Thingamajig: baleen and Hyfrecator

By Alethea Drexler

Archives Assistant

Thingamajig took a vacation last week, but it’s back.

The mystery objects in the black lacquered case were called “bougies,” and they were basically medical pipe-cleaners.  They were used to remove debris from small wounds and orifices; the one of the most commonly-cited uses involved dislodging urethral calculi.

They are made of baleen, the keratin structure that some species of whale use to filter plankton out of the water for food.  Baleen is the “whalebone” that was once used to stiffen ladies’ corsets.


This week’s Thingamajig comes, again, from the A.M. Autrey, M.D. collection.

This is a Hyfrecator.  The name is actually a portmanteau derived from “high-frequency eradicator.”  It is used in electrosurgery, mostly for removing skin blemishes and reducing bleeding.  It differs from electrocautery in that electrosurgery is based on generating heat within tissues by use of an electrical current, and electrocautery applies heat externally.  Both use probes; you can see our hyfrecator’s next to it, on the right, in the box.  We also have a second, smaller, box with more probes in different shapes, for other uses.  (I once worked for a veterinarian and my boss often used an electrocautery to remove moles and small lesions from dogs.  We all dreaded it because it smelled terrible.  I hope electrosurgery is less, um, aromatic.)

This one was made by the Birtcher Corporation of Los Angeles, and is, according to the manual included in the box, a 1950 edition.  The manual says that the device was introduced in 1940, so this is a fairly early example.  Hyfrecators are still in use today.

Alas, modern hyfrecators don’t come in sleek, black, Bakelite shells.

Thingamajig: lacquered case

By Alethea Drexler

 Archives Assistant

A request was made this past weekend that the Thingamajig feature be posted on the blog’s main page so that it could be tagged and archived, instead of being replaced completely every week.  So . . . here it is!
Black lacquered carrying case

This week’s Thingamajig came with the glass eyes from the estate of Dr. A.M. Autrey.  Luckily, the family provided an inventory of the items they donated, or I would never have figured out what these are!

They are stored in a black, lacquered tagboard case, which looks very much like an old-fashioned eyeglasses case, except that it’s just over a foot long.  (That’s an ordinary pair of household shears, for scale.)

Inside the carrying case.

If you pull off the end, you will find a collection of slender . . . things.

Long and slender

They are quite long and flexible.  They are thicker through the middle and taper to fine threads at both ends, and have small bulbous tips.

Tapering, with bulbous ends.

You can see the tapering and the bulbs better in this close-up.

These are made of a material that once had many uses, but now has essentially none, since we have plastics and nylon to replace it.

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John P. McGovern finding aid available

One of the great collections housed at the McGovern Collections is MS 115 the John P. McGovern papers. For about five years, the archivist Pam Cornell worked with the papers. She did preservation work, organized the collection, created the inventory and the finding aid. The finding aid is now available in a printed format at the McGovern Collections Historical Research Center.

John P. McGovern
John P. McGovern

The following excerpt is from Pam Cornell’s biography found in the finding aid.

“John Phillip McGovern was born in Washington, D.C. on June 2, 1921.  He earned both undergraduate and medical degrees from Duke University.  His graduate medical education included training at Yale University School of Medicine and Duke University Hospital, as well as Guy’s Hospital in London, L’Hopital des Enfants Malades in Paris, Children’s Hospital in the District of Columbia, and Boston Children’s Hospital.

        “Dr. McGovern’s first appointment in medical academics was at George Washington University School of Medicine.  He then joined Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans.  In 1956 he moved to Houston, entering private practice in allergy and immunology and serving on the faculty of Baylor College of Medicine.  The growth of his practice led to the founding of McGovern Allergy Clinic, one of the nation’s largest allergy groups, treating patients internationally.

         “Dr. McGovern held faculty appointments at Baylor College of Medicine, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, UT M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, UT Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, UT School of Allied Health Sciences, UT School of Public Health, and the School of Nursing and Dental Science Institute at UTHSC-Houston.  Other academic appointments outside Texas included a position as Fellow, Green College, Oxford University, England, where William Osler taught.

        “John P. McGovern was recognized for excellence in many areas.  Early in his career, he was selected as the John and Mary R. Markle Scholar in Medical Science (1950).  Later he was honored with the Distinguished Award of Merit by the American College of Allergists and more recently was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in London, in addition to other awards.

         “Dr. McGovern received honorary doctoral degrees from 29 major colleges and universities.  Foreign honors include the Royal Medallion of the Polar Star from Sweden and l’Ordre National du Merite from France.  He served as president or chief executive of more than 15 organizations, including the American College of Allergists and the American Osler Society, which he helped found in 1969.

         “Dr. McGovern was known for his intense interest in rare books of medicine and in fine writing.  He donated a large part of his book collection to form the John P. McGovern Historical Collections and Research Center at the Houston Academy of Medicine-Texas Medical Center Library.  McGovern was also an esteemed writer, producing more than 14 books and 187 articles.  His editorial skills were prized by many medical journals and he worked with 21 different publications.

        “McGovern was a fervent Oslerian, studying and collecting material from the life and works of Sir William Osler and Wilburt C. Davison, M.D.  Davison, a Rhodes Scholar under Osler and then Dean of Duke University School of Medicine, profoundly influenced Dr. McGovern during his studies at Duke.  Dr. Davison retained Dr. McGovern for an additional year at Duke, acting as both mentor and close friend for the re  mainder of their lives.  Letters between the two illustrate their remarkable friendship.

        “As medical humanitarian, pediatrician, teacher, historian, researcher, and internationally renowned physician, Dr. McGovern shared qualities that Osler and Davison espoused, namely interest first in the patient and then in the diagnosis.”