Object of the Month: March 2019

Irrigator Éguisier, around 1880

Douche and enema syringes have been known since antiquity. They have been employed to cure constipation and stomach complaints, to douche genital and urinary tract, cleanse wounds or remove foreign objects from bodily orifices. Beginning in the 600s, most clysters and douches were self-administered. The use of vaginal douches as contraceptives was first recorded in the early 17 century as well.

Around 1830, the French surgeon J. Leroy d’Etiolles (1798-1860) introduced an improved enema syringe (clysopompe) which took up the liquid from a vessel through a meter long tube and released it again using a piston or a stopcock ball valve. Johann von Säxinger (1833-1997), then at the women’s department of the Prague General Hospital, recommended it in 1864 for detecting uterine bleeding as symptom of carcinoma. In 1867, the Prague Josef Mang instrument company adopted the design of pocket clysopompes made by the Maison Darbo in Paris.

The Éguisier gynecological irrigator, originally designed to treat genital infections, became one of the commonest contraceptive tools of the mid-19 century. It served as well, however, to administer enemas, to irrigate urinary ways  or to flush foreign objects out from ears or nasal cavities. As a contraceptive, it was to be applied both before and after intercourse  The cylinder was filled with lukewarm water or a solution of spermicidal agents, such as vinegar, boric acid, borax, mercuric chloride or white vitriol (sulfate of zinc). A piston moves up and down the brass cylinder, while a crank-controlled spring is placed in the top part of the machine. At the beginning, the piston plate lies at the bottom of the cylinder, which is filled by water: winding up the spring moves the submerged plate upwards. Opening the cock and releasing the spring lets water out into the rubber tube with a cannula at the end.

The original patent application was filed by Francois Libault, a technician and a truss maker: the instrument was, however, presented to the medical public by the Parisian gynecologist Maurice Éguisier (1813-1851) and continued to carry the latter’s name. Portable and easy to use, it found further employment in urology, in administering enemas or irrigating tonsils and ears. The first brass irrigators were made by Jean-Baptiste Charbonnier of Paris, other manufacturers (in Paris, Lyon and Bordeaux) followed and other materials such as tin or porcelain were used as well. The cylinders were made in a variety of sizes, from 375 ml “travel” or “pocket” versions, through larger ones for 500 ml or one liter of liquid, to rare large ones up to 4 liters of volume. French-made irrigators spread around Europe and continued to be sold at least until 1910. Especially in France, they appeared in popular culture until the early 20 century.

The one liter irrigator in the Medical Museum was produced by the Léon Cherfils workshop in Paris around 1880. It was donated to the collection by the Prague dentist dr. Jan Hlávka (1892-1956) in 1935, shortly after the foundation of the Museum.

Rainal Frères. Catalogue général. Paris, 1825-1925. [Paris : Impr. Maréchal], 1925, http://www.biusante.parisdescartes.fr/histmed/medica/cote?extaphpin008

For further information, see Cécile Raynal, “L’irrigateur du docteur Éguisier,Revue d’histoire de la pharmacie, 90/336 (2002),  577-598,  or the pages of the Viennese Museum für Verhütung und Schwangerschaftsabruch. 

Brass Irrigator Éguisier, France, around 1880. NML Medical Museum Collection, No. N 901. Photograph by Klára Mašková.