"...just a little pinch"

Syringes have been in use for a long time. Their origins date back to Greek and Roman times. Literature from these periods describe hollow reeds used for anointing the body with oil, and for altering pitch in musical instruments.Simple piston syringes used for delivering medicinal ointments and creams are described by Galen (129-200 CE) and Egyptian Ammar bin Ali al-Mawsili in 99 CE (1).

Papyrus reconstruction of a fresco from the Theban tomb of Ipi, showing an ophthalmologist treating a patient.

By 1650, Pascal’s experimental work in hydraulics stimulated him to invent the first modern syringe.  Christopher Wren injected dogs with poppy sap through goose quill canuelae and in 1660. Doctors Major and Esholttz used this method on humans, with equally fatal results. Various developments and refinements towards the modern syringe were made as a result of the study and teaching of anatomy in the 17th and 18th centuries (1).


The 1807 Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Dictionary defined a syringe as: “A well-known instrument, serving to imbibe or suck in a quantity of fluid and afterwards expel the same with violence. A syringe is used for transmitting injections into cavities or canals.”(2)

Interestingly, the above source also describes injections as being employed almost solely for injecting substances into the blood vessels of corpses for the purpose of enhancing anatomical study (2).

Hypodermic Syringe Kit from the 1860s

The first hypodermic needle was likely made by Francis Rynd in Dublin in 1845. This was done by annealing the edges of a folded flat strip of steel to make a tube. This was then drawn through increasing narrow dies whilst maintain the potency of the needle. The beveled point was cut and ground, and then the hub was added with its variety of fittings and locks (1).

A syringe has three elements, the barrel, the plunger and this piston. Early examples waxed linen tape or asbestos was wound on a reel to obtain a watertight seal. Charles Pravaz, in France, administered coagulant to sheep in 1853.  During that same year, Alexander Wood in Edinburgh combined a functional syringe with a hypodermic needle. He designed it to inject morphine into humans. He believed that the action of opiates administered by subcutaneous injection was mainly localized, and the use of the syringe rather than previous methods allowed greater accuracy in administering the drug in close proximity to a nerve, hence, facilitating better pain relief (2).

Glass Syringe used as a Victorian psychiatric hospital pharmacy 1910-1950.

The first truly disposable ‘syringes’ to be produced in large quantities were originally designed by James T Greeley around 1912. These were collapsible tin tubes, had an attached needle and contained a specific amount of morphine for injection on the battlefield. These were used in the First World War and were further developed during the 1920’s and 30’s (2).

The basic design of the syringe has remained unchanged although interchangeable parts and the use of plastic resulted in the almost universal use of disposable syringes and needles since the mid-1950s (1).


The Invalid by William Powell Frith (1890)

Fragments from three syringes were recovered from AgHb-676. Two of these syringes were in pieces due to the fragile nature of the glass used to make them. However, one was almost complete, although any organic materials used with the plunger had rotted away and only the glass was left. It is unclear as to what these syringes were used for. Syringes during the Victorian era were used not only in conjunction with hypodermic needles for the injection of morphine, but were also used for cleansing bodily orifices as well as administrating oral medications.

The first two syringes were recovered from Feature 14 on #23 West Street, and the third was identified in Feature 6 on #27 West Street. Both of these features were privies. Feature 14 was associated with #23 West Street, which had been occupied as early as the 1860’s and Feature 14 had artifacts that were associated with an earlier occupation than those found in the adjacent privy (Feature 15). The lot was first used as a single family home, and later was a rental property. #27 West Street was occupied as early as 1852, with a new structure being built in the 1870s. Merchant families occupied the house for a number of years, and it was later used as a boarding house.

Syringe fragments recovered from privy on AgHb-676
Syringe recovered from AgHb-676 privy

The privies held the usual types of artifacts associated with the debris of daily life including: liquor and pharmaceutical bottles, tableware, and children’s toys. The syringes recovered from AgHb-676 do not have the hypodermic needle attached or the associated hardware, therefore it may be inferred that they were instead used “…to imbibe or suck in a quantity of fluid and afterwards expel the same with violence…”

The presence of these syringes within the privies of AgHb-676 may indicate illness, and the treatment of such, or the daily ablutions that were undergone by the members of these families.




(1)Craig, Robert

2018   A history of Syringes and Needles. Marks Hirschfeld Museum of Medical History, Faculty of Medicine, University of Queensland. Accessed Online at: https://medicine.uq.edu.au/blog/2018/12/history-syringes-and-needles

(2) Exchange Supplies

2019   The history of injecting, and the development of the syringe. Accessed Online at: https://www.exchangesupplies.org/article_history_of_injecting_and_development_of_the_syringe.php

(3)Brunton, D.

2000   A Question of Priority: Alexander Wood, Charles Hunter and the Hypodermic Method. Proceedings of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. 30: 349–351.


Image Sources



DeAgostini/Getty Images –  accessed online at: https://www.historyextra.com/period/ancient-egypt/life-in-ancient-egypt-what-was-it-like/