Sweetening the pill: containers for medicines

The majority of objects in the Casey Wood collection, as well as many of those in the Colombo and Kandy museums, are containers for medicines. Among them are a great variety of shapes and sizes, often matched to the specific types of medicine they were intended to contain.

As Casey Wood himself noted, the pill boxes are often very difficult to date. In the original catalogue and labels he attempted to assign specific dates to the pill boxes, but in his later unpublished piece, he concluded that it might have been better to simply have labelled them ‘very old’, ‘old’ or ‘modern’ since the design is apparently extremely consistent since the beginning of the Kandyan period (c. 1595). Ananda Coomaraswamy considered that his own collections mainly dated from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries and the same dating is given for most of the objects in the Colombo National Museum. The most common origin for all the boxes in museum collections is the Kandy area and the lac work seems likely to have been produced nearby in the specialist centre of Matale.


Two ivory pill boxes with bo-leaf patterns from the Casey Wood collection

The most ornate objects are made from ivory.  Very often they are decorated in red and black lacquer, usually with a pattern that is a stylised version of the bo-tree (Ficus religiosa). These objects are normally very small and have been made through skilful lathe-work. As ivory was a commodity controlled by the Kandyan king in this period, these valuable containers were probably owned by court physicians or given as gifts to monasteries.

The same pattern is often used to decorate relic caskets, which are also many from ivory. In fact, the bo-tree is considered to be a relic of the Buddha. It also provides a link to the ancient capital of Anuradhapura, where the original bo tree was planted. The use of the same design for these pill boxes is a demonstration of the close links between Buddhism and the practise of medicine. (See Jinadasa Liyanaratne, Buddhism and Traditional Medicine in Sri Lanka. Kelaniya: KelaniyaPress, 1999.)

The most remarkable of these ivory pill boxes is in the Colombo National Museum. As well as the main container, it has five miniature containers attached to its lid. Perhaps this container was intended to correspond to a particular treatment regime.

Other materials that were used to make containers for pills, powders, and ointments include wood, and buffalo horn, and metal. The antiquity of the practise of using horn as a container for medicaments is demonstrated by a passage from the Culavamsa chronicle, in which King Parakkamabābu (1153-86 AD) orders the preparation of: ‘different kinds of medicine, preserved in cow horns for the healing of venomous wounds caused by poisoned arrows.’

Some of the pill boxes made from horn are given horn-like shapes, while others have a similar form to the ivory objects. In a couple of examples in both the Casey Wood collection and the Colombo Museum, the horn containers have a ivory stopper that doubles-up as a seal for letters or other important papers.


A horn container including ivory seal from the Casey Wood collection.

In a few cases, the pill boxes are made into more unusual shapes. Examples from the Colombo Museum include a small wooden container in the shape of an elephant and another that resembles an acorn. In one example from the Casey Wood collection, a brass box has been cast in the shape of a medicinal fruit.

Fruit-shaped brass box for pills

Fruit-shaped brass box for pills

Why make pill boxes so ornate? There are various possible explanations. Compact containers designed specifically for particular drugs and regimes are useful for medical professionals who need to carry a range of containers with them. Patients are less likely to lose or forget about high quality objects. They are also more likely to be convinced of the power of medicines that are packaged using symbols that relate to other forms of power. In the case of the ivory pill boxes decorated with the symbol of the bo tree, the healing power of the Buddha and his relics is conferred on the contents.




The Migration of Form: Watches, Clocks and Locks

Some of the most ornate items in the Casey Wood collection are killōṭaya or lime cases. These are usually made from copper, brass more rarely from a precious metal and sometimes from iron or steel. The lime was combined with betel leaves and spices and chewed.


These elaborate cases served as status symbols among those who carried them and the habit of doing so spread to the Portuguese in Asia by the sixteenth century.

The form of the killōṭaya clearly resembles the European pocket watch. However, which way the borrowing went in this case remains unclear. The same is true for the several brass and copper containers for dried medicines that have a very similar form to Dutch tobacco boxes, but which Casey Wood considered to pre-date them.

