Bigelow in the Basement: Medical Instrument Hunting in the Wild

This post originally appeared on, the homepage of the University of Toronto Scientific Instrument Collection. You can see it here.

One of the great pleasures of trying to piece together the complex and disparate elements that are the University of Toronto’s material scientific history is getting to go on strange expeditions to remote parts of campus. Recently the UTSIC was given a rare opportunity to plunge into the dark recesses of an old church basement and discover what first appeared to abandoned elements of some long-forgotten horror film, but in reality include fascinating objects from Canada’s medical history.

88 College street West, once a church, is now occupied by the Standardized Patient Program (SPP), which trains healthy individuals to act as realistic patients for the benefit of medical professionals in training. While the ground floor of the building is used by the SPP the basement has been long abandoned. At the request of the SPP’s Nancy McNaughton, and with the help of a Santa-capped Dave Finn, the building engineer, the directors of UTSIC were given a first-hand tour of the strange objects that can be found in the old church basement.

The first object we encountered was a mysterious chair on a small stage. This chair appears to be an ordinary barber’s chair modified with a metal head and back rest. It sits on an elevated platform and can be spun fully around. All potential clues regarding its origin and function have long since been removed from the room, leaving us completely stumped as to what it possibly could have been used for and by whom.

The mysterious chair

Close up of the brace on the back of the chair

Across the corridor from the chair is a room lined entirely with cork. Inside the room is a dusty mess populated with instruments and other objects. While we did not sort through this room in too much detail we nevertheless did manage to find several scientific objects including microscope bulbs, a photoelectric cell, a metal animal cage, components of an ether pump, an electric switch, a microtome (perhaps used, as Dave suggested, for slicing bone – although how he knew this exactly is unclear) and a large machine later identified to be an ECG machine (more on this below). We also found a recipe for a formalin solution and a box of glassware.

Paul contemplating the ECG machine

An electromanometer

An animal cage

A box of mouldy glassware

Building engineer Dave Finn uses his umbrella to describe a microtome

Components of an ether pump. Bottle reads “Bottle to be used for ETHER only.”

We had a few clues available for trying to figure out what these objects were and where they came from (it was quite apparent that this basement was never itself a laboratory). For starters, some of the glassware was dated. One of the pieces of glassware appeared to contain (or have contained) a solution that was initially frozen in May 27, 1957. However, given the advanced mouldy state of the contents of several of these glasses, we declined a more thorough investigation.

Frozen May 27, 1957

Progress was finally made when we noticed a box marked “W. G. Bigelow, Room 64, Dept. of Surgery”. This suggested that the owner of this equipment may be Wilfred Gordon Bigelow (1913-2005), a famed Toronto heart surgeon and researcher known for pioneering the electric pacemaker and the development of novel techniques for open heart surgery, especially inducing bodies into a hypothermic state in order to perform the surgery. After consulting several of Bigelow’s publications from the 1950s as well as his memoirs I was soon able to confidently identify the ECG machine. In fact, this machine (assuming that it is the same one) can be seen in one of Bigelow’s publications, reproduced below.

Dr. Bigelow’s publications set-up for hypothermic heart surgery. Note the ECG machine, labelled “A”, on the right. From Bigelow et al. “General Hypothermia for Experimental Intracardiac Surgery”. Annals of Surgery. September, 1950. p. 533.

The ECG machine in 88 College St. W.

This ECG machine, referred to as a “continuous cathode-ray electrocardiograph”, was manufactured by Smith and Stone, a nearby company based out of Georgetown Ontario, which produced these machines between 1947-54. A much-better preserved ECG machine can be found at the Flickr site of the Canada Science and Technology Museum. I suspect that Dr. Bigelow acquired this ECG machine fairly early in their production since, according to his memoirs, he and his team were using an experimental model given to them by an associate (John A Hopps, who also worked with Bigelow on the pacemaker) before it was widely adopted by medical researchers. Could this instrument be a prototype model of the Smith and Stone ECGs? When we return to the machine we’ll look for a serial number and other clues to find out.

Knowing that the equipment is Bigelow’s also helps explain the metal animal cage and ether pump. Bigelow’s early experiments involved extracting chemical compounds from groundhogs in order to discover the physiological basis of their hibernating states, and subsequently cooling sedated animals (mostly dogs) to low temperatures in order to operate on them. It’s likely that Bigelow’s items were moved to the church basement for sake-keeping when his lab, located in room 64 in the Banting Building (right next door to the church) was finally cleared out.

Having discovered these instruments, the next step for the UTSIC is to acquire and catalogue these instruments. Only once they are removed from the dusty church basement can we really begin to look at them in a methodical way.

Additionally, I decided to consult our old card catalogue inventory of scientific and medical instruments that was taken from about 1978-80. Completed by Joy Smith under the supervision of IHPST director Bruce Sinclair, this catalogue was supposed to form the basis of a new “Museum of the History of Science at the University of Toronto”, although this was ultimately not to be. Nevertheless, this catalogue has proven quite useful, as it often contains provenance information about some of the instruments in UTSIC’s care. However, it also stands as a sad reminder of how little there remains from even a few decades ago, since some items in the catalogue are unfortunately nowhere to be found and were most likely discarded over the years.

Card depicting a Smith & Stone ECG machine (1980)

Consulting the card catalogue, I found that, in 1980, there was a significant number of instruments related to Dr. Bigelow, including the original pacemaker, held between the University of Toronto and the Toronto General Hospital (either in their Cardiovascular Museum or in their Elizabeth Wing). Many (but perhaps not all) of these instruments were later gathered into the ill-fated Canadian Museum of Health and Medicine (CMHM), run by what would become the University Health Network, which closed down in 1999. Upon closure, the CMHM collections were dispersed to the Museum of Healthcare in Kingston, the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in London, the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Osler Library in Montreal, and the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford.

Given that these instruments (especially the ECG machine) were never acquired by any of these collections, it is likely that these were never part of the CMHM, and were thus never dispersed with the rest of Bigelow’s objects. Like so many instruments, they likely slipped through the cracks of collection.

In any case, the UTSIC will proceed to acquire these objects and do a further inventory of our old card catalogue to see which of Bigelow’s instruments listed in the now-decades-old inventory can be accounted for. With knowledge of these instruments, perhaps in we may organize an exhibition in the future, either physical or online (or both) around them and their relevant research and institutional history. Unfortunately, if rumours are true, it is quite likely that many of these instruments were discarded or irretrievably lost over the years. Still, at least we can make an effort to get a sense of the still-extant Bigelow collection.

Although the identification of (at least some of) these objects’ as Bigelow’s is a great discovery, more research remains to be done. What purpose did they serve and what research were they used as a part of? What kind of stories can they be used to tell about the state of cardiovascular medical research in Ontario in the early 1950s? And, even though no one believes it belongs to Bigelow, what’s the story behind that bizarre chair?

Yet more work to do for the UTSIC.

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