A medical mystery

Independent researcher Dr. Christine Gowing paid Moorestown a visit in search of answers to her questions about a former resident and his involvement in the development of a strange medical procedure.

Dr. Christine Gowing, of Oxfordshire, England, sits with a collection of information she has gathered on her quest for answers to her questions about a man from Moorestown’s history.

Dr. Christine Gowing is a resident of Oxfordshire, England, and an independent researcher of the history of medicine. Her studies recently brought her across the Atlantic to Moorestown in pursuit of answers to her questions concerning Edgar Nichols, a resident of Moorestown in the mid-20th century, inventor and manufacturer, and his role in the development of an unorthodox medical treatment for tuberculosis in the 1940s.

Gowing’s research project is centered around the story of how an early plastic material, Lucite, was used in early treatment of the disease before the advent of antibiotics. She hopes to explore the relationship between industry and medicine that led to an experimental and controversial procedure.

Her interest in the topic was sparked during a drive last summer when she discovered a sign to The Bakelite Museum, housed within an old mill on the edge of the village of Williton.

“It led to a fascinating treasure trove of a collection, assembled by collector and inventor Patrick Cook, with the three floors of the mill piled high with vintage items made of every type of 20th-century plastic: TVs, kitchen items, cameras, telephones and so much more,” said Gowing.

Among the piles of vintage plastic items, something caught her eye – a jam jar full of transparent acrylic ping pong balls. An explanation attached to the jar described how they had been removed post-mortem in 2013 from the chest of one Dorothy Bowen and subsequently donated to the museum by her son. The plastic balls were identified as an early treatment for tuberculosis that had quite possibly saved Bowen’s life.

“I’d never heard of that before, not many people have. I found that a few medical people had seen x-ray images of these spheres in people’s thoracic area when they had been x-rayed and they knew that it had been a treatment for tuberculosis way back, but very few people knew any more than that about it,” said Gowing.

She knew she had to find out more about this strange, widely-unknown treatment.

“In an age when plastic is the bad boy of modern life, it intrigued me to know how it had happened that filling the chest cavity with plastic could have been considered a therapeutic remedy and how and where the procedure had been developed,” said Gowing.

In the 19th and early 20th century, before the introduction of antibiotics, tuberculosis claimed millions of lives and the less-than-effective popular treatment consisted simply of isolation, rest and proper nutrition in hopes that the lung would repair itself. 

According to Gowing, another early, more experimental treatment, involved intentionally collapsing the lung in order to force it to rest. In 1891, a Frenchman proposed that not only should the lung be rested, but something else should be pushed into the cavity to maintain its position.

This theory led to the production of the Lucite balls that had sparked Gowing’s interest. Her research led her to the man who originally manufactured them – former Moorestown resident Edgar Nichols, who owned a plastics factory at 325 W. Main St. in the 1940s. The now derelict site of this factory was one of Gowing’s first stops upon her arrival. 

According to Gowing, Nichols was an inventor and one of the founding members of the American Society of Inventors. His many patents include pens, paint and color kits for artists,  chains, and golfing equipment made with the Lucite plastic material.

Gowing is in the process of writing a research paper on the topic she hopes to have published. As yet, she has had limited success hunting down connections to Nichols or his family. According to Gowing, Nichols’s son, who carried on his father’s business, died in 2007.

“It’s not so far back. I just wonder if there is anyone who remembers him or knows something about his family,” said Gowing. 

If you have information about the Nichols family or anything that may aid her in her research, email gowingchristine@yahoo.co.uk.