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In the case of the clock faces that appear on a few of the more unique items in the collection, it is clear that the Sri Lankan craftsmen borrowed from European models. Clockwork items were in fact some of the most popular items of European make during the first few centuries of trade with Asia. However, the way in which the concept of a clock-face was used is thoroughly unique.


[Photograph courtesy of Redpath Museum: A. Gibbs]

In this box and two others like it that appear in the collection, the clock face serves to operate a combination lock when the dials are turned to face a particular point. They served as an early form of child-resistant packaging for dangerous medicines.

While Sri Lankan craftsmen were intrigued by the mechanisms they observed on European clockwork, clocks were not often adopted in Asia because they tended to malfunction in more humid climates. Instead, the vederala would make use of a water clock or pē-tẹṭiya to time preparations and treatments.


Robert Knox, the seventeenth century English captive in the kingdom of Kandy describes these devices:

 It is a Copper Dish holding about a Pint, with a very small hole in the bottom. This dish they set swimming in an Earthern Pot of water, the water leaking in at the bottom til the dish be full, it sinks.

Similar devices were in use in India, and as another seventeenth century traveller, Thomas Bowery, noted they were adopted as time-keepers in the English and Dutch settlements there.

The vederala and the kaparula

Among the Casey Wood papers in the Osler Library (box file 4/6/5)  is a paper entitled ‘The Outfit of a Native Doctor (Vederala) in Ancient and Medieval Times’ that he intended for publication in the journal Annals of Medical History. As far as I know, the paper was never actually published.

The article describes the dress and daily practise of the Vederala, or ‘native doctor’.


The picture of the Vederala in full dress is presumably intended to belong to the late sixteenth century. Casey Wood writes:

The Vederala impersonating this figure belongs to a family of Native Doctors whose ancestor was a Court Physician under King Vimala Dharma Surya of Kandy in 1594. Note his small wallet, ceremonial or ranking stylus and dagger, ola, chambered staff and scarf. The attendant carries the bulat-payiya for extra clothing, medico-surgical supplies etc. a large embroidered, velvet wallet indicative of his status that corresponds to the European saddle bag.

Casey Wood had already described the Vederala in his ‘Ayurvedic Medicine in Ancient and Medieval Ceylon’, reprinted from Annals of Med. Hist. VIII, 4, (1927) 435-445. Here he paints a picture of the Vederala as a respected figure, living off gifts and perquisites, performing religious duties at the temple or in his own house, directing assistants at the pharmacy, dictating to pupils, and making the rounds of his patients. In the later paper, he adds a few more details, noting the common custom of patients of presenting to the doctor bulath burulla, forty betel leaves, tied in a bundle. He also notes that favourable omens for the day could include the sighting of a pretty maid with a pot of water or a milch cow.

In ‘‘The Outfit of a Native Doctor’, Casey Wood goes into more detail about some of objects the Vederala is carrying in his reconstruction. Some of these objects are indications of status: for example the dagger and ceremonial stylus. Several of these daggers remain in the Redpath Museum and are beautiful objects, sometimes with silver or gold inlaid blades and hilts carved into the shapes of mythological beasts, which themselves could serve as an indication of rank.


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The sheaths of these daggers also contained the ceremonial stylus


As Casey Wood noted, a ceremonial stylus would have been difficult to write with, and the Vederala would have ordinarily used a shorter instrument for writing prescriptions on ola leaves. In a letter to  Dr. Irvine S. Cutter, Dean Northwestern Medical School, he wrote:

I am informed that the Native Doctor sometimes did use his ceremonial stylus or one carried by his assistant, for writing short notes, directions to his students or prescriptions, but the formal book manuscript was nearly always written by a stylus twice as long as the ceremonial instrument, and used in a very different manner

In the same letter, Wood adds that;

[O]n ceremonial occasions, especially on visits to a noble’s or royal court, the gilt, silver, or jewel hilt of the dagger and the ornamented head of the stylus was exposed in the sheaths much as I have tied them for inspection – like unto the academic togs of the many-degreed in our day

The chambered staff carried by the Vederala could also be an indication of rank, as well as functioning as a conveniently portable pill box. The staffs were often made from horn or ivory, high-status materials controlled by the Kandyan court.


