Warren Museum's Mystery Box Reveals a Twilight Story

Doctor’s Birthing Kit, circa 1910

Anesthesia history artifacts collected by Bert B. Hershenson, MD

Anesthesia history artifacts collected by Bert B. Hershenson, MD

This mysterious metal box filled with labeled glass bottles and anesthesia paraphernalia was one of the anesthesia history artifacts collected by Bert B. Hershenson, MD, Director of Anesthesia (1942–1956) at the Boston Lying-in Hospital (a Brigham and Women’s parent hospital). It was donated by Mrs. Hershenson to Harvard Medical School’s Warren Anatomical Museum in 1972 with no identifying information other than that it once belonged to a Viennese doctor “two generations ago.” A recent provenance investigation of the box and the objects inside, done here at the Center for the History of Medicine, indicated that the original owner was probably a turn-of-the-century obstetrician who may have been a practitioner of Dämmerschlaf or “Twilight Sleep.”

Picture of the March 7, 1915 Boston Sundat Post newspaper article, "Scores of Twilight Sleep Babies in Hub"

Boston Sunday Post, March 7, 1915. “Scores of Twilight Sleep Babies in Hub”

Twilight Sleep was introduced in Germany at the beginning of the 20thcentury. A combination of morphine, to mitigate pain, and scopolamine to cause amnesia, was given by injection to women in labor. Its effectiveness in preventing pain was minimal. Its true effectiveness was in causing many women to forget the pain and the subsequent extreme, sometimes violent, behavior the drug combination often caused. In 1914, reports of “pain free” deliveries in Europe gave rise in the U.S. to the National Twilight Sleep Association, which successfully campaigned for the widespread adoption of the technique. However, in 1915 Mrs. Francis X. Carmody, a leader of the organization, died in childbirth. Although probably unrelated to the drugs, news of her death and subsequent safety concerns caused a fall from favor of Twilight Sleep in America and the end of the Association. Newer variations on the technique did continue through the 1960s until the advent of the natural childbirth movement.

Object list:

Metal box (for easy sterilization) from medical supply house Medicinisches Waarenhaus: Berlin

Esmarch type inhaler (style introduced in 1877). The wire mask covered by a cloth kept chloroform from touching the patient’s face.

Chloroform, a surgical anesthetic.

Erogotin, used to treat excessive bleeding and to speed up labor.

Camphor, traditionally used as a topical analgesic, or to control nausea.

Morphium, for pain relief.

Unidentified bottle, with the handwritten word “injection’ in German.

Dr. Vomel brand catgut, probably used for tying off the umbilical cord.

Warren Anatomical Museum Collection, Center for the History of Medicine in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine

The Center for the History of Medicine is pleased to announce that the George Cheever Shattuck papers, 1822-1973 (inclusive), 1890-1972 (bulk), are open to research.

George Cheever Shattuck was born October 12, 1879. After completing his medical degree at Harvard Medical School in 1905, Shattuck embarked on a world tour and ended up stopping for several months to work with Richard P. Strong (1872-1948) at the latter’s laboratory in the Philippines. After his time in the Philippines, Shattuck undertook additional clinical training in Vienna, Austria, and then returned in 1908 to Harvard Medical School. When the Department of Tropical Medicine was formed at the Medical School in 1913, Shattuck was recruited as a faculty member. In 1916, the American Red Cross organized a medical commission to travel to Serbia to assist Serbian physicians in controlling an epidemic of typhus. Shattuck, Richard P. Strong, Hans Zinsser, and A. Watson Sellards were all members. Shattuck was responsible for the examination of post-mortem evidence and performed numerous autopsies, collating the data for the commission’s final report, published in 1920. From 1917 to 1919, Shattuck served with the Harvard Surgical Unit embedded with the British Expeditionary Force; after the armistice that ended World War I, he served in Switzerland as General Medical Secretary of the League of Red Cross Societies.

Shattuck returned to Boston in 1921 as assistant professor of tropical medicine at Harvard Medical School and worked to establish a service for tropical medicine at Boston City Hospital. In 1924-1925, Shattuck accompanied the Hamilton Rice expedition to the upper Amazon in Brazil. He co-led a medical survey expedition with Richard P. Strong to Liberia and the Belgian Congo in 1926-1927. Between 1929 and 1932, Shattuck led three expeditions funded by the Carnegie Institute to identify health problems in the Yucatan and Guatemala.

The papers consist of records collected and created by George Cheever Shattuck during his lifetime and professional career as a specialist in tropical medicine. Series I consists of materials collected by Shattuck with reference to the genealogy and activities of the Shattuck family from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. Series II consists of records reflecting Shattuck’s international medical work, including his trips through South America and Africa, and his work in Serbia with the American Red Cross expedition led by Richard P. Strong. Series III consists of materials related to Shattuck’s work as a writer, including the reports he produced in relation to the activities documented in Series II. Shattuck was also the author of a textbook on tropical diseases published in 1951 and multiple articles on the subject. Series IV consists of article reprints on a variety of medical topics, primarily physiological and embryological.