By Lorna Brundrett
Dr. Levy H. Warner of Elba, New York practiced medicine from 1825 until 1864. His medical saddlebag and the contents found within are the subject of my master’s thesis “19th-Century Medical Saddlebag: An Analysis of the Contents and a Conservation Treatment”.
Inside each of the two leather compartments of the saddlebag were glass vials with cork stoppers, metal vials with snug caps, and small paper packets bound with string. The identity of the seventeen different medicines discovered within the vials and packets had not been determined at the onset of this analytical and conservation project. By the end of this venture, information regarding each medicine was determined, and I conducted historical research to understand the varied medicinal application of the contents. Each medicine required a unique set of analytical tools to inform its identity and a distinct conservation treatment that was dependent upon the condition of the container. Upon encountering an object related to historic pharmaceuticals, I exercised extreme caution to protect the current and future handlers from potential exposure to heavy metals, explosive material, radioactive material, biohazards, and sharp objects. Regarding this project, I retrieved as much information as possible from the medicinal containers without opening them. This helped reduce the likelihood of exposure to hazardous materials and prevented unnecessary opening of containers.
The smallest of the paper packets was tied with a two-toned z-twist thread. I found the thread tightly wrapped around the packet in parallel bands in both the short and long ways, forming a cross on the front and back of the packet where the strands overlapped. The thread was securely tied with a slip knot. X-radiographs were taken early in the investigation and the scanned imaging plate revealed slender leaves crammed together inside the packet. Some of the stems and margins of the leaves could be clearly defined but not sufficiently enough to determine species or genus.
Inside the small packet, a thin, dark brown wove paper housed a wad of slender leaves. The two layers of paper had torn in one corner which allowed for small fragments of the medicine within to spill out. No handwriting or other text indicated the name of the leaves from within the packet. Therefore, there were three reasons to open this packet: 1) to insert a material that would assist in the containing of the ethnobotanical specimens 2) to study larger samples of the leaves in order to further their identification 3) to observe the hidden sides of the paper wrapping in the hope that it might offer insight into the identity of the contents or more information regarding the practice of Dr. Warner.
Slowly, and while wearing nitrile gloves, I untied the slip knot of the packet by pulling on the tail of the knot. The packet was released from the multiple rounds of thread that held the flaps of the packet closed, and the containing folds of the packet were unfolded revealing thick glossy leaves within. There was no additional text or information found on the hidden sides of the paper that were disclosed once the packet was opened. Fortunately, another packet from inside of the saddlebag required opening and did possess handwriting scrawled in black ink and read “Batavia, NY”. This kernel of evidence suggested the connection of Dr. Warner with this city.
Batavia is a small city in western New York and is smack dab in the middle of Genesee County. Less than six miles from Elba, New York, where Dr. Warner carried out his medical practice, Batavia is the county seat and therefore host to the Genesee County History Department. A wealth of maps and census records, the History Department has in its collection large metal filling cabinets of newspapers on microfilm from Genesee County, and luckily, their collection goes back to the early 1800’s. I scanned through an assortment of microfilm reels of local newspapers ranging from the 1820’s to the 1860’s, and pockets of information regarding Dr. Warner and the medicines he was likely using, or were available to him, started to come to light. Advertisements posted in these newspapers by drug stores, or “druggists” as they were referred to, offered long lists of medicines available for purchase. These lists typically contained two sections for medicines: “Patent Medicines” and “Drugs and Medicines” (or, as in the list pictured above, “Drugs and Medicines, Paints and Oils etc”). The vials and paper packets found inside Dr. Warner’s saddlebag do not bear printed labels or embossed jars that would indicate the medicine that they contain, so these advertisements became a vital resource in indicating likely medicines purchased by Dr. Warner as well as their colloquial terms.
Located on the second floor of the Science and Math Complex at SUNY Buffalo State, is the Eckert Herbarium. Filled with approximately 1,600 plant specimens of mainly western New York origins, the Eckert Herbarium is equipped with an organized collection of herbaria and an optical microscope. The method developed for optimal use of this space was to investigate medicinal plants used in the United States during the mid-1800’s, research their taxonomy, and then find those specimens (or as close to the plant species as possible) from within the herbarium.
The collection is organized within large storage cabinets specific to herbaria, and the files of specimens are sorted alphabetically first by family name, then genus, and finally species. I compared reference specimens from the herbarium to the leaf samples collected from the paper packet using the provided optical microscope. The smell of lavender hung in the air of the herbarium as folders of dried plant specimens were pulled from their stacks and observed under magnification.