These staffs remain both among the Casey Wood collection and in the National Museum in Colombo.

Closer inspection of two staffs in the Colombo Museum threw up some questions about the Vederala and another figure described by Casey Wood: the Kaparula.



The two staffs are very similar and in the labels that accompany the exhibit, they are both described as ‘doctor’s staffs’. However, as the current Curator of the Museum pointed out to me, the staff on the bottom belongs to the Kaparula, or ‘devil dancer’.

Casey Wood also photographed the Kaparula for his files, he is shown here with the yak-sanni demons performing a ritual against fever.


Casey Wood also describes the practise of the Kaparula, in his article entitled ‘Sinhalese and South Indian Ceremonials in the Prevention and Treatment of Disease’, Annals of Medical History, 1934, pp. 483-490. Here he explains the widespread belief that illness can be caused by evil spirits called ‘Yaka’, who form a large community governed by a king with a series of officers under him. These spirits may be defeated by the use of mantras, written in number of languages on ola leaves. Other treatments include transferring the disease to an inanimate object or ‘cutting it out’; fumigration, the use of strings or threads to draw out disease, and ceremonies to involving deities (which he compares to Catholic ceremonies).

The idea behind the ‘devil dance’ that is photographed is said to be that the devils will look upon the dancers with a sort of brotherly compassion (as a fellow devil) and so that when his influence is transferred from the patient to them, they have no further malign influence. During the dance, the dancer should recite the devil’s verses, yak-kavi, giving the name, birth, parentage and other details of the demon in question so that the demon can see that the dancer is ‘the knowing one’ and that his demands must be met. With his customary attention to material detail, Wood note that the ‘devil drum’, or yak-beraya’ is made from the wood of the Talipot tree.

While Wood was more open to describing the spiritual aspect of healing than many others of his generation he did not hestitate to mock beliefs he regarded as the province of the uneducated lower classes or the ceremonials that reminded him too much of Catholicism:

 [T]he same bastard alliance between religion and therapeutics has held sway among about the same class and to about the same extent, among the peoples of the Orient as it has done in occidental countries.

Wood returns to his Vederala to imagine his view on the subject, concluding that his relationship with the Kaparula was ambivalent at best. But, if Wood was convinced that the Kaparula possessed a lower status than the Vederala, the Kaparula’s staff, every bit as ornate as that of the Vederala, seems to tell a different story.



What is an ola?

Our last few posts in this blog have focused on the medical objects in Casey Wood’s collections, about 200 items in all. Casey Wood also collected around the same number of palm leaf manuscripts, or ‘olas’, many of which are in the Osler library and the Rare Books Department at McGill.

What is an ‘ola’? Andreas Nell published a short article on this subject, entitled ‘Ceylon (Sinhalese) Ola or Book Manuscripts on Early Medicines and How They Were Made’ in the Ceylon Observer Annual of 1932. Casey Wood added his thoughts in an unpublished piece entitled simply ‘Medical Olas’. Taken together, these two pieces provide an in-depth description of the complex processes of making these beautiful books.

The palm leaves used to make the ola are either the Talipat palm (Corypha umbrculifera) or, usually in the north of Sri Lanka, the Palmyra (Borassus flabellifer).

Talipot palm in the Royal Botanical Garden, Peradeniya

Talipot palm in the Royal Botanical Garden, Peradeniya

As Nell notes, the unfinished book is called the karakola and is usually used for children who are learning to write with the blunt stylus (ulkatuwa). The finished product is the puskola. Casey Wood explains how the palm leaves are prepared, dried, and stored:

The material used is not the mature leaf, but is taken from the unopened spathe containing the immature fronds. After due preparation it appears as a hard, tough strip resembling papyrus. The strips are exposed to the dew for three nights, after which point they become supple.

