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Doctor 007? The Secret Gadget of 18th Century Physicians . . . The Cane

While researching stethoscopes, I ran across a blurb concerning medicine canes and found it so fascinating that I decided to write a blog about them. You'll likely find it as interesting as I did. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the cane was a symbol of medicine as recognizable as the lab coat is today. During an age when canes were a fashionable statement of social standing, importance, and prestige, it stands to reason that physicians would be among those who carried them. However, these canes were as functional as they were fashionable. Historically, doctors are often shown carrying medical bags, but those bags tended to call attention to the physician and the fact that he was likely to be carrying drugs - especially the opiates that were commonly used as medication. To lessen the likelihood of being accosted, doctors began to use hollow canes that served as a secret medicine bag - allowing physicians to store medicine and tools without revealing their identity to street urchins and thieves. The cane protected physicians in another way as well. On most medical canes, the head was perforated and contained certain vinaigrettes and aromatic powders that could be inhaled as a method of preventing contagion while treating patients. One of the most common preparations was called the "vinegar of the four thieves" - based on a tale of four thieves who robbed a plague-stricken city in France and sniffed this concoction to avoid contracting the plague. On rounds, as they entered patient rooms, some physicians would even bang their canes on the ground to aerosolize the compounds - something I imagine was a tad unnerving for their patients. Yet more unnerving is the lack of cleanliness these canes represented. While innovative in theory, the 18th and 19th centuries were not known for their strong grasp of hygiene or sterilization, and doctors would often make several house calls without changing or cleaning the instruments he had so cleverly hidden in his cane. These canes also frequently contained small flasks of liquor, allowing the physician to take a few swings on his rounds to protect himself from cholera or other deadly epidemics. If patients had thoroughly grasped just how germ-ridden that cane was likely to be, I think they would have been the ones needing the liquor. Romantic notions of top hats and house calls aside, I think it's probably for the best that medical canes went out of style. However, I can certainly appreciate this intriguing snippet of medical history - how about you?