Treasures of the PI Nixon Library Blog

Treasures of the P.I. Nixon

Mystery of the Yellow Syringes

Photograph of yellow syringes


Yellow syringes?” you say to yourself. “Syringes are usually, well, pretty colorless.” That’s exactly the thought I had. My follow-up thought was that it wouldn’t be hard to find out about yellow syringes, since they certainly seemed to be unique. As it turns out, my first thought was right on, while my second thought was slightly off. After exhaustive searching thorough the Becton Dickinson catalog (see that nifty BD tell-tale symbol?), where I was sure the yellow syringes would be the stand-out ones, I turned to the experts: the archivists at Becton Dickinson. The excellent work by Mae Savas revealed that these syringes had changed color from clear to yellow during the sterilization process. Because of this quirk, the syringes never actually made it to market. Wait, never made it to market? Then how did they end up in the UT Health Science Center Medical Artifacts collection…and so the mystery continues. Drop us a line if you have a lead.

Amy Nurnberger, Public Services Intern

Public Health in Early San Antonio

1852 was the year that the State of Texas empowered San Antonio and other incorporated cities to enforce ordinances necessary for the protection of its citizens.  It was during this time San Antonio employed a city physician.

Dr. Henry P. Howard was the first City physician serving in 1854 and again in 1858. He was born in Washington D.C. in 1829.  He came to San Antonio in 1846 at the young age of 17 and took part in the battle of Buena Vista and was singled out for his outstanding bravery on the battlefield.   At the end of the war he returned to Washington where he enrolled as a medical student at Columbia University in 1853.  Upon graduating in 1853 he returned to San Antonio and became a Charter member of the Bexar County Medical Society which was organized on September 22 of that year.  It was 1854 when he served as the first City Physician of San Antonio; in this capacity one of his first official duties was to pronounce dead eleven outlaws who were executed by hanging by Asa Mitchell who was a member of the San Antonio Vigilance Committee.

Dr. Rudolph Menger was appointed City Physician in 1879 and he served in this capacity until 1883. Dr. Menger was born in San Antonio in 1851.  He attended the old German English School located on South South Alamo street.  Dr. Menger worked as a clerk in Kalteyers Drug Store from 1866 to 1869.  In 1869 Dr. Menger went to Germany and studied medicine at the University of Leipsic.  He graduated in 1874. He returned to the United States and served as a physician in the United State Army until he became the city physician in 1879.After his run as City Physician, Dr. Menger practiced Medicine in San Antonio for several years.  He is remembered for his nature observations and writings on natural history.  Dr. Menger donated a unique scrapbook of nature’s unique objects to the Bexar County Medical Society in the early 1900s.  This precious scrapbook now lives on the shelves at the P. I . Nixon library and is in the process of being digitized so anyone with internet access can enjoy its distinctive micro pictographs,

San Antonio’s first Board of Health was organized in 1883.  The Board of Health was composed of the Mayor of San Antonio, the City Physician, and three other physicians appointed by the Mayor and approved by the council.  The members of the first board were:  J. H. French, Mayor; Dr. Julius Braunnagel, City Physician; Drs. F. Herff, T. J. Tyner and Amos Graves.  The Board of Health was responsible for sanitary conditions, hospitals, and reporting and keeping of vital statistics.  Reports of communicable diseases were reported to the Board of Health by physicians, school personnel and homeowners.  With the knowledge available at the time health officials worked bravely to isolate people with communicable diseases.  Smallpox and Cholera were diseases that were problematic during this time.

Dr. Julius Braunnaugel was City Physician from 1883 to 1892.  He graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at St. Louis, Missouri in 1883.  He practiced medicine for forty years in San Antonio.

Later, from 1897 to 1903 Dr. Berthold E. Hadra served as City Physician.  Dr. Hadra was a one of a group of German physicians to come to Texas after the Civil War.  He was educated in Europe and served in the German Army before moving to San Antonio in 1870.  He was considered one of the notable surgeons in Texas and later worked as professor of surgery at the Medical School in Galveston.  He was President of the Texas State Medical Association for the years 1899-1900.

The faces of Public Health officials have changed over the years.  As we continue to move forward and face new challenges let’s not forget our past and the brave men and women who work tirelessly to keep us safe.

If you have any questions about this post, please contact Mellisa DeThorne @ 210 567-2470 or

Keeper of all things old and precious, Mellisa D.

