Revisiting a 19th-century Flea Glass from the Southern Dispensary

by Patricia Samford, Director of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation (MAC) Lab

Since the theme of Maryland Archeology Month 2021 is  “The Archeology of Healing and Medicine,” I thought it would be a great time to revisit a rudimentary microscope called a “flea glass,” which I first studied in a February 2017 Curator’s Choice piece. The monthly Curator’s Choice series highlights significant or unusual artifacts from the Maryland Archaeological Conservation (MAC) Lab collections, and a 19th-century flea glass from the Southern Dispensary in Baltimore qualifies on both counts.

“The eye of a human being is a microscope,
which makes the world seem bigger than it really is.”
– Khalil Gibran (1883-1931)

Nineteenth-century physicians often required more than just the naked eye to assist them in offering quality health care to their patients. Using magnifying devices, like this simple microscope, also called a flea glass, allowed them to gain a better view of wounds or conduct routine visual examinations of ears, eyes, and throats.

An example of a handled Flea Glass Dating to the Second Quarter of the Nineteenth Century.
(Source: https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/simple-microscope-flea-glass-245822098)

Invented in the 1500s, flea glasses were used primarily for studying insects and other small life forms rather than for medical purposes—hence the name. A small, convex lens held nearest to the eye and a larger, flat lens at the opposite end of a short metal tube allowed for magnification ranges of 6x to 10x.

The lenses and iron fittings of a flea glass or similar simple microscope were recovered from a circa 1850-1870 privy excavated at the Federal Reserve site (18BC27) in Baltimore. This magnifying instrument may have been originally mounted on a stand. A medical use for this scientific instrument was assumed because the privy fill also contained a number of other artifacts relating to medical care, including a mortar and pestle, a salve jar, a pill tile, a leech jar, a number of medicine bottles, and a possible stethoscope.

Flea Glass or Simple Microscope from the Federal Reserve Site (Top and Side Views).
Photo by Nicole Doub, MAC Lab.

Documentary records indicate that the privy was located near the Southern Dispensary, a branch of the Baltimore General Dispensary. A dispensary supplied free medicine and health care for citizens who could not otherwise afford medical services. The Southern Dispensary, funded by charitable donations and a small appropriation from the city, was incorporated in 1847 and remained in operation until at least 1889 (Woods 1847; Register 1890). The dispensary offered both clinic and in-home health care (Polk 1888).

Simple Microscope Mounted on a Stand.
Similar instruments were illustrated as early as 1685 in Oculus Artificialis by Johann Zahn

With large populations living in close proximity, it was critical for cities to provide medical services. At various times during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, infectious diseases, including tuberculosis, cholera, yellow fever and smallpox, struck Baltimore (Mdmedicine 2017). Clinics like the Southern Dispensary played key roles in treating infected individuals and preventing widespread epidemics.

References

Bradbury, S.
1968 The Microscope Past and Present. Pergamon International Popular Science Series. Pergamon Press, Ltd., Oxford.

Mdmedicine
2017 Epidemics in Maryland. Website accessed January 13, 2017. http://mdhistoryonline.net/mdmedicine/index.cfm?action=epidemics

Polk, R. L.
1888 The Medical Directory and Register for Baltimore, Washington, Maryland and District of Columbia. R. L. Polk & Co., Baltimore.

Register
1890 Annual Reports of the Register of the City and the Commissioners of Finance. John Cox, Printer, Baltimore.

Woods, John W.
1847 The Act of Incorporation and By-laws, of the Southern Dispensary of Baltimore: Together with a List of Officers for 1847. Baltimore.

Zahn, Johann
1685 Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus Sive Telescopium. Würzburg, Germany.

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