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.

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Posted in Archives, Medical Archives, Thingamajig
2 comments on “Thingamajig: baleen and Hyfrecator
  1. I love what you guys are usually up too. This sort of clever
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  2. Jack says:

    My father was a veterinarian. A Hyfrecator was used often in his practice. One just like pictured above. When I was young, I watched a surgery and while in use I penned the name we used from then on for the sparking machine. Cat Welder.

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