Remembering Letitia Mumford Geer, the Nurse Who Invented the One-Handed Syringe

In the late 19th century, a nurse named Letitia Mumford Geer saw room to improve the medical syringe. Despite her influence, her story isn't widely known today.
You can thank Letitia Mumford Geer for this.
You can thank Letitia Mumford Geer for this. / Francesco Carta fotografo/Moment/Getty Images

Medical treatments were hit or miss in the Victorian Era. Some of the suggested treatments are questionable by modern standards: The first-ever Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy recommended such remedies as arsenic, leeches, and cocaine for a variety of ailments.

But the era was also a period of innovation in the medical field. Many procedures and instruments developed in the late 1800s are still used by medical professionals today, including the one-handed, self-administered syringe.

When Letitia Mumford Geer secured her patent for the device in 1899—the same year the Merck Manual was released—she changed healthcare from that point forward. Geer was born in New York in 1852, a year before the invention of a hypodermic needle sharp enough to pierce a patient’s skin and administer intravenous treatment at the same time.

Syringes had already been around for a surprisingly long time by that point in history. In the 1st century CE, the Roman surgeon Galen first described a rudimentary piston syringe designed to apply ointments rather than inject fluids into the bloodstream. By 900 CE, the Arab Muslim ophthalmologist Ammar al-Mawsil was using syringes to extract cataracts from the eyes of his patients. The instrument wasn’t sharp like modern needles, and it required an incision to be made in the person’s eye ahead of time. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century that syringes resembling what’s used today—with hypodermic needles, plungers, and glass bodies for easy measuring—spread throughout the world of medicine. 

When Geer became a nurse in adulthood, she would have been acquainted with the tool. The updated versions were much easier to use than the more cumbersome iterations that came before them, but still, she saw room for improvement.

Letitia Mumford Geer's patent for the one-handed syringe.
Letitia Mumford Geer's patent for the one-handed syringe. / USPTO

In 1896, Geer filed a patent for a new type of syringe designed to be used with one hand—it was so sleek and simple that patients could administer their own medicine in hard-to-reach areas like the rectum. The most unique aspect of the design was the hook-shaped handle, which made the instrument easy to grip and wield in awkward positions. As the inventor explained in her patent, the feature enabled “the operator to use the syringe upon himself without the aid of an assistant, which would not be the case if it required two hands to operate the syringe.” She also noted that the basic device could be replicated at a low cost, further emphasizing its accessibility. 

The United States Patent and Trademark Office granted her patent three years after it was submitted. The invention inspired more the more convenient syringes that are used today, and it was among the last major updates to the medical tool until 1956, when a New Zealand pharmacist named Colin Albert Murdoch invented the first plastic syringe that was made to be thrown away after one use. The glass and metal syringes used previously had to go through a time-consuming sterilization process between injections, and often this wasn’t enough to prevent infection. Health officials initially rejected Murdoch’s idea for being overly futuristic, but it was ultimately embraced as a fast, safe, and effective way to administer vaccines and other treatments. The design hasn’t changed much in the years since.

Geer didn’t live long enough to see the disposable syringe, but she did live to see the influence of her invention. She died in 1935 at 83 years old. Though she was one of several inventors who contributed to the modern syringe design, her name is often left out of accounts of its history. 

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