When there is no immediate demand, the strips are tidily rolled into reels measuring 12 inches or more across and put into storage for later completion of the process. Where there is immediate demand the process is completed without storage. A short length of the hard trunk of the Areca palm is planed and polished very smooth, fastened horizontally about two or three feet from the ground to two adjoining areca nut trees or posts in the monastery yard. The ola strip is placed across the smooth cylindrical bar, the stalk-end weighed by a heavy stone, which is pulled up and down to smoothen and polish the leaf. The leaf is then turned over and the process continues on the smooth areca nut trunk.

The stripes are then cut into the required lengths, depending on the directions of the scribe. After cutting into the required sizes, binding into piles is usual: and for this the olas are perforated. The two perforations are exactly mid-way between the long sides; the position between the ends is determined by an ancient rule given in a Sanskrit quatrain.

The next step, the binding, is ‘a sort of filling’. Two flat boards, slightly larger than the ola page are perforated to correspond to the holes in the ola; two smooth pegs are fastened into the holes in the board on the inner side; on these projecting pegs, the olas are strung in an even pile, the pack then being closed by the other board being placed over the pegs and the whole tied with string. The edges of the book olas are singed with a hot iron to clear them of stray fibres and the firm, compact bundle is stored away in a book-cupboard. If known, the correct number of pages were made up and numbered at this stage.

As Nell explains, not only the space between the perforations, but also the width of the book has been set at the standard width (two and a quarter inches) since ancient time. The length of the book is variable, as is the number of pages it includes. The largest ola manuscript in the Casey Wood collection contains over seven hundred leaves.

Copy of the Yogaratnakaraya made in 1710, Osler Library

Copy of the Yogaratnakaraya made in 1710, Osler Library

Once the palm leaves have been prepared and marked in other with letters of the Sinhala alphabet, they can be made into the finished product, being sandwiched between two boards known as ‘kamba’.

The painted kamba boards and ola cords

The painted kamba boards and ola cords

Casey Wood describes the packaging of the ola:

The ola book is a beautiful object, the button or medallion attached to the cord can be an old coin, or cut out of crystal, carved ebony, ironwood, or another beautiful wood, or engraved horn, ivory, silver, copper or brass; rarely of gold or silver or studded with gems. The cord is long because according to an old Sanskrit sloka, it has to be passed around the book a certain number of times: ten strings at top, five in the middle, three and three and pairs across. The material of the cord is cotton or fibres of the wild hemp, Niyanda, in Sinhalese (Sansevieria Zeylanica), sometimes called bowstring hemp. The fibres are not bleached but are dyed, again according to very specific rules: four strands plaited, of which two are white, one is blue and one red. The blue dye is from indigo and the red of Pattingi, or the sappanwood of the Caesalpinia sappan, a complicated process described in old Sinhalese craftsmen’s books. If war or other causes interfered with the import of indigo, both strands were red.

Now comes the time to write in the ola. The writing must be scratched into the surface of the palm leaf using a sharp stylus, an instrument between six and eight inches in length, the parts and proportions of which are also determined by custom:

The stylus had a sharp pointed lower end made of steel. One edge of the upper-most part called the Chatra, was a sharp blade or saw, used for trimming the ola or cutting of a piece of it. The body of the stylus was damascened with gold, silver, brass or copper…

The top part, called the Chatra (umbrella), resembles the Talipat leaf when used as an umbrella. The Patra (leaf) is the flat part like a lead and was generally decorated, the nala (pipe) was a tube-like part, generally ribbed or beaded, and the ganda (knob) was always a smooth, round part.

Two styli from the Casey Wood collection

Two styli from the Casey Wood collection

Three eighteenth-century styli in the Kandy National Museum

Three eighteenth-century styli in the Kandy National Museum

As Casey Wood notes, the best examples of writing produced with these instruments were extremely beautiful and often compared to a string of pearls. He explains how the scribes achieved this effect:

If left-handed, the scribe had a notch cut in his left thumbnail to rest the stylus at that angle, and used the stylus in scratching the decorations and letters. For long pages and regular work, the ola was rested on a board or table, but for any short lines or an occasional writing the leaf could be held in the fingers of the left hand. To make the writing stand out clearly, the ola was rubbed all over with a mixture of resin oil and lamp-black, which sank into the scratchings, the excess being wiped away with a clean cloth. The oil was previously made from a resin called dummella, by a process now little understood.

