rubbed, and the interior straps (to hold bottles and instruments) are bent out of shape. Dr. Linthicum estimated he’d delivered over 4,000 babies throughout his career, including a thousand or so home births; most likely, this bag accompanied him on those housecalls.
Though not often used today, the doctor’s bag was a necessity in the era of housecalls. In his memoir, Dr. Linthicum mentions that his colleague Dr. Jacob W. Bird (1885-1959) of Olney “removed my tonsils in a front bedroom at our house.” When you’re in the patient’s front bedroom, not a medical office or hospital, you need some supplies ready to hand. A sturdy and capacious bag, with a nice wide opening (the frame locks into the open position for easy access), is the way to go.
The Indiana Medical History Museum has put together an online display, “What’s in a Doctor’s Bag?”, and the Canadian Medical Association Journal also took a look at the contents of an early 20th century medical bag. But what of the bag itself? Though the black bag has become something of an iconic symbol of the medical profession, its history has eluded me today. Similar “Oxford” or “Boston”-style satchels and valises appear in Sears catalogs over the years, but none are specified for use by doctors; they must have been sold through more specialized means. The Kruse company clearly made a lot of doctor’s bags, based on the number of vintage items for sale over the internet, but its origins are currently murky. What I thought would be a relatively easy blog has instead turned into a rather more hardcore research project.