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  • Patricia Samford, Ph.D.

Free Neighborhood Clinics, Mid-Nineteenth-Century Style

Updated: Apr 13

Patricia Samford, Director, Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory


This group of objects represents some of the medical artifacts recovered in 1980 from a mid-nineteenth-century privy at the Federal Reserve Site (18BC27) in Baltimore. Documentary research revealed that this privy was associated with the Southern Dispensary.



A dispensary supplied medicine and medical care for city residents who could not afford to pay for medical services. These facilities were funded by charitable donations and from fines levied upon "houses of ill repute". Although dispensaries were much more common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a comparison today would be the free clinics located in select communities and subsidized by government entities.


The Southern Dispensary, funded by charitable donations and a small appropriation from the city, was incorporated in 1847 and remained in operation until at least 1889. The dispensary offered both clinic and in-home health care and was a branch of the Baltimore General Dispensary, which operated as many asfour facilities in the city.


The medical artifacts from the privy would have been types commonly found in a dispensary. A short iron casing containing an optical lens was identified as a flea glass. While often used by botanists and naturalists in the field to examine plants and insects (hence the name flea glass), this simple microscope could have also been used as a small magnifying lens in a medical setting.


Another diagnostic device was represented by a cylindrical brass tube. It may have been part of an early stethoscope, used to listen to the heart, lungs and bowels. Stethoscopes were in routine use in the United States by the mid-1800s.


A ceramic mortar, discarded because it had broken into two pieces, was traditionally used in pharmacies to crush various ingredients prior to preparing prescriptions. Also found in the privy was a flat, rectangular piece of glazed ceramic that was used as a pill tile—a surface upon which to roll pills by hand – a labor intensive process before automation.


Also discovered in the privy were a number of glass pharmaceutical bottles made to hold medicines for treating a range of medical maladies, including gout, tuberculosis and other illnesses not as familiar to modern patients. A St. Louis newspaper advertisement from 1851 for Dr. E. Easterley’s family medicine store stated that Bartine’s Lotion was kept in stock for the treatment of “rheumatism, sprains, cuts, wounds, ring-bone, pole evil, lameness, spavin, chilblains, sweeney, weakness of the joints, and many other diseases incident to both man and beasts”. Sarsaparilla, a key ingredient in John Bull’s extract, was an alleged miracle cure and used to heal an abundance of illnesses such as scrofula (tuberculosis) or “Kings Evil”. The accuracy of these claims was largely irrelevant because people believed the elixir would work. The cylindrical tin-glazed earthenware ointment pot in the first illustration was used to hold medicinal salves.


With large populations living in close proximity, it was critical for cities to provide medical services. At various times during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, infectious diseases, including tuberculosis, cholera, yellow fever and smallpox, struck Baltimore. Clinics, like the Southern Dispensary, played key roles in treating infected individuals and preventing widespread epidemics.




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