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Historic medicine chest sheds light on connection of First State surgeons, politicians

Delaware Historical Society
Dr. Henry Latimer's portable medicine chest.

Every month – the Delaware Historical Society picks an item from their collection to highlight.


Delaware Public Media’s Megan Pauly tells us about April’s pick – a medicine cabinet from the 1800s.


Chief Curator for the Delaware Historical Society Leigh Rifenburg picked the chest to symbolize the approaching end of flu season.


It belonged to Dr. Henry Latimer, who would travel to the bedsides of patients with the portable chest.


“So it’s deceptively small – but it has brass tabs that kept the chest closed while it was in transit, and then opened them up again and held the doors open again while the doctor would have been attending to a patient," Rifenburg said.


But despite its small size – the chest was able to hold a lot.


“Because it actually held enough medical equipment – blending powders, bottles, potions, whatever the doctor might have needed – to last him through several house calls," Rifenburg said.


Dr. Latimer had his own private practice in Wilmington before the Revolutionary War began.


He served as a surgeon in the war – before opening up his practice again and eventually going on to serve in U.S. House of Representatives and then the Senate in 1795 when he replaced George Reed.

“We do know that there is sort of a history of physicians in Delaware who served with distinction in the Revolutionary War and then went on to become great statesmen," Rifenburg said.

Additionally, Henry’s father presided over the Delaware Convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution.

A guest exhibit about early medicine in Delaware – curated by the Delaware Academy of Medicine and the Medical Society of Delaware – is on display at the Delaware History Museum through October.

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