Cecil Symons (1921–87) was a physician and cardiologist at the Royal Free Hospital, London. He collected many fascinating artefacts which would have been used by physicians and for self-care in the home. The Symons collection is housed in the Treasures Room at the RCP, in a space designed especially for it by RCP architect Sir Denys Lasdun.
Although Dr Symons did not confine himself to one era – or even one country – his collection shows an enthusiasm for the Georgian period (1714–1837). Medicine was the focus of considerable attention during this rumbustious age, with vigorous cartoons and illustrations revealing much about medical practice – a rich source of information for Cecil.
Cecil died in 1987 and his wife, Jean, catalogued the collection with the help of Elisabeth Bennion. The display was arranged by Colin Lindley.
Visit the RCP to see the objects, or find out more about the different items in the Symons collection below.
Infant care and feeding
Nipple shields have been used by breast-feeding women to ease discomfort since the 16th century.
The nipple shields in the Symons collection are made from a variety of materials including silver, ivory, glass, wood, leather and even lead – not very good for babies! There are also modern examples of nipple shields. These show that while the material they are made from may have changed, the design has not.
Pap boats were used to deliver semi-liquid food to infants and those who were unwell. Pap was usually a mixture of bread, flour, milk or water, with some recipes adding beer or drugs to ‘soothe’. Three of the pap boats were owned by Lord Cohen (1900–77), a fellow of the RCP.
Feeding cups and posset cups
Feeding cups were used for people who needed help, as were posset cups. Posset was a hot drink containing milk, spices and wine or ale.
Two of the cups are for travelling, one with a demountable handle and spout and another which is wicker covered, resembling a thermos flask.
Sick syphons are similar to drinking straws and could be clipped onto a cup to aid people to drink. However, they were impossible to clean because of their shape and small holes and so were potentially lethal!
There is a great variety of spoons in the collection, ranging from early feeding spoons, teaspoons and castor oil spoons to double-ended spoons, some of which could be folded for travelling.
A clever French invention has two compartments, the first for medicine and the second for something to sweeten the dose. Such devices helped make unpleasant medicines more palatable.
Spoons for castor oil are often called Gibson spoons because they were inscribed by the silversmith 'C Gibson inventor', but they were invented by a fellow of the RCP, Dr Anthony Todd Thompson (1778–1849). These spoons have a covered bowl and hollow stem. When the thumb is moved from the end of the stem, the contents are forced down rendering the castor oil tasteless.
A silver spoon in a shagreen case made in 1755 inscribed ‘gift of the Dutchess of Queensberry to Lady Carbery’ is especially interesting as Cecil Symons hoped further research might reveal whether the teaspoon preceded the medicine spoon or vice versa (see the article 'A duchess, a physician and a spoon', by Jean Symons below).
One of the earliest spoons (c.1680s) is a silver feeding spoon with a long spout and trefid end pricked with the initials I.A.S.
The selection of tongue scrapers in the Symons collection is thought to be the largest anywhere. These fascinated Dr Symons because of the shapes and the variety of materials from which they were made.
One example was found by Jean Symons on a visit to India. Jean saw pilgrims at Benares using twigs from the neem tree to clean their teeth and then splitting them for tongue scrapers – exactly in the way the original scrapers had been formed.
Leeching, bleeding and cupping
Bleeding was a popular ‘cure’ for many complaints until the 19th century and the Symons collection contains many examples of bleeding methods.
Lancets and scarificators were used to make incisions for bloodletting. A cupping glass could be used in conjunction with a scarificator. It was heated over a flame and then quickly placed over the wound. As the glass cooled, the reduced pressure drew blood into the glass – a practice known as ‘wet cupping’.
Lancets were carried by physicians in elegant cases made from various materials.
There are three bleeding bowls, which were used to collect the blood. Two of the bowls are graduated to measure the amount collected, and one is inscribed 'St B H' which may stand for St Bartholomew's Hospital in London.
Leeches were kept in jars and carried to patients in leech boxes. Blood extraction using leeches was a very popular treatment in the 19th century, and leeches are still used in medicine today.
Stethoscopes were invented by French physician Réné Théophile Hyacinthe Laënnec in 1816. When he was examining a patient he rolled up sheets of paper to create a cylinder through which to listen to the heart, and found that the tube amplified the sound.
Stethoscopes displayed include examples by Laënnec and Piorry, and an elegant Neapolitan model made of tortoiseshell and gold in its original case. There are also folding stethoscopes, including one made of silver which was designed to fit into the top hat of a visiting physician.
A sphygmograph de Marey was an instrument used to measure blood pressure in the mid-19th century. The case is marked ‘W. Broadbent’. Sir William Broadbent was a fellow of the RCP and physician to King Edward VII.
An early pulseometer, ‘Dudgeon’s polygraph’ recorded the pulse onto a paper trace. This ‘pulse wave’ record was then used to diagnose certain cardiovascular disorders.
Thermometers and tongue depressors are also represented.
The Symons collection contains some esoteric items, including:
- 18th-century guinea scales used by a physician to weigh his fee (an important part of a physician's equipment)
- Chinese medicine dolls used by women to indicate what and where their symptoms were. It provided an alternative to a physical examination and protected their modesty
- political buttons showing Louis XIV before and after having an enema
- Charles I pillbox containing four divisions and a watch to show when the next dose is due
- a magnificent silver ear trumpet which unscrews into three parts and could be carried in a handbag
- a quack pregnancy test.
Collection catalogue and further reading
If you would like further information about the collection there is a complete catalogue available to download below. You can buy hard copies in the online shop.
Jean Symons has written a paper ‘The Symons collection: its origins and contents‘ (JRCP London Vol 31 No 5 September/October 1997) which includes details on how the collection was acquired.
Jean has also written an article about an intriguing item in the collection, attempting to get to the bottom of Cecil’s often asked question: ‘which came first, the teaspoon or the medicine spoon?’.