The History of a Surgical Kit

by Lori Eggleston. 0 Comments

Since I work at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, I’m sure you’d naturally expect that the artifacts in the museum’s collection relate to Civil War medicine.  That is generally true, but there are a few items which may not appear to relate at first glance.  Today let’s take a look at a surgical kit which fits this category.



This kit is a four-tiered general operating set, ca. 1875, manufactured by J. H. Gemrig of Philadelphia.  Though the kit and surgical instruments are similar to those used during the Civil War, the date places it as a post-war kit.  So why would it be included in our collection?

The kit belonged to Gerard F. Mason, M.D., of Charles Town, Virginia (later to become West Virginia).  By all accounts, he was a respected and prosperous physician in the town.  His oldest son, William L. Mason, was a member of Baylor’s Company, 12th Cavalry, C.S.A.  However, Gerard Mason did not serve in the military.  His story is linked to someone whose name might be familiar to you though.


Portrait of John Brown in 1859.  On October 16, 1859, John Brown led a raid on the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.  His goal was to abolish slavery through armed insurrections.  He was captured though, then put on trial, convicted, and sentenced to death.  Image from

During his trial, the wounded Brown declared that he was too ill to attend court.  His claim was suspected by some to be a ruse to delay his trial.  Millard K. Bushong wrote in A History of Jefferson County, West Virginia, that “Brown was examined by Dr. Gerard F. Mason, a reputable Charles Town physician, who pronounced him perfectly able to stand trial.”  The trial was not postponed, but Brown requested to be carried from jail into court on a cot and to give his testimony while lying on a couch.  However, it is interesting to note that when court was adjourned that day, he walked back to his jail cell!

So, Dr. Mason’s distinction comes from being the physician who examined John Brown and declared him fit to stand trial.  Records also show that Dr. Mason was one of the physicians who examined John Brown’s body after his execution.  His surgical kit, though manufactured after the Civil War, still has a connection to Civil War medicine, as well as a story to be told.


You can see that the kit has the name “Holliday” engraved on the lid.  It originally belonged to a Dr. Samuel Holliday in Winchester, Virginia who died without children.  His sister, Margaret, ended up with kit.  She also ended up becoming Mrs. Gerard Mason, which is how he came to own this kit!  It continued to be handed down to family members until it was donated to the NMCWM by a descendant of Dr. Mason’s.

And that’s one of the best parts of my job – you never know what sorts of stories you will discover!


Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.

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