S0022 topThis small, innocuous-looking brass box has a special surprise inside: twelve spring-loaded blades, released by the lever on the top. Street-fighting weapon? No, it’s a medical device used in bloodletting, called a scarificator. WARNING: if the word “bloodletting” has caused you to wince, recoil, or cross your arms defensively, you might want to stop reading now.

S0022 side

The small, curved blades pop out of the slots. Surprise!

Before the discovery and acceptance of germ theory and other modern medical theories, illnesses were frequently blamed on an imbalance of the body’s “humors.” Bleeding (venesection), an ancient and very common practice, was believed to be a way to help restore that balance. Modern-day reflections on the technique of bloodletting might make it seem haphazard at best and fatal at worst, but in fact physicians put care and thought into how much blood to let, and there were a variety of tools used, more than just the trusty leech and handy lancet. (This short video created by the Rose Melnick Medical Museum details the 19th century methodology of bloodletting, including some of the other tools.) The scarificator, invented in the late 17th century, allowed the doctor to create a series of shallow cuts – the depth could be changed by altering the spring mechanism inside the device – and thus control the amount of blood released. Ours is not operable, but this site details the spring mechanism inside, and this video from the Canada Science and Technology Museum demonstrates the mechanism.

 The scarificator was a common tool for 18th and 19th century physicians, until venesection began to lose favor in the late 19th century.  (Here’s an article about venesection during the American Civil War.) Many examples, some quite attractively designed and engraved, can be found in museums and antique shops in the U.S. and Europe. Our particular piece is fairly plain, with only a simple “V” on one side – perhaps indicating the maker? – and in the standard cube-like form, executed in brass and measuring 1.75″ tall. Based on the style and material, it likely dates from the mid 19th century.

Dr. Edward E. Stonestreet, 1873. Courtesy Elizabeth Barrett Prettyman Guay.

Dr. Edward E. Stonestreet, 1873. Courtesy Elizabeth Barrett Prettyman Guay.

In this instance, it’s the scarificator’s provenance that is of interest rather than its design: it is one of only a few items in our collection used by Dr. Edward E. Stonestreet (1830-1903), a Rockville physician whose one-room office is now our Stonestreet Museum of 19th Century Medicine. Dr. Stonestreet graduated from the University of Maryland medical school in 1852, after several years apprenticeship with Dr. William B. Magruder of Brookeville, and he practiced in the Rockville area until his death (while on his way to a housecall) in 1903; he never retired. Though his office survived the test of time, most of Dr. Stonestreet’s medical tools did not.  A few pieces, including this one, were inherited by his grandson Dr. William A. Linthicum (another Rockville physician), who donated them to us after his grandfather’s namesake museum was created in the 1970s. The scarificator is often on exhibit in the Stonestreet Museum.

If you’d like to learn more, visit Dr. Stonestreet’s “office hours,” held on the second Sunday of each month at the museum. This month, February 9, 2014, interpretive docent Clarence Hickey will present a special program on Civil War medicine. 12-4 p.m., included with museum admission.

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