Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Veterinary Phleme – an instrument for blood-letting

Daria Carla Evers,
M.Sc. student of Material Anthropology and Museum Ethnography

Veterinary phleme 1906.59.5

Veterinary phleme 1906.59.5

As in human surgery, blood-letting was the universal panacea, doing as much for a frisky horse as a recently confined cow.” [Elisabeth Bennion, 1979:219]

At first sight of this object [1906.59.5] one may think one is looking at some sort of a lock or even a musical box. It consists of a golden case of brass or steel metal, with a curved trigger and knoblike screw. The 4.5cm by 5.3cm octagonal base has 12 vertical slits and the box is 3.7cm high. The old Pitt Rivers Museum label, tied to the object with red thread, reads “Veterinary surgeon’s phleme ENGLISH Pres. by J.S. Milne, 1906”.

The instrument

The term phleme or fleam is more commonly used for one-bladed phlebotomy instruments. Objects like the 12-bladed Veterinary Phleme of the Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM) are more often referred to as “scarificator” or “scarifier” . They were usually made from brass, silver or silver-plated metal. This particular instrument was made sometime between 1800 and 1899. 12 strong and very sharp blades spring out from the 12 vertical slots on the release of the trigger. This method of breaking the skin for the purpose of blood-letting was developed in the late 17th century. Common sizes for such instruments ranged from 3cm² to 6,3cm² and the usual number of slots is said to be 2 to 8. The high number of base-slots in the PRM-object can probably be attributed to the fact that it was a veterinary instrument, used on large animals such as cows and horses. There were scarificators with two blades per slot, so there could be as many as 16 applied to the skin, even in human medicine. The blades on the Veterinary Phleme are rounded, but others can have been pointed. The depth of the penetration of the skin can be regulated by the screw. The earlier models of scarificators were intricately decorated. Decoration became less frequent when brass became the most popular material . Doctors only stopped using phlebotomy when it became known that it had no healing effect whatsoever, in the late 19th century. Bleeding with a scarificator also became unpopular when antisepsis was discovered, because the inner mechanism isn’t accessible for cleaning from dried blood and dirt.

Veterinary Bleeding

The first mention of Veterinary medicine is found in the laws of Hammurabi, 2100 B.C., as “a doctor of oxen and asses”. The first mentioned veterinaries in Britain were the so called Marshalls in the 14th century, which formed the trade guild of Master Marshalls in 1356. Later the veterinary treatment was performed by farriers, also known as “beats-leeches”. According to Elisabeth Bennion the practice fell into disrepute after it had been taken over by the farriers, who simply handed down their recipes, apparently without modernizing or innovating. To remedy the situation the first English Veterinary College was set up in London in 1791 by the combined efforts of the Odiham Agricultural Society and others interested in the subject. This college and another one following in Edinburgh in 1832 granted competency certificates to veterinary surgeons. Veterinary surgery was declared a profession in 1832 when both colleges were incorporated into the Royal College.

Veterinary Instruments

Veterinary instruments were commonly designed individually and made to order by the local blacksmith, but phlemes like the one here were also used on humans, even with twelve blades, so one can’t be sure, that it was manufactured necessarily for the use on animals, it might simply have been a human instrument that was used by a vet. One thing that is unusual for an object that was supposed to be used on humans is, that those kinds of objects were usually marked with a manufacturers trademark which this one is not. Some makers of instruments for human medicine also manufactured veterinary objects. The PRM catalogue states that the Veterinary Phleme was machine-made.

The field collector: Dr John Stewart Milne

The PRMOC names John Stewart Milne of Hartlepool as the collector of this object. There is no information on him in any of the reference books I consulted and the only thing I could come up with in an internet search was his obituary in the British Medical Journal of Nov 13th 1913 on page 1265. He died “while still in early middle life” on the 20th of October in 1913. Dr Milne was the son of a schoolteacher and later became an undergraduate at the University of Aberdeen in the faculties of arts and medicine. He graduated in 1902 with an M.A. and followed up with an M.B., Ch.B. in 1907. In between his two graduations he was awarded the Keith Gold Medal in Surgery. In 1908 he proceeded to M.D., achieving highest commendation for his thesis. He settled down in Hartlepool in 1898 after having served at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary for a year. At the time of his death he was a member of staff at Hartlepool Infirmary and owned a practice. At his leisure he studied the early history of his neighborhood and published several items bearing more or less on the history of medicine. Among them was a book with careful descriptions of Greek and other antique medical instruments which was published in 1907. He also published several articles on instruments used by the Graeco-Roman anatomists in dissection and the methods applied by the “men of the same time” in the treatment of fractures. His last work was a paper for the History of Medicine Section of an International Congress, which discussed the knowledge possessed by Galen on the anatomy of muscles. According to the PRM catalogue he donated the Veterinary Phleme to the Pitt Rivers Museum in December 1906.


Researching objects is probably never straightforward and this was also the case with this Veterinary Phleme. The Object-Catalogue entry informed me, that a phleme was a device for blood-letting, or phlebotomy. But the word “phleme” as a search term didn’t yield any results. A German audio-book of Patrick Süsskind’s “Das Parfum” provided me with a pivotal clue: In the story, a doctor is called to the bedside of the protagonist Jean Baptiste Grenouille when he becomes fatally ill, believing there is no way to procure the essence of a virgin girl’s scent in order to create the perfect perfume. The doctor, without even opening his case, states categorically that Grenouille’s illness will end fatally because his body is so full of blisters that a Schnäpper can’t even be applied properly.

Guessing that a Schnäpper was also a blood-letting device I checked the German web and had the pages translated. What came up were the terms “scarificator” and “fleam”.

Etymologically the word fleam (or fleeme ) which denotes a kind of lancet, goes back to the French word for such a device: flamme. This words origin lies in the Low Latin name for this instrument, flevotum which can be traced back to the Greek words φλέψ (a crude form of “a vein”) and the base of τέμνειν (to cut) .

Further Reading

Bennion, Elisabeth. 1979 Antique Medical Instruments Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications

British Medical Journal, Nov 13th 1913 on http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=2346377 21.04.09

Skeat, Walter W. 1993 The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology Wordsworth Editions Ltd, Hertfordshire

http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/jwstxt8.htm 03.04.09

Daria Evers, University of Oxford, England 2008/09