The paper packet from Dr. Warner’s saddlebag contained small, slender leaves that were thick and waxy. After referring to the historical advertisements, I added “uva ursi” to the list of likely candidates based on images of the plant online.
Luckily, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi was found in the herbarium stored under the family name Ericaceae. Commonly referred to as bearberry or kinnikinnick, uva-ursi is a small, creeping evergreen shrub. A sample from May 9, 1903, had been collected at Foster’s Flats of Niagara Glen in Ontario. Comparing the sample from Dr. Warner’s paper packet to the dried uva-ursi specimen of the Eckert Herbarium found consistencies in texture, patterning, size, and shape. This evidence, along with historical advertisements stating that this plant was sold in Batavia, New York during Dr. Warner’s practice, makes Arctostaphylos uva-ursi a strong contender as the identity of the leaf samples found inside of this paper packet. It is fortunate that the herbarium had examples of this genus, let alone an example of this species found locally. The small slender leaves of uva-ursi would have been used to relieve pain and are known to contain anti-inflammatory and antiseptic compounds. A tea made from the leaves was, and is, used to treat kidney stones and gallstones.
With the packet opened, I could address the holes and tears of the wove paper wrapping. My desired design for the repackaging of the contents consisted of minimal visual difference of the packet after treatment, improved containment for the leaves to reduce future losses, and to have the treatment be as reversible as possible. I chose a medium weight Japanese gampi fiber paper to repackage the uva-ursi leaves. The strength of this paper was needed to endure the likely unfolding and refolding of these packets in the future. The smooth texture of the gampi will not abrade the paper wrapping that originally housed the contents. Translucency turned out to be a useful characteristic of this paper because once the contents were repackaged, they were faintly visible on the underside of the packet. This allows for a future opener of these packets to know more about the contents prior to opening. The tears and losses in the original paper meant the repackaging paper would be visible once the packet was reassembled. Therefore, the off-white color of the gampi would not be as visually disruptive as a white paper.
I folded the gampi around the medicinal contents in a similar manner to how the packet was found: folded in half lengthways, then in half lengthways again, then into thirds. Instead of simply folding the flaps back towards each other, one end was folded so that it was tapered and could be inserted into the folds of the opposite side. I labeled and dated this self-locking packet in graphite to ensure that my work as a conservator could be clearly separated from the hand of Dr. Warner. The repackaged contents were then folded back into the original paper wrapping, following the previously established fold pattern of the packet. I rewound the thread around the packet in both directions retying the slip-knot that secured the packet.
The unidentified medicinal contents of this saddlebag compromised its value to the owning institution by limiting its potential for educational, display, and research purposes while also posing as a potential health and safety concern. Utilizing the analytical techniques of multi-modal imaging, X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF), Raman, Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR), pyrolysis Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (pyGCMS), as well as access to the previously mentioned SUNY Buffalo State Herbarium allowed for the characterization of each medicinal item and gave many of them names. Examples of identified medicines found within the saddlebag include magnesium carbonate, iron oxide (which colloquially would have been called crocus martis), and mercurous chloride (which was known as calomel), a blister plaster that would have been used to draw toxins away from an afflicted area, the cathartic leaves of the senna plant, and gum arabic that would have allowed a doctor to hand roll pills by the bedside of patients. With the now identified powders, ethnobotanical specimens, resins, and gums a vivid picture of the needs of Dr. Levi H. Warner’s patients can be observed and they represent the concurrent acceptable medical practice of the time.
The 19th-century doctor’s leather saddlebag contained seventeen different unidentified medicines, one shattered glass vial, and lots of health and safety concerns. The analysis of the medicines and the conservation treatment of the components would not have been possible without the assistance of Jiuan Jiuan Chen, Emily Hamilton, Rebecca Ploeger, Patrick Ravines, Aaron Shugar, and Theresa J. Smith.
Lorna Brundrett is a third-year graduate student at the Patricia H. and Richard E. Garman Art Conservation Department at SUNY Buffalo State College. She is specializing in the conservation of objects, with interests in glass, wood, and health and safety within cultural heritage. Lorna earned a B.A. in studio arts from Bard College in Annadale-on-Hudson, NY.
(Read the article in the August-September 2022 "News in Conservation" Issue 91, p. 18-22)