The Fabric of Our Lives

Andreas Vesalius, a Flemish anatomist and physician of the 16th century, is considered by many to be the founder of human anatomy.  He is known for refuting ideas that Greeks and many other anatomists believed about the human body. He contributed to knowledge about the ocular anatomy even though the tools used in the 16th century were not small enough to dissect minute parts. Vesalius refuted the ideas of Claudius Galen, a prominent Greek medical researcher who only dissected animals and drew conclusions for human anatomy. Galen was not allowed to use human cadavers because dissection of the human body was forbidden, so he was forced to use the carcasses of monkeys and pigs. Vesalius, aware of these animal dissections, decided that all of Galen’s work did not apply to the human anatomy.

Vesalius graduated from the University of Padua in 1537 when he was 23 years old and shortly after became the Professor of Anatomy and Surgery at his alma mater. He gained access to human cadavers and started dissecting in the classroom with his students. Vesalius provided students and his colleagues with vital information about the human body and later wrote De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem (On the Fabric of the Human Body in Seven Books.)

De Fabrica shows different muscles and bones of the body by first showing the skeleton and then the peelings of muscles. The muscles are shown as if they are folded away from the body to achieve a clearer understanding of the shapes of muscles. Vesalius labels each part of the body with a letter that corresponds to a table, which gives the detailed name of the part shown. Vesalius had the help of Stephen van Calcar, who was the artist of these bodies. “The bodies are posed in front of what appears to be the countryside around Padua: the first six frontal views [of the bodies] and six back views can be placed together to form a continuous landscape.” These landscapes contrast with the lifelessness of the figures, even though their poses are rather dramatic and realistic.

Not only are the figures and landscapes an intriguing sight, the smaller drawings of female organs, veins, nerves, and other crucial elements to the body are meticulously drawn. Vesalius arrived at an interesting conclusion, which today seems like common knowledge. He determined that the brain was the center of the nervous system, not the heart, as previously believed.  Vesalius gained much respect and fame for his findings on human anatomy. With his success came plagiarism of his work by fellow anatomists, who poorly copied his drawings and findings.

After the success of his book among the public and his colleagues, Vesalius was appointed by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, as a court physician to the emperor. His lucrative position came with many enemies in the science and religious communities, pushing Vesalius to give up his anatomical studies. This caused Vesalius to burn all of his work, including various unpublished books.

Vesalius was a revolutionary thinker, who influenced modern medicine and proved former scientists wrong. Vesalius was a part of the Renaissance thinkers and remains well-regarded as one of the fathers of modern medicine and thought.

The P.I. Nixon Library owns a first edition copy (1543) of De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem. “Vesalius personally supervised the final stages of printing, resulting in a masterpiece with not a single typographical error.” This raises the question: did Vesalius touch this book with his own hands? A man who created a historical and scientific masterpiece that is still remembered to this day, and it lies on the 5th floor of the Dolph Briscoe, Jr. Library. To me, that is truly amazing.

Please drop by to see this beautiful piece of history. The Nixon Library is open Monday – Friday 8AM-5PM.  We prefer appointments, but walk-ins are always welcome. Any questions about this post, please send to Mellisa DeThorne at or 210-567-2470.

Sarah Borque, Special Collections Intern

An Anatomical Masterpiece

Bernhard Siegfried Albinus was a remarkable perfectionist, remembered for his beautiful anatomical work in Tables of the skeleton and muscles of the human body. Albinus lived 1697–1770, originally from Frankfurt, Germany and became a professor of anatomy and surgery at the University of Leyden in 1721.

Albinus became fascinated with the idea of “homo perfectus,” which shows the body “subject to physical and mathematical laws both anatomically and physiologically.” He worked 22 years at finding this “homo perfectus,” and was influenced by one of the most famous physicians of all time, Hermann Boerhaave (1668–1738). Boerhaave, who was his mentor and friend, taught Albinus about the mechanical function of the body using mathematical laws to explain these theories. Albinus took on similar attitudes while putting together his anatomical book Tables of the skeleton and muscles of the human body. He insisted on being completely accurate in depicting the human body, comparing it to an architect drawing a building with all the measurements drawn to scale. He stated in the book’s preface, “And not a single picture has been drawn free hand. All have been measured, brought down to scale, either from an indeterminate distance, as the architects do…” A new technique of anatomical illustration emerged from this desire for accuracy. Albinus used a large wooden frame that had nets and grids attached with the body in the center, making his proportions and perspectives more precise.

