Historical Medical Tools on Show in Tasmania

From bed pans to bone saws, a collection of medical equipment is being used to tell the story of health care in Tasmania, starting with the convict era.

The Collection of Medical Artefacts, also known as COMA, has finally found a home at the Jane Franklin College in Hobart after years sitting in storage.

The 3,000-piece collection includes a set of surgical equipment from the 1850s.

The tools are displayed in a velvet-lined case, belying their more brutal functions, which included amputations without anaesthetic.

Curator Liz Bondfield looks at antique medical equipment.Curator Liz Bondfield said the tools gave an insight into the experiences of both doctors and patients.

“I imagine it from a patient’s point of view, imagining what it would be like to be so sick with an infection that the only remedy was for a doctor to amputate a limb,” she said.

The collection also includes some early dental equipment and a convict tooth, complete with cavity.

Antique dental equipment and a tooth.

The Heritage Programs Manager for the Port Arthur Historic Site, Jody Steele, said the tooth was one of several found at the site of the convict hospital, and had a “very nasty cavity”.

“[It was] pulled in a very violent manner, because all of the roots have been snapped off. So it’s not a nice story,” she said.

She said two of the first doctors in Tasmania were transported convicts who claimed to be surgeons.

“Whether or not they had the experience, we don’t have a clear idea about that.”

Historian Dr Alison Alexander in an office in Hobart.

But it wasn’t just convicts who suffered the trauma of early medical procedures, according to historian Alison Alexander.

She said Lady Jane Franklin, the wife of Tasmanian governor John Franklin, would have experienced some rather brutal treatment for a rather unfortunate medical problem.

“She had very bad piles that had to be extracted without anaesthetic of course — and I dare say there was some ghastly instrument for extracting piles.”

World War I medical breakthroughs

The collection also highlights the medical advancements pioneered during World War I.

“During the First World War science had perfected the art of killing, but it was also applied to the art of saving life, alleviating pain and treating those who had been wounded,” Australian War Memorial Director Brendan Nelson said.

He said wartime advances included the development of anaesthesia using nitrous oxide, and improvements in setting broken bones.

An antique medical knife on display at COMA in Hobart

“By 1917 we had the first blood bank on the Western Front, sodium citrate was put into blood that had been donated so it could be kept on ice for 28 days,” he said.

The war also saw the start of facial reconstructive surgery, using cartilage and bone from the chest walls and other parts of the body to recreate people’s faces.

Director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, stands in front of a portrait painting in a red room.

Dr Nelson said the collection of medical artefacts served a higher purpose than providing a medical history lesson.

“It’s essential for us and future generations to keep them and know the stories of them and of the people that are behind them, because that informs who we are,” he said.

The collection is available for viewing by appointment.

An old packet on cigarettes on display in a medical exhibition.Source