Barber-Surgeon’s Instrument Case

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A rare 17th-century Barber-Surgeon’s surgical instrument case in shagreen and silver.

The instrument case opens at the top and at the side via a small end drawer. The closing clasp, hinges, floral button garnishes, and the drawer ring are composed of finely carved silver, embellished with beautiful floral designs. According to Henry R. Thompson’s Sergeant Surgeons to Their Majesties, this case would have carried a variety of instruments including:

  1. Sinus or dressing forceps
  2. Tongue depressor
  3. Scissors
  4. Measure for liquids or ointment scoop
  5. Dental scraper for scaling teeth
  6. Ointment spreader or spatula – couching knife
  7. Director probe – ring handle for forefinger – or a tongue scraper
  8. Director scoop
  9. Stitching cannula

A higher-end example of this surgical instrument case bearing the United Company of Barber-Surgeons coat of arms resides within the Wellcome Collection.

In the early part of the middle ages, matters of physical and spiritual healing, and the practice of medicine were tasks carried out by men in Holy Orders. In 1163, the Roman Catholic Church prohibited priests from spilling blood, which included treating patients by surgical means. Naturally, the task was passed into the hands of the Barbers, who frequently tended to the clergymens’ tonsured crowns in the monasteries with their knives, razors, and scissors. Already acting as assistants in minor operations such as lancing of superficial lesions, tooth extraction, and bloodletting, the Barbers were now encouraged to practice surgery; a task the priests previously held. In 1540, two groups known as the Company of Barbers and the Fellowship of Surgeons united as the Company of Barber-Surgeons by Royal Charter; a trade guild and a London Livery Company. The Barber-Surgeons were responsible for the study of anatomy, the apprenticeship and examination of trainees, and were leaders in the practice of surgery in England (Robinson, 1984, p. 1171-1175).


Robinson, J. O. (1984). The Barber-Surgeons of London. Archives of Surgery, 119(10), 1171-1175. doi:10.1001/archsurg.1984.01390220053012

Thompson, H. R. (1960). Sergeant surgeons to their majesties. Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England26(1), 1–23.

  • From the Lusignan collection
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