A medical ola in the Osler library, showing text and mandala diagrams

A medical ola in the Osler library, showing text and mandala diagrams

As well as the text, the olas often contain diagrams. More about those in the next post.





Nāri-latā-vẹla: when women grow on trees

Temple doors at Embekke Devalaya

Temple doors at Embekke Devalaya

These doors from the Embekke Devalaya temple in Daulagala, near Kandy in the Central Province of Sri Lanka provide a beautiful example of nāri-latā-vẹla: a mythological vine growing in the Himalayas which produces women ‘in all wise of perfect beauty, glorious in grace’. As Coomaraswamy (1956, p. 92-3) notes, this very common Kandyan design has echoes in contemporary Siamese designs. The origin of the nāri-latā-vẹla is given in a passage of the Kathāvastu Prakaraṇa which warns of the temptations of lust through the story of a monk seduced away from achievement of dhyāna by the sight of the beautiful woman-vine.

The design also appears on some of the items in the Casey Wood collection:

A brass container for medicinal powders from the Casey Wood collection

A brass container for medicinal powders from the Casey Wood collection

Kandyan craftsmen were not alone in dreaming that women might grow on trees. Coomaraswamy (1956, p. 94) compares the nāri-latā-vẹla to the medieval European stories of Alexander’s encounter with the flower maidens, who leaped out of the flowers growing in a certain wood to ravage him and his knights before expiring a few months later. This story itself is thought to be a version of a Greek tale, with a possible Oriental origin. Another similar tale occurs in the twelfth century Kitāb al-jughrāfiya (Book of Geography) of the Morrocan Sufi Ibn-Tufayl, which describes the island of Wāqwāq in the China Sea, where trees bear fruit of beautiful young women, suspended by their hair, who utter the cry ‘wāqwāq’ when falling to the ground (see Avner Ben-Zaken, Reading Hayy Ibn-Yaqzan: A Cross-Cultural History of Autodidacticism, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).








The Areca Nut Cutters

As Nick wrote in his last post, each of the Casey Wood objects tells its own story, both for its original creators and for the modern observer.

The object I will discuss today is less immediately stiking than the blindness mask, but its story leads us right to the creation of the world.

The Areca nut cutters from the Casey Wood collection

The Areca nut cutters from the Casey Wood collection

Like most of the objects, the areca nut cutters have a label containing Casey Wood’s description:

Vederala’s brass root and fruit cutter for making medicinal mixtures. Its chief use is in slicing areca nuts for betel chewing. The present example is a rare, complete ceremonial instrument from c. 1670 AD.

While Casey Wood’s example is relatively unadorned, a number of the areca nut cutters which are preserved in the collection of the Kandy National Museum are highly decorated, with the figures of gods and mythical creatures. Like Casey Wood’s example, they are made from brass, except the cutting blade and some inlaid with silver or gold.

Areca nut cutters in the Kandy National Museum

Areca nut cutters in the Kandy National Museum

Vendum giraya, saluting areca nut cutter, from the Kandy museum

Vendum giraya, saluting areca nut cutter, from the Kandy museum

Areca nut cutters inlaid with gold

Areca nut cutters inlaid with gold, Kandy National Museum

Coomaraswamy (1956) describes a similar set of cutters from the Colombo museum and his own private collection, noting that the great variety of designs makes a comprehensive account of them impossible.

As Casey Wood told us, the cutters are intended primarily for slicing the areca nut.

Areca nuts are the product of the Areca catechu palm.

Areca nut palm illustrated in the 'Modern Herbal'  (1931)

Areca nut palm illustrated in the ‘Modern Herbal’ (1931)

They are chewed with the leaf of a betel leaf, a leaf from a vine of the Piperaceae family as a mild stimulant. Areca nut is also used in a variety of medical applications, including the treatment of tapeworm.

