Discoveries from a Doctor’s Bag

I am about to hit a big milestone in my work here at Banting House NHSC. I am almost finished inputting a new collection into Past Perfect! What was suppose to be a small project that would take a day or two quickly turned into a much larger task. Here’s the story about what I learned going through a doctor’s bag.

W.P.T doctor's bag
Dr. William P. Tew’s doctor’s bag that was recently donated to Banting House NHSC.

On October 2nd, 2018 a member of the Tew family donated a few possessions of Dr. William P. Tew to Banting House NHSC. Dr. Tew attended the University of Toronto for medical school and was one of Dr. Banting’s classmates. The two became good friends in school but were separated when they both served in the First World War; Dr. Tew as Surgeon Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Dr. Banting as a Surgeon in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. The two friends reunited when they both found themselves in London, Ontario after the war in search of work. Dr. Tew opened a practice in obstetrics in downtown London during the summer of 1920. Banting and Tew would frequently get together to compare how their London practices were going and “wondering if they shouldn’t have chosen some other line of work”. However, both persisted with their medical careers. In the week following Dr. Banting’s idea of insulin on October 31st, 1920, Tew was one of the first people Banting told about the idea. He was excited to share the idea with someone and knew that his trusted friend, Dr. Tew, would love to discuss it. While Banting was waiting to hear if Dr. John Macleod would give him lab space at the University of Toronto to begin his insulin research, Dr. Banting flipped a coin to decide whether he was going to wait for an answer or join an expedition to the North to bore for oil. The coin flip decided that he would join the expedition but when he spoke to the expedition leader they decided they were not going to take a doctor with them. Banting was extremely nervous about his financial situation and planned instead to join the Indian Army Medical Service with Dr. Tew. The two men got very close to following through with this but at the last minute both decided against it. Luckily, Banting did not abandon his diabetes research and went on to isolate insulin a few months later.

Dr. Tew continued to work at his practice in London. In 1927, he decided to join the Department of Medicine at the University of Western Ontario. He taught courses on obstetrics and gynecology and he was promoted to full professorship in 1936. Dr. Tew retired from Western in 1957 but remained in practice until 1973. Tew passed away in 1976. His son, Dr. William Langford Tew, was the godson of Dr. Banting. He was a crucial part in acquiring Banting House NHSC in the 1980s and turning it into a museum. He continued to support the museum through donations of archival documents and artifacts which helped to improve our interpretation.

It is clear to see that the Tew family has had a large impact on both the life of Dr. Banting and the history of Banting House NHSC. So when I had the opportunity to go through all of the medical artifacts in Tew’s doctor’s bag I was ecstatic. We thought there weren’t too many items within the bag and it would be a quick job. However, after more digging I found lots of small artifacts within side pockets of the bag and in boxes. In total there were ninety-three items in this collection. Each item had to be cataloged in detail separately. I have finished inputting ninety of the artifacts into past perfect, leaving only three to go!

Here are some of the highlights I found within the bag: a prescription pad that had information about the location of Tew’s London practice, a brightly decorated box that held gauze, a collection of strange small woven materials that I figured out once stored smelling salts, a stethoscope, and lots of other small medical instruments. I am by no means an expert in medical equipment especially those from the mid-twentieth century so I became sort of a detective and relied on helpful resources to allow me to identify each object in the bag. Google was a big help, so was asking other staff and volunteers in the museum for their opinions. However, our collection of medical books were the best resource. The books had drawings of each medical tool with a description of how they were used. I found the visual element extremely helpful in the identification process. I will finish cataloging the last three artifacts next week and move on to a new project, however the lessons I learned from working with Tew’s doctor’s bag will stay with me for years to come.

The books I used in identifying each medical artifact. 

This post was written by Rachel Delle Palme, Graduate Research Assistant at
Banting House NHSC. Rachel is currently completing her M.A. in Public History at
Western University.

4 thoughts on “Discoveries from a Doctor’s Bag

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  1. Hi.
    I realize that this article is from 2018, so I’m not sure if you’ll even receive this comment… but I’ve been trying to figure out Bill’s family line as my father’s name is Tew and from Ontario as well.

  2. Hello!
    Loved learning more about Bill Tew (I’m doing some research on the discovery of insulin)! Thank you for sharing these details. I wanted to let you know there might be a small mistake in the facts; unless I’m mistaken (but I checked dates), Tew and Banting where separated when they both served in the First World War, not the second, as it is written in the excerpt below. If you have a chance to update the copy, it would be ideal. Cheers!
    “The two became good friends in school but were separated when they both served in the Second World War; Dr. Tew as Surgeon Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Dr. Banting as a Surgeon in the Canadian Army Medical Corps.”

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