It’s hard to find. A little room beneath a building at the University of Toronto. But when you enter, you’re stepping back into history.

This is where you’ll find a collection of curious medical and psychological devices. Some pre-date Confederation. Some look downright scary. All of them provide us with a glimpse of how doctors treated their patients for a wide variety of ailments.

According to historian Erich Weidenhammer from the university’s Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, many of these objects were either donated by collectors or simply discovered in nooks and crannies. By his own estimation, there are thousands of them stuffed away in different faculty buildings. He and others are busy cataloguing them with plans to eventually create a museum of medical instruments.

CBC News offers a sneak peak of what lies beneath Canada’s largest university.

Ether machine

Circa 1900-1910. Doctors and dentists began using ether as an anaesthetic for dental and surgical procedures in the 1840s. But people also drank it in countries like Norway, Russia and France. There were even “ether parties” held by women in their homes. Eventually chloroform became a more popular anesthetic than ether. 


?Circa 1940s. The tonometer was used to to test the resistance of an eyeball for glaucoma. This wasn’t a new idea. The connection between eye pressure and glaucoma goes back to the 10th century AD. In the 16th century, doctors would use their fingers to feel the eyeball. The technology has greatly improved. Now a similar test can be done without such invasive methods. 

Baby scale

Late 19th century. This belonged to Dr. Eli Irvine, who used them in his Weston, Ont., medical practice. While fairly common now, baby scales were a new and critical instrument for doctors at that time. First seen in Parisian medical clinics, they helped doctors distinguish between “normal” and “abnormal” infant development. 

Hellige hemometer

Mid-1940s. This little kit usually packed a lot of stuff inside it — pipette, a stir rod, eyedropper, a bottle of hydrochloric acid, labels and a syringe. Basically it allowed doctors to quickly determine a patient’s hemoglobin levels. The colour of a drop of the patient’s blood was compared to a scale of colours. It would have been used to diagnose conditions like anemia. 

Sling psychrometer

Circa 1920s, the sling pscyhrometer was a way of measuring temperature. It had two thermometers. One was a standard dry bulb to measure air temperature. The other had a wet wick. When you swung it around, it allowed you to figure out the relative humidity of the air. The sling psychrometer was used in hot environments like bakeries and factories to detect unsafe conditions. It is part of the collection of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at University of Toronto.

Wappler electro medical apparatus

Circa 1920s. For more than a 100 years, researchers were interested in the use of electricity as a medical tool. This therapeutic device delivered a high frequency electrical current to the body. It was believed to help treat ailments from obesity to epilepsy to even tuberculosis.


Circa 1940s. The Bausch Lomb Optical Dust Counter measured dust levels in factories, foundries and mines. It drew dusty air in and then it blasted the air onto a glass plate. The dust adhered to the plate and then, under a light microscope, you could count the particles. It is part of the collection of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. 

Obstetrical/gynecological instruments

Late 19th century. These originally belonged to Dr. Eli Irvine. When he died, his colleague Dr. William Cameron inherited the devices. Fortunately for women, many of these instruments have changed in size. 

Hygienic thermometer

Circa 1900. This was often found in the room of tuberculosis patients. It supported an idea popular throughout the 20th century that cool air coming from open windows was an effective treatment for TB and other ailments. It was called the “open air cure.” You can see that the thermometer indicates 60 degrees Fahrenheit as the proper temperature for a sick room. That’s around 15 degrees Celsius — pretty chilly.


Circa 1950s. This large heavy instrument came from the School of Hygiene. It was a “low-cost” version of a successful and widely used instrument for chemical analysis. The spectrophotometer was probably used to test samples of insulin at a time when this and other biological medicines were being produced at the University of Toronto. 

Einthoven string galvanometer

Circa 1920s. Invented by Dutch doctor Willem Einthoven in 1903, it was an early precursor to the EEG machine, providing highly accurate records of heart currents. At the time, the string galvanometer was considered the medical world’s most sensitive instrument. 

Glass ampoules containing injectable TB medication

Circa 1930. These are currently housed in what was once the Gage Institute. It was founded by Sir William Gage (1849-1921), a philanthropist and pioneer in the fight against tuberculosis or TB.  The institute focused on outreach, diagnosis, treatment and research from 1930-1970. It is now part of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at University of Toronto.  

All photos by David Donnelly/CBC