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    Auction Finds

    Artifacts from a prominent doctor’s office

    The couple who bought the house some 15 years ago had left the fourth floor intact. Now, they needed the space for their family, and had called in the auction house to dismantle the clinic where Dr. Isidor P. Strittmatter had practiced.

    The clinic was “frozen in time … untouched” as one auction-house staffer explained it, in the turn-key shape that first Strittmatter and then his doctor-son Isidor T. had apparently left it.

    An innocuous-looking electroshock therapy machine.

    At auction last weekend, the clinic that the two doctors had operated for decades was in pieces, not throw-away-with-the-trash pieces, but historical and significant artifacts of their trade. Together, this very large collection of items resembled a disassembled museum, where many of them could have easily found a home.

    The doctors’ papers, instruments, photographs (including a framed photo of one of them with his dog), appointment diaries, medical certificates, and books were spread out on open shelves and in glass cases.

    Furniture was set up against the walls: a beautiful dark wood examination table with a black leather cushion (it went for $30, guess no one knew how to recycle it), a metal office cabinet ($300), a walnut twin bookcase from Isidor P.’s library ($475), an adjustable exam chair and stool ($160), a plain-looking maple exam table with a foot step ($200) and an oak cabinet slant-lid desk ($375).

    Two very different examination tables.

    I loved, though, the two old-style stiff leather doctor bags – one caramel-colored and small ($90), the other a big bulky black visitation bag ($80) that I’m sure the doctor hauled to peoples’ homes. There were gauzes and bandages still in boxes, stomach pumps, medicine bottles, stethoscopes, microscopes (including a brass one that went for $275), clamps, hypodermic needles, bed pans (“planters,” the auctioneer joked of these 19th-century models), syringes, metal and wood splints, surgical instruments.

    Isidor P. was an ob-gyn doctor and surgeon, and plenty of those instruments were available: trays of speculums and forceps, and a “bloodless circumcision clamp.”

    Some of the gynecological instruments sparked spirited bidding.

    I watched as bidders – most of whom were men, who were likely dealers – went tit-for-tat on some of the gynecological instruments, including a lot of 15 items that sold for $85. Afterward, I sought out the buyer, curious about whom he sells them to. “A lot of nurses and as jokes,” he said, adding that he sells medical instruments at shows. “Nurses love them.”

    Some of the items had names that were barely pronounceable – sphygmooscillometer, sphygmomanometer and diagmostoset. There was even an electroshock therapy machine nestled in a beautiful walnut case – too good looking an enclosure for so menacing a medical tool. It sold for $350.

    And some instruments looked a bit out of place for a gynecologist’s clinic: dental tools, a retinoscope, shaving and grooming bottles and tins. “They came from the doctor’s office,” the auctioneer said, emphasizing the word “office” and establishing his surprise, too.

    This cartoon was printed on a poster - 50 of them sold for $30 - promoting good health.

    I believe that every item from the clinic was sold, including about 50 or more small appointment diaries that the auction house practically gave away for $1 because no one wanted them. I had scanned the pages before the auction got started, and found names and dollar figures beside each one.

    Some of the books were undoubtedly hard-to-find and sold as such. I flipped through a few showing large colored cut-away diagrams of the human body, and they were amazing. “A Clinical Atlas of Venereal and Skin Diseases” was a first edition published in 1889 ($250) and “Physicians Anatomical Aid” from 1888 sold for $200.

    Among the books was a title that was an eye-catcher: “The Housewife’s Handbook on Selective Promiscuity,” published in 1961. The book had a history: Its publisher, Ralph Ginzburg, was jailed for six months in the 1960s on obscenity charges for mailing the book and two other sexually explicit publications. Written by an Arizona housewife under the pseudonym Rey Anthony, the book was described as a “sexual autobiography.”

    At auction, it sold for $40 as part of a lot with another titled “Dynamic Intercourse (1967).”

    Some medical books from the doctors' office.

    Based on the items at auction, the doctors’ clinic was well-stocked. That was not so surprising given what I found out about Isidor Paul Strittmatter, who was born in 1860, attended Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and was a resident at two of the city’s hospitals.

    He opened the clinic on the fourth floor of the house – with no elevator, as the auction staffer noted – in the 1880s (either 1882 or 1887, depending on what you read). He performed both medical and surgical work with a stable of assistants.

    Strittmatter was president of the Philadelphia County Medical Society, and with $5,000 in 1923, he endowed the society’s annual Strittmatter Award for a doctor “who has rendered meritorious service or made a contribution to the healing art or to one of the fun sciences of medicine,” according to a 1934 newspaper account.

    His interests outside the medical practice centered on country life, as one writer put it in the “Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania’s Biography (Vol. 6),” published in 1914. Strittmatter liked to hunt “in the wilds of the west and the woods of Maine and in journeys through Europe and Africa,” John W. Jordan wrote. He added that the doctor “believes that closer contact with nature … fits the individual better for the solution of the problems of the present and inflicts less mental pain and heartache than high finance and the diversions of so called society.’

    Isidor P. also owned and sold land in the 1920s that would become part of Washington Crossing Historic Park. In 1911, he made a presentation before an historical society called “The importance of the campaign on the Delaware during the revolutionary war – 1777.” The paper eventually was published in book form. He died in 1938.

    One of two doctors' bags from the auction.


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