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When discovery gets yucky (part 2)

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When discovery gets yucky (part 2)
Illustration of an assortment of 19th-century surgical instruments.

Just how “adventurous” can the life of appraisers be? There is a huge range of anecdotes about them encountering putrid environments and vermin. But it can be even worse. Let’s describe it as “When yuck meets yikes!”

Robert Harrison, furniture and decorative arts expert for Chesapeake Collectibles has a vivid near-horror story.

Harrison once took on an appraisal task of several months for a 19th-century house-museum’s artifacts, which included clocks, textiles, and machinery. Toward the end of his assignment, he was directed to storage from the professional society founded in 1799 as the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of the State of Maryland (now known as the Maryland State Medical Society, a state-level affiliate of the American Medical Association). 

“The boxes contained things like blistering cups, fleams for bleeding patients, leech jars, and other antique medical instruments,” Harrison recalled. “There was very little light in the area, so I  seated myself on the floor under a window to go through the boxes.

“As I was lifting items out of one of the boxes, a loosely tied canvas knife roll came undone and seven scalpels fell out onto my right knee, slicing my pant leg and spilling across the floor. I didn’t appear to be cut, but I noticed the scalpels were encrusted and stained.”

And then: “I saw the handwritten note (that) had also fallen out of the canvas. It read, ‘Knives used to remove the gas from the bloated bodies of smallpox victims.’ I quickly reexamined my leg to be sure there weren’t any cuts and then made a call to the Centers for Disease Control. The not entirely reassuring assessment from the CDC was, “You’re probably okay. Just wash your hands thoroughly.”

As the ongoing president of Harrison Appraisals, his survival is conspicuous. As is his professional composure: “All in a day’s work.”

Chesapeake Collectibles is wrapping up new episodes of its 11th season in early April. Fans of the series can catch a replay of the entire season starting in April on Mondays at 7:30 pm and on the free PBS App. They can also revisit the revelations of past years on the app or stream episodes from the series’ website at