Slicing an areca nut

Slicing an areca nut

The areca nut has been a mainstay of Sri Lankan trade for centuries, perhaps even before the arrival of the first wave of Indian immigrants on the island.

The origins of the trade may even predate the settlement of the first waves of Indian immigrants on the island. The monk Fa Hien reported that the island

originally had no human inhabitants but was occupied only by spirits and nagas who carried on a trade with merchants of various countries

The Vëddās, often thought of as the descendants of Sri Lanka’s aboriginal people, are also described by Seligman as performing rituals centred on the areca nut.

It is perhaps for this reason that the areca nut cutters are so highly decorated and are endowed with special ceremonial significance.

In his manuscript notes, Casey Wood describes, along with photographs, a ceremony performed at the ancient capital of Anuradhapura, which encapsulates the importance attached to these seemingly everyday objects:

‘Ceremony of the Seven Stars, the making of the Areca-Nut cutter, performed near Anarajapura [sic] Ceylon, July 28/33’, photograph by Casey Wood

‘Ceremony of the Seven Stars, the making of the Areca-Nut cutter, performed near Anarajapura [sic] Ceylon, July 28/33’, photograph by Casey Wood

Mänikpāla, wife of the first king Maha-Sammata, was bewitched by the demon Māra. The demon Oḍḍisa cured her in a ceremony where he had to cut limes. Visvakarma, architect and artificer of the gods, invented the first areca nut cutter for the occasion. He first invented the hammer to do the work of construction, then smelted iron from Mt Meru to make the cutter. The limes, cut by Oḍḍisa, were golden limes. The areca nut cutter was used with spells and enchantments in cutting the limes at Oḍḍisa’s ceremony. The left eye of the cutter represents the moon, the right the sun. The blade represents the demon Rāhu, ‘the descending node’. The handles represent the four guardian gods of Ceylon, ^now called Nata, Vishnu, Kataragarma, Deviyo and Pattani^. Various ^other^ gods reside in the several parts of the areca-nut cutter.

As Kaepfer (1997) explains, this story has a cosmic significance. Mahasammata is the first ruler of the world, while his wife is the first to be afflicted by demon possession and hence the first patient. Oddi or Oddissa is the both the original sorcerer and the ultimate healer: an equasion that is also associated with the demon king Ravanna, who I will write more about in future posts. The areca nut cutters thus stand at the centre of the culture of healing that the objects in the Casey Wood collection reflect.

Objects and Strategies: The Demon of Blindness

After posting the last entry, I decided not to include a series of images as originally planned, but instead to pick out one image of a museum object to discuss in greater depth.  I learnt through my time as a museum volunteer, and as a postgraduate researcher, that a useful strategy for building a compelling exhibition or historical argument is to choose a single object, or cluster of objects, and work upwards and outwards into the wider world of historical meanings that each embodies.  Merely from a practical perspective, it seems the same logic could apply usefully to this blog.

It did not take long to select an object to represent.  The mask of the ‘Demon of Blindness’, shown in the accompanying photograph, is presently on public display on the third floor gallery of the Redpath Museum.  When I first visited in 2011, I was instantly struck by both its visual presence and its conceptual suggestiveness.   It is slightly smaller than an adult human face, has a blue mottled complexion, two long rows of square white teeth, and curved red lips that part eerily into a ghoulish grin.  Above a wide, triangular nose sit two eyes, the right closed as if in blindness, the left wide open, gaping out at the visitors and staff of the museum.  As well as being visually striking, the mask of the Demon of Blindness implies a ritual for curing ailments of the eye, and therefore a specific and distinctive cosmology of sickness, therapy and health.  Sure enough, it hangs at the back of the gallery in a case dedicated to Ayurvedic medical practice between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries, and presides on a collection of related medicinal implements, including a set of ivory pencils and various decorated boxes for pills and salves.  A label explains that traditional beliefs in southern Sri Lanka hold that demons cause ailments, and that Kana Sanni Yakka is the demon of blindness.  Masks are used during ceremonies that attempt to exorcise the demons and pacify them with gifts.

