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When house calls were horse calls

Yale Medicine Magazine, 1998 - Winter/Spring


In a box in an office at the Medical Historical Library sit a pair of leather saddlebags, stiff with age, frayed from use and still holding some of the nostrums and powders that made up a physician's pharmacopoeia in the first half of the 19th century.

Small glass bottles and yellowed paper packets contain such remedies as ergot to strengthen uterine contractions during childbirth and Peruvian bark to treat fevers. They belonged to Asaph Leavitt Bissell, M.D., one of Yale's earliest medical graduates. Dr. Bissell, a member of the school's second class, practiced in Suffield, Conn., a tobacco-farming community where his parents had once lived and where his family still plays a prominent role. Charles Bissell Jr., the physician's great-great-grandson and a member of the Yale College Class of 1945w, surmises that the saddlebags were always near the door ready for use. "He would hop on his horse," says Mr. Bissell, a present-day resident of Suffield, "and go out to take care of someone."

After Asaph Bissell's death in 1850, the saddlebags were handed down from father to son until 1996, when Mr. Bissell donated them to the medical school. "I thought it was the appropriate place to have them."

Asaph Bissell was born in 1791 in Hanover, N.H., and began medical studies at Dartmouth in 1811. Two years later he went to New Haven with Dr. Nathan Smith, who had been lured away from Dartmouth to become the founding dean of the medical faculty at Yale. Dr. Bissell graduated in 1815.

According to John Harley Warner, Ph.D., professor of the history of medicine, a medical kit of the time "would have included emetics and cathartics, and purgatives like calomel. It would probably have included some opiates. I would be very surprised if he wouldn't have had a lancet for letting blood [although no instruments remain in the bags today]. Anything having to do with surgery would have been very superficial."

According to Historical Librarian Toby Appel, Ph.D., the bags will join surgical instruments and other artifacts of medical history on display there. YM