Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 28, 2021
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The spin doctor

The spin doctor

The Spin Doctor. I acquired this title from one of my wife's fellow spinning guild members. It all started some 10 years ago when my wife took a course in spinning, discovered the meditative joy of this activity and decided she had to have a wheel of her own.

She was tremendously pleased with herself when she purchased a wheel in an antiques store for the bargain price of $75. When she found herself unable to "make it work," she sought my diagnostic skills.

While I knew no more than my wife about these marvellous machines, this set me on the path of restoring, building and collecting spinning wheels as a hobby, miles away from the stress of the Emer-gency Department around which my professional life revolves.

"Mabel," as the wheel became christened, proved to be one of a large number of deceptively realistic, but strictly decorative, wheels produced in Quebec in the '50s. By the time I had learned enough about wheels to make several completely new components, I had absorbed a good basic course in the mechanics of the Saxony wheel.

Mabel was followed by the design and construction from scratch of a folding portable wheel (christened "Baby"), using a brass tea-cart wheel from Lee Valley as the driving wheel.

This required further CSWE (Continuing Spinning-Wheel Education) to learn the effect of ratios, twist, orifice size, inertia and a host of subtle details on functionality. The reference library was started. It soon became apparent that there is an extensive international community of spinning-wheel builders, repairers and collectors -- along with annual conferences and even a specialized journal, The Spinning Wheel Sleuth -- whose existence one would never have suspected.

Baby's public appearance at a Guild meeting opened the floodgates. Spinners and would-be spinners appeared from all quarters bearing wheels needing everything from minor adjustments to total reconstruction. A pile of kindling in a garbage bag was accompanied by an earnest plea: "This was my great-great-great grandmother's, who came over with Eric the Red, and I really want to use it; can you make it work?"

It has taken me many years and much bitter experience to learn that, just as in medicine, not all ills are curable, or at least not within reasonable resource limitations. This is battlefield triage, and the most seriously wounded must be abandoned to their fate.

What could possibly be the appeal of something so obviously simple as spinning wheels for a physician? Their apparent simplicity turns out to be most deceptive. The basic design of a large wheel driving a flyer, which simultaneously twists the fibre and winds it onto a bobbin, has been re-interpreted repeatedly by groups from Scandanavia to South America, and from North America to India and China.

Just as most violins look superficially the same but differ markedly in sound, spinning wheels vary markedly in functionality. Some of these characteristics can be readily explained in terms of the mathematical relationships of the relative sizes of the various pulleys, the shape of the flyer, the diametre of the bobbin core and so on.

However, once one attempts to fully understand the interactions of all these factors it becomes apparent that, just as in the making of a fine violin, there is an art to making a fine wheel that transcends simple physics. It is in the pursuit of this art that I find my satisfaction.

One can easily become immersed in research into the history of wheels, and from here it is a perilously short step to collecting them, even just for their beauty. Many French and British Victorian "parlour wheels" are exquisitely turn-ed from exotic woods and extensively decorated with ivory. For me, however, the history and esthetics are secondary paths toward the goal of rejuvenation and re-creation of what were often exquisitely crafted machines.

One of the first wheels I was presented with was one made in Nova Scotia by Alexander Mackenzie in 1832. Performing surgery on such a venerable senior citizen, without destroying its authenticity and value, was a daunting prospect.

Indeed, it needed a number of replacement parts, and it became apparent that fashioning these would require both extensive research and, ultimately, an intact model from which I could take exact measurements. I eventually located one in the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).

Despite valiant attempts on my part to communicate with the personnel at the ROM by phone, mail and email, it became apparent that the only way I was going to get the needed measurements was by a visit to the ROM. The project was shelved until I was able to sign up for a CME conference in Toronto, affording a plausible opportunity to travel 1500 kilometres just to measure the dia-metres of two pulleys on an old wheel.

Once there, it became clear that museum staff are even more obsessive about protective isolation than medical personnel. I was absolutely forbidden to touch the wheel, even when fully dressed with gown and cotton gloves to "prevent the oil on my hands from damaging the wood."

This, in blithe disregard for the fact that the wheel in question would have been exposed not only to the oily hands of countless spinsters over the years. Also, bacon fat, goose grease, motor oil or whatever else was readily to hand was used to lubricate the various moving parts and the lanolin from the hundreds of fleeces spun upon it.

I was able to get approximate measurements made by one of the museum staff and take photographs ("No flash! The light might damage the wood"). My career as a restorer (as opposed to a repairer) was launched.

The restoration of a finely crafted, 100-year-old wheel to its original, smoothly joyful function affords immense satisfaction. It requires many of the same skills which drew me to medicine -- diagnostic skills (why won't the fibre draw in?), meticulous attention to detail (a difference of one millimetre in the depth of the groove on the flyer whorl can alter the way it spins; even the shape of the groove -- V shaped on the bobbin whorl, rounded on the flyer whorl -- may be critical) and a fascination with the way things work.

It is Plastics, Orthopedics, Rheumatology, Neurosurgery and Geriatrics rolled into one. What it lacks is the constant pressure of life in the Emergency Department. I can retreat to my basement workshop and gently, meditatively, far from the madding crowd, reverse the ravages of use and time so to restore a fine old body to its youthful prime.


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