Spatulum Mundani

Project details

In an early 17th century fort far from home, how do you cure constipation? This surgical instrument devised by London surgeon John Woodall was one answer. The tool is 12” long and consists of a spatula at one end and a split and widened “spoon” with a rounded terminal knob at the other end. (The term mundani comes from the word “mundify,” which a 1604 dictionary defines as “to make clean.”) The “spoon” end of the instrument was to be used to withdraw the “hard excrements” whereas the spatula end was probably for stirring preparations and for applying ointments and plasters. Constipation could be a life threatening condition, and it was thought by Woodall to be the result of scurvy. But it is more likely the result of taking large amounts of the pain-killer laudanum, one of the only effective painkillers known to early Jamestown. Laudanum is particularly prescribed for the “cure of that lamentable disease called Dissenterie, or the bloudy fluxe.” Dysentery, typhoid, and salt poisoning were the biggest medical killers of colonists in the first few years of Jamestown.

In 1609, Woodall sent a fully-equipped surgeon’s chest to the Jamestown colony. Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists have found many items that were listed for that chest, such as an iron terrebellum to remove bullets and nippers to amputate fingers. Woodall began his career as a teen-aged military surgeon in Lord Willoughby’s regiment campaigning in France in 1589, and in 1599 he joined the Barber-Surgeons Company of London. In 1612 the East India Company hired him to be its surgeon-general and equip surgeon chests for their ships setting sail. Woodall, “being wearied with writing for every Shippe the same instructions a new,” wrote a textbook on medicines, treatments, and instruments in 1617. He made a fortune through his East India Company work and the publication of his book.