Dunedin's medical artefacts: The weird & wonderful

Dunedin's medical artefacts: The weird & wonderful

A collection of macabre surgical equipment and bizarre medical machines is getting an online upgrade.

Thousands of artefacts are on permanent display around Dunedin's hospital and med school, but that history is now being opened up to the world.

Many look like they're out of a carpentry workshop, but the bone saws and amputation knives were a common part of surgery in the Victorian era.

"In the old days of course there was no anaesthetic, and there was no painkillers and no sterility," says curator Dr Paul Trotman. "So the thing was to do things as quickly as possible."

The Otago Medical School Alumnus Association is now cataloguing its thousands of artefacts. They're being uploaded online to create a virtual museum that anyone can access.

One of the rarest pieces is an acid steam sprayer, used by the man who pioneered antiseptic techniques. Lord Lister realised most patients having surgery were being killed by infection. His device sprayed carbolic acid all around the operating theatre to kill the bugs.

"He had many, many fewer patients getting infections after their surgery," says Dr Trotman. "He really was the father of modern surgery."

Other devices were less successful. An electromagnetic shock machine was supposed to cure people of nervous diseases, but it probably had the opposite effect.

"Everybody went, 'Oh it's mad. It's nuts,'" says Dr Trotman. "Now we're using electric shock treatment again, but in things like TENS machines and muscle stimulators."

A special cabinet is dedicated to "quackery" -- bizarre devices and remedies based on dubious medical practices. An eye massager device from about the 1940s would pulse on the eye, with the aim of improving your eyesight.

"Nowadays of course we just wear contact lenses or get laser treatment done to our eyes," says Dr Trotman.

But he wonders if some treatments we currently take for granted could be seen as bizarre or even quackery in another 50 years.