Aunt Ursula’s Portable Needle Boiler

Ursula Hober's Chrome-Plated Sterilizer (c. 1940) at Full Boil.

My father’s sister, Ursula Hober, came to the United States in 1934.  She got her medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1937, and over the next 30 years developed a large general practice in West Philadelphia.  A large proportion of her patients were lower income families — both African American and white — to whom she was available for house calls day and night.  She billed her patients, of course, but only once.  If the patient did not pay, Ursula ignored the bill.  She thought that her patients should not be deprived of care just because they couldn’t afford to pay.

In those days, many general practitioners also functioned as obstetricians, and I was one of the babies Ursula delivered.  When I was a kid, she would come to our house to give me and my brother vaccine injections, in addition to coming when a member of the family had a cold or a stomach ache.

Ursula also gave injections to all the kids of the families in her practice.  At that time, needles for injections were not disposable as they are today, but would be sterilized and reused.  Sometimes Ursula would visit a patient and discover that there were kids in the family who had not gotten their immunizations.  She would then give all of them the shots they needed all at once.   If  Ursula did not have enough sterile needles with her, she would pull out this little portable boiler, sterilize her needles and continue giving the necessary shots.

This gadget folds into a small self-contained box about 2 inches by 2 1/2 inches.  At the bottom is an alcohol lamp with a screw-on cap.  At the top is a little reservoir for water.  Light the lamp, wait for the water to boil, put a couple of needles in, boil for a few minutes and back to work.

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3 Comments on “Aunt Ursula’s Portable Needle Boiler”

  1. Louis Greenstein says:

    Aunt Ursula! That’s so cool, Frank. Is she still living?

  2. Patrick Hennessy says:

    Vaccine biologics have come a long way since Ursula’s course of care for her patients. Interesting piece, and very forward thinking on her part for preventative care and doing her part for eradication.

    Patrick Hennessy


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