There is, however, something else, a further quality, which appeals to me about this mask, and which I think is true of masks in general.  It is their disconcerting power to animate identities in the very act of concealing them; the fact that they create and obscure things, or people, simultaneously, and that as one being hides another is unleashed.  By raising the point that an act of wearing is also an act of becoming, masks provoke questions that drive to the very heart of identity and personhood – identities of Sri Lankan demons in the nineteenth century, for instance, and their subsequent representation in twenty-first century museums.

These are some of the reasons for choosing the blind mask as a first image, and also as an original point for further investigation.  The curator’s choice to display this object has guided my own choice to consider it in greater depth, thereby demonstrating the power of archivists alluded to in the manifesto for this blog.  In the post ‘Slow Beginnings’, I remarked on my intention to start reading up on the history of anthropology and museums (to be reported in a later posting).  The Demon of Blindness leads me towards further readings on ritual, therapy, and exorcism in southern Sri Lanka, and then towards more detailed knowledge of the mask itself, its existence as a medicinal artefact and a museum object, and its significance for Casey Wood.




‘The Demon of Blindness’, World Cultures Collection, Redpath Museum, McGill University

Slow beginnings…

Welcome to the Casey Wood Collections Project, a blog dedicated to history in the making.  A hefty chunk of time has elapsed between the joint idea for this blog-site (January) and the appearance of my first post (today, 3 July), and I have learnt in the months between that to begin a blog about the practice of history is no easier than practicing history itself!  Although the delay has been partly due the spare-time, part-time nature of the project, the long interlude has also been about a question much more familiar to historians and scholars embarking on new ventures: where and how to begin?


The first of these questions – where? – was undoubtedly the simpler of the two.  I began thinking about the Casey Wood collections about a year ago when I volunteered at the Redpath Museum at McGill, photographing various implements of ritual, therapy and daily life to help update the catalog of the World Cultures Collection.  Despite some experience volunteering in museums in the UK, I had never worked so directly with collections, and was immediately impressed by the stream of questions that flowed merely from tactile engagement with the objects – olas and styluses, water clocks and medicinal boxes, to name a few.  The longer I spent at the Redpath, the more my curiosity turned towards the nature of the collection itself, its general variety, and the idea of its history as a whole.  The question ‘where?’ became significant: what interests me so much about these objects is both the wide-range of their origins and their current preservation in a single place.


In light of this, the question ‘how?’, has become simpler.  Although this is not intended as a ‘great man’ blog, or the forerunner to a ‘great man’ project, the interests and priorities of Casey Wood are nonetheless responsible, to a greater extent, for the scope and shape of the collections today.  It is not just that they bear his name, but that collectively these objects are stamped with the residues of his identity, and therefore with wider elements of his history and culture.  It follows that to know something about him is to know something about them – and vice-versa.


Biography is also a convenient and comparably simple place to start.  From obituaries and other published sources I have mined some basic information about Casey Wood: that he was born in Wellington Ontario on 26 January 1856; that he trained in medicine both in North America and ‘the Continent’; that he ran a practice in Chicago between 1890 and 1917, and that between 1894 and 1914 he was editor of three successive journals: Annals of Ophthalmology, the Ophthalmic Record and the American Journal of Ophthalmology.  He had interests in ophthalmology and ornithology, and was apparently fascinated by the intersections of the two.  He died in California, on 26 January 1942, and his obituaries commemorate the passing of a unique and colorful figure in American medicine.  They divide his years between those of professional practice in Chicago, and a retirement spent pursuing literary, anthropological, and bibliographic interests in Italy, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere.  It was during this later period that that Casey Wood traveled extensively, gathering and bequeathing the large numbers of books and objects that now comprise the collections at McGill.


From individual objects to a museum collection to the collector’s biography.  Already this pathway has determined further questions, and doubtless closed away others.  My future blogspots in the coming weeks will be about establishing a bibliography to better map the historical territory and understand Casey Wood’s place within it.  I have included in this first entry some photographs of the objects that originally spurred my interest, and I hope that an incidental virtue of this blog will be to make elements of these collections more widely visible.  NW

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