The Hunt and the History Are the Thrill of Physician’s Unique Collections
Portsmouth ENT physician George White has found the perfect prescription for mixing his professional interests and personal passions: collecting British sterling silver medical artifacts and wine-related objects that accompany his extensive accumulation of wines from around the world.
Since he began collecting sterling silver in the late 1980s, Dr. White has acquired not only many beautiful and valuable artifacts, but also a large dose of historical background that complements them.
“Sterling in medicine has been popular for centuries,” he said. “What the English, who designed so much of their work in silver, did not realize is that it acts like an antibiotic. It is antibacterial and will even kill the AIDS virus.”
“True medical instruments like knives, hooks and retractors were not sterling,” White noted. “Most of the sterling in medicine was used for the sick and ill. Some of the best sterling artifacts in medicine were gifts for physicians.”
Dr. White was inspired to begin his sterling silver medical collection after he and his wife Sandy met sterling authority, author and dealer Elisabeth Bennion in London. During the past 25 years, he has made several trips to London, making numerous stunning purchases.
Dr. White takes great delight in his exceptional artifacts with their fine workmanship and craftsmanship. “I’m very prejudiced. I call everything I collect beautiful,“ he said. His most valuable finds are kept in a bank vault and wrapped in protective bags.
Of great historical importance among White’s sterling medical pieces are “Scarfires,” delicately engraved cases for lancets. His oldest lancet case, dating back to 1790, is “shagreen” or sharkskin that was dyed. It was a common practice before the 19th century to use lancets to bleed patients, based on the theory that it removed the impurities or evil spirits from the blood, according to White.
Other significant sterling objects White owns are a variety of tongue scrapers, utilized before oral health was developed; different kinds of spoons, usually covered with a thin gold wash which prevented erosion of the sterling by stringent chemicals; “the crown jewel of tongue depressors” made in Germany in 1620; items which helped get medicine down the throats of sick people; the first straw, called a “sick siphon”; posset cups for warm liquid remedies; a traveling medical cup; funnels; catheters; and hearing horns.
Two of White’s most unique items are a sterling foot protector for gout patients and an exquisitely decorated pre-1900 thermometer case shaped like a cross that was the first prize for a nursing school graduate.
Since the 1300s silversmiths have marked their creations, usually designating the maker, the sterling lion, the town where they were made, the date and often aduty mark. They were fined if they didn’t follow the rules, White explained. When purchasing an object, he must verify its authenticity himself by referencing two textbooks. Only the wealthy owned and used sterling, noted the physician who asserted that he has never used any of the pieces he has acquired – they are for display only.
And, as if his medical collection weren’t impressive enough, many of White’s wine-related articles, such as English and French wine tasters and dishes, date back to the 1700s. The first he purchased – and one of the most beautiful – was made in 1673 and shows the amount of effort that went into tasting wine properly, White said.
Another smaller 1662 wine taster displays intricate designs cut from the outside along with complex indentations on the inside. There also is a little “assay cup” which often was used by a servant of the ruling class to taste for poison, as White detailed.
An almost 400-year-old sterling goblet with a gold wash interior, matching goblets made in 1778, a cast-silver bear which holds matches and a 19th century beehive designed to contain honey are more examples of the exquisite sterling in Dr. White’s collection.
Highly decorative wine containers came into use in England when wine was introduced into the country from France after the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, and claret wine from Bordeaux became popular. A funnel stand with matching funnel, one of White’s six funnels, is an extremely rare piece. His wine-tasting spoon made by Tiffany in 1890 is another extraordinary artifact because only 17 or 18 similar items were made, White said.
Wine jugs, often featuring the family coat of arms on the front; a tankard for beer; tiny corkscrews probably used for perfume bottles; salt cellars protected with gold wash; 1783 traveling cups appropriately monogrammed with a “W”; a boardroom cigar lighter and a Tiffany wine cooler are other distinctive antiques discovered by White.
One of the most elegant highlights is a William IV wine wagon, dated 1836 and created to pass carafes down the dinner table; even the wheels and coasters are sterling and marked. A favorite of the collector, “It demonstrates the wealth of English society in the 1800s,” White related.
All of the wine-related artifacts lead to an impressive climax – White’s custom-built wine cellar. An outside refrigeration unit maintains the temperature at about 55 degrees and humidity at 65 – 75 percent. The redwood shelves are mold-resistant and currently hold about 700 bottles of wine from America, as well as France, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Australia and other countries. Section labels designate different kinds and brands of the wines.
Dr. White occasionally sells wines to the Cincinnati wine club he has belonged to for 25 years as well as to auction houses. He has earned advanced certification in wine tasting from the Wine Spirits Educational Trust and enjoys conducting wine-tastings and classes for the Southern Ohio Museum and other community organizations. In July, he will offer a museum wine-tasting focusing on summer white wines.
“I run all wines for tastings by Sandy,” White said, crediting his wife with having a great palate. “Women have better palates than men,” he commented.
Dr. White’s pride and joy in his treasures reveals that his practice of collecting has made his life as fulfilling and rewarding as his 34-year career in medicine.