Living (and Breathing) Museum Research

What is it? Does this inhaler featured in this 1875 trade card reside in the Dittrick’s collections?

When the museum receives donations from the community, sometimes little surprises find their way into unexpected collections. Frequently, we classify artifacts based on the donor’s description and our expectations. Until we dig into their stories for an exhibit, these unexplored artifacts sit on shelves among surgical sets, microscopes, and pharmaceuticals, waiting to be discovered. One such specimen found its way into our work space as we pulled items for a recent installation on Obstetrical Anesthesia from 1850 to 1890.

We were familiar with the Bennett Inhaler (Fig. 1), a handheld device intended to be filled with chloroform for laboring women to self-administer anesthetic. During childbirth, women using this inhaler would lose the ability to hold the item close to their face, their hand would drop, and they were less likely to experience a chloroform overdose. Although we were delighted by this object, there was one problem — it was patented in 1910, outside of our desired time period.

Fig. 1. Bennett Inhaler from the Dittrick Museum Collections.

Fig. 1.: Bennett Inhaler from the Dittrick Museum Collections.

Fig. 2: Bennett Inhaler Ad from the American Journal of Clinical Medicine, 1910.

Fig. 2: Bennett Inhaler Ad in the American Journal of Clinical Medicine, 1910.

A little digging in an artifact box entitled “Inhalers” turned up this item: a small, hard rubber device with two nozzles, a center cork, and a lid (Fig. 3). Other than being marked “Patented in 1873,” we had little else to go on, except the hope that it was used far earlier than the Bennett Inhaler in obstetrical cases, and could fit in our exhibit.

Fig. 3: Mystery Inhaler from Dittrick Museum Collections.

Fig. 3: Mystery Inhaler from Dittrick Museum Collections.

The first step was looking through lists of inventions from 1873, published in the Official Gazette of the U.S. Patent Office (1874)– a task made significantly easier with digitized records. We searched individual patents for all of the the objects listed as “inhaler,” “respirator,” or “anesthesia,” and compared the drawn plans to our item. Only one stood out as a possibility (Fig. 4).

1873 Patent Illustration for Crumb's Inhaler

Fig. 4: 1873 Patent Illustration for Crumb’s Inhaler

Fig. 5: 1873 Crumb's Inhaler Ad

Fig. 5: 1873 Crumb’s Inhaler Ad

William R. Crumb of Buffalo, NY patented an inhaler of a similar shape to the Bennett Inhaler used, not for anesthesia, but as a general means of treating any and all respiratory ailments. An ad in the Gem of the West and Soldier’s Friend journal in 1873 claimed the inhaler instantaneously improved catarrh (excessive mucous), bronchitis, asthma, and colds if used in tandem with Crumb’s other product — “Carbolated Chloride of Iodine” as an inhalant (Fig. 5).

As a proprietary medicine salesman, Crumb fashioned himself as an “MD,” to assure customers of his credibility. However, in 1881 the Buffalo Medical College of Physicians revoked his recent degree on the grounds of plagiarism, “having been proven upon examination that the thesis upon which the degree was conferred was written by a Dr. Walton.”

Fig. 6: 1886 Crumb's Inhaler Ad

Fig. 6: 1886 Crumb’s Inhaler Ad

Despite this news (and a move to Ontario), Crumb continued to improve his inhalers and advertised their popularity in later ads showing a model of the inhaler similar to our’s. It featured a lid so customers could easily carry the inhaler in their pocket and sleeker medication chamber (Fig. 6). At this point in our search, we felt more confident that the object in question was one of the 500,000 products W.R. Crumb had peddled by 1886.

Although we couldn’t use the inhaler in our childbirth exhibit, we reunited this object with its story and made our archivist, and future researchers, very happy.


[1] Mattison, Richard V., ed. 1881. The Monthly Review of Pharmacy and Medicine 9(6): 180.
[2] Crumb, W.R. Improvement in Inhalers. U.S. Patent 134858. January 14, 1873.
[3] United States Patent Office. 1874. Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, Vol. 5. p. 665.
[4] Crumbs Pocket Inhaler. Haviland, C. A. and Mrs. C. A. Haviland, eds. 1873. Gem of the West and Soldier’s Friend 7(12): 522.
[5] Crumb’s Rubber Pocket Inhaler. 1886. Hall’s Journal of Health 33(12): ix.

About the Authors:

Catherine Osborn, MA is a Research Assistant at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History and the Editorial Associate of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry. She enjoys pursuing historical tangents and proving she can find any source online.

Anna Claspy is a summer intern at the Dittrick Museum and a student of history at the College of Wooster. She enjoys causing trouble on social media.

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