Although Albinus was the mastermind of this anatomical operation, he needed the help of artist Jan Wandelaar (1690-1759) to make his visions a reality. Wandelaar became a close companion to Albinus when he moved in with Albinus and lived with him for 20 years, allowing him to be completely familiar with Albinus’ visions. Albinus strived for accuracy and perfection, causing Wandelaar’s artistic talent and opinions to be overlooked. Although the drawings needed to be under the direction of Albinus, Wandelaar had free range to draw the landscapes, architecture and lush backgrounds. One of the best known drawings displays a rhinoceros grazing in the background, which was the “first example of its species imported into Europe.”

This book displays human bodies with fluid motions showing the beauty of each pose and drawing. In order to make this a reality for Wandelaar, behind the specimen being drawn would be a man of equal height and stature standing in the same position. Albinus also moved away from the format of previous anatomy books, which first showed the outside of the body while working their way deeper to the skeleton. He aimed at creating the structure first, which was the skeleton, then working to the muscles.

The P.I. Nixon Library owns a first edition English translation of this work that contains 40 copper plates of re-engraved copies of the originals done by Jan Wandelaar. It took Albinus eight years and 24,000 Dutch florins of his own money to create this illustrious book. In addition to the twelve plates representing the human body, there are sixteen additional engraved plates highlighting special muscles and parts of muscles.

Please drop by to see this magnificent treasure. The Nixon Library is open Monday – Friday 8 AM-5 PM.  We prefer appointments, but walk-ins are always welcome. Any questions about this post, please send to Mellisa DeThorne at or 210-567-2470.

Sarah Borque, Special Collections Intern

Bronze Hands, Anyone Interested?

Dr. Ferdinand Peter Herff was born in the late 19th century in San Antonio, Texas. Like his Father and Grandfather before him; Ferdinand worked as a physician in San Antonio for many years. Dr. Herff’s bronze hands were sculpted by Waldine Tauch, who was Pompeo L. Coppini’s pupil. The McNay generously donated the hands in 1995.

For more information about the Herff Family consider checking out their memoir at the Briscoe Library: or come to the P. I. Nixon Medical Historical Library and see the hands up close.  The Nixon Library is open Monday – Friday 8AM-5PM.  We prefer appointments, but walk-ins are always welcome.  Any questions about this post, please send to Mellisa DeThorne at or 210-567-2470

Sarah Borque, Special Collections Intern


Mellisa D.  –Keeper of all things old and precious

Nixon Library Owns Rare Tintype of Crawford Long

Photograph of Crawford Long performing a mock amputation on a sedated patient

The University Archives owns a rare tintype of Crawford Long demonstrating the use of ether as an anesthetic. Long is credited with the first use of ether as an anesthetic in a surgical procedure.  In the early 1840’s, a new fad of inhaling “laughing gas” at parties had developed.  Dr. Long noticed that persons under the influence of ether at these parties literally felt no pain when falling.  It occurred to him to use ether to render surgery painless.  On March 30, 1842, Long used ether during the removal of a cyst on the neck of James Venable, who insisted he felt no pain.  This was four years before William Morton’s famous demonstration of chemical anesthesia at Massachusetts General Hospital.  Dr. Long’s claim was eventually verified, and he is now recognized as the discoverer of modern anesthesia, although he did not publish his findings or make them known to the medical profession.

The photographic image, probably made between 1855 and 1860, was staged to portray Dr. Long’s original discovery and use of anesthesia.  The image shows a surgeon ostensibly preparing to amputate, an anesthetist monitoring the patient’s pulse and administering ether on a cloth, and an assistant standing by with instruments.  The picture raises several interesting questions: first, which medical man in the photograph is Crawford Long, since other known likenesses of Long bear resemblances to both the surgeon and the anesthetist in the picture; and second, what does the lettering on the wooden box in the photograph mean?

Crawford Long was living in Athens, Georgia, probably at the time the ferrotype was made.  He operated a drug store and shared a practice with his brother, Robert, also a physician.  Long’s approximate age at the time the photo was made would have been between 39 and 45, making it more likely that Long is the surgeon in the picture.  Could the young man administering the ether be Robert Long?  His dress and posture in the photograph suggest that he is a medical professional, and the family resemblance to Long is strong.

