Ancient medicines and bone lever in rare Roman medical kit

25 Feb 2016

A rare Roman medical kit acquired by The University of Queensland’s RD Milns Antiquities Museum is one of the finest and most complete of its type in the world.

RD Milns Antiquities Museum Director Dr Janette McWilliam said the kit dated to the first century AD.

“We are extremely fortunate to acquire a complete medical kit in such superb condition,” Dr McWilliam said.   

“It will be on display permanently, providing the museum with many important future research and teaching opportunities.

“The kit is an incredibly important addition to the University’s antiquities collection, but is also of national and international significance when it comes to the study of ancient medicine,” she said.

The medical kit comprises a bronze box for medicines and instruments, decorated with an image of Asclepius the Greco-Roman god of healing and patron of doctors.

It also includes two additional bronze storage containers, one with residues of ancient medicines, and a range of beautifully crafted medical instruments including probes, forceps, scalpels and a rare bone lever.

The late Dr Owen Powell with a late Roman plate featured on the front of his translation of Galen’s On the Properties of Foodstuffs.

This uncommon instrument is also known as a bone elevator, used to lever fractured bones into position. It may also have been used in ancient dentistry to remove teeth.

The acquisition was made possible by a generous donation by Dr Glenda Powell, in memory of her late husband, Dr Owen Powell.

"Owen was a special man. His passions were medicine and classics and this box combines the two,” Dr Glenda Powell said.

UQ Director of Development and Philanthropy Mr Andrew Pentland said the medical kit was a fitting tribute.

“It is pleasing to see the joy this gift brings Dr Powell’s family,” he said.

“He too would be pleased with this special collection.”

Dr Owen Powell graduated from UQ School of Medicine in 1948, specialised in gastroenterology, was appointed the First Medical Superintendent of Princess Alexandra Hospital in 1956 and was awarded his Medical Doctorate (MD) in 1962.

He was Director of the Research and Planning Department at Queensland Health from 1972 until his retirement in 1981.

Dr Powell then returned to UQ to complete a Bachelor of Arts with first class honours (1987) and Master of Arts (1994), both in classics and ancient history.

Dr Powell also received the Medal of the Order of Australia for his service to medicine.

The medical kit was purchased through the London-based antiquities dealer Charles Ede Ltd from a French private collection. Before 1992 it was part of a private collection in Japan.

The medical kit is now on permanent display in a new custom showcase at the RD Milns Antiquities Museum on level 2 of the Michie Building at The University of Queensland.