The wording on the box in the foreground reads “Williamson” on the first line, “Temperane” on the second, and “Ga” on the third.  The box is evidently a shipping crate and the words on the side an address.  It is speculated that “Temperane” was a misspelling of “Temperance.”  There were three towns called Temperance in Georgia, one of them relatively close to Athens.  The wording appears reversed due to the process of producing a tintype, which resulted in a direct positive image that was reversed.  Tintypes were on thin sheet iron that had been lacquered black or chocolate brown.  Since they were on metal plates, they could not be corrected by turning them over.

The Crawford Long tintype, the only known photograph of Dr. Long, was discovered in 1986 by an antique dealer in Gainesville, Georgia, who purchased it from a descendant of Dr. Long.  It was purchased for the Nixon Library by Dr. Scott Smith, who found the rare tintype at a book fair in Austin, in honor of Dr. Maurice Albin, professor of anesthesiology at the Health Science Center and director of neuroanesthesiology at Medical Center Hospital and the VA Medical Center.

To view the tintype, contact Mellisa DeThorne at or 210-567-2470.


Mystery Men

Your friends at the Briscoe library found a group photo with no identifcation on the back.  Help us identify the men in the photograph.   Contact Mellisa DeThorne at, if you have any information.

Steward of all things old and mysterious, Mellisa D.

Bloodletting in the 19th century

Bloodletting for therapeutic purposes was at the height of popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries (Davis & Appel, 1979). Though many styles of tools have been used to extract blood (care for a leech?), above are two examples held by UT Health Science Center Historical and Special Collections – a scarificator and a spring lancet.

 The brass scarificator has 13 blades and dates between 1833 and 1855. The label inside its box says “Geo. Tiemann & Co.; Manufacturers of Surgical Instruments & Every Description of Cutlery; No. 63 Chatham St.; New York.” The scarificator is cocked by pulling the lever. Then a button releases the blades. Scarificators were developed as an accessory for cupping, the suction of blood from small cuts using glass cups. The procedure went something like this: the cups are heated and applied to the skin to create suction; the cup is quickly removed so the scarificator can be applied, creating in this case, 13 quarter-inch deep cuts; the cup is reapplied, pulling and collecting blood from the cuts (Davis & Appel, 1979). After about 1780, cupping sets were being exhausted by valves and syringes rather than heat.

While scarificators and cups were used to draw blood from capillaries, the lancet was a tool for venesection. This style of brass spring lancet pictured above was made during the 1800s. The blade was used much like a fleam or thumb lancet to puncture a vein. An internal ratchet and spring mechanism allows the blade to be cocked and then released.


Davis, A. & Appel, T. (1979). Bloodletting instruments in the National Museum of History and Technology. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

(UT Health Science Center Historical and Special Collections has initiated a project to identify items in a collection of medical artifacts. If you have further information about the items highlighted, please comment.)

Have any idea what these are?

Can you help us identify these tools? Because they are vaguely catheter-shaped, my best guess is a urethral dilator or sound, but I have not been able to confirm this.  Each probe is threaded as if they attach to a handle. They are each about six inches long, and there is no opening in the end. Please comment if you have a clue what these are used for!

(UT Health Science Center Historical and Special Collections has initiated a project to identify items in a collection of medical artifacts.  If you have further information about the items highlighted, please comment.)

What is it?

The above tools, called trephines or trepans, were used to cut a circular hole in the skull. Practiced for tens of thousands of years, trepanation is believed to be the oldest surgical procedure practiced by humans (Frey, 2005). Early trepanations are thought to have been treatment for psychological disorders, epilepsy, and headaches (Frey, 2005).

The all-metal trephine pictured above is from after 1860, while the one with the ebony handle is from between 1860 and 1870.  Both have Galt-style blades, characterized by the angled grooves on the cutting crown. This style was meant to produce less bone dust than the older straight crown. During the 19th century, trephines were used to relieve pressure on the brain following cranial injuries (Bakay, 1985).


Bakay, L. (1985). The early history of craniotomy: From antiquity to the Napoleonic Era. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Frey, R. J. (2005). Trepanation. The Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine. Detroit: Gale.

(UT Health Science Center Historical and Special Collections has initiated a project to identify items in a collection of medical artifacts.  If you have further information about the items highlighted, please comment.)