Cameron's Surgical Specialty Company
A History (1915-1959)

It all began with an unassuming 1" clear surgical lamp, similar in shape to the bulb that millions now associate with Christmas tree lighting.  Though the history of Cameron's Surgical Specialty Company was never recorded, surviving documents, family tradition and scattered facts paint a vivid picture.

That picture is centered around William John Cameron, an ambitious, energetic young Manitoba native who came down to the U.S. at the age of 21 and stayed to build a medical instrumentation empire.  Born in 1879, William - or as would come to be known, Will - was the son of Gladstone, Manitoba pioneers David Allan Cameron and Georgina Elizabeth (Sebastian).  After obtaining his Graduate in Pharmacy (Ph.G.) from the University of Manitoba, Will landed on his feet in St. Louis, where he found employ as a salesman for a pharmaceutical company.  His territory was the western United States and Alaska.  Taking a liking to Seattle, Will eventually opened a pharmacy there.  Stories relate that he soon met a traveling salesman who had invented and patented a mouth gag and sterilization lamp, for oral examination and surgery.  Seeing an opportunity to market such items to the medical community, Will purchased the patents, sold his interest in the pharmacy and headed to the heartland of the U.S., Chicago.

On August 1, 1915 "American Surgical Specialty Company" was opened for business at 6 East Lake Street, in Chicago.  Based on dates imprinted upon some of the early Cameron surgical lamps, it appears that the patent was approved (or perhaps expanded upon or officially transferred to Will) on December 12, 1916.  The concept that made the lamps work was "transillumination" by white ray light.  In short, the process enabled physicians to distinguish by shadows the difference between congested and healthy tissue, something radiology was unable to do.  Will Cameron referred to this as the "Searchlight Principal" and wrote that he "became interested in the possibility of diagnosing dental infections by transillumination, believing the simplicity and practicability of the method would prove of unusual value to both the medical and dental professions."  

Early marketing promoted "Cameron Diagnostolites" as "The only COOL, CLEAN, Scientifically Constructed Dignostic and Operating Lamp for Surgical and Dental Use."  Joined by his brother Dr. Alexander Sebastian Cameron as early as 1917, the Cameron lads, along with their maternal cousin William Archer were "working on their own accord," selling lamps and basic instrumentation.  There are also indications that several of Will's other brothers, documented as being salesmen for the company in later years, were also employed at this early stage.  One sibling, Norman, died while in the employ of Cameron's Surgical, at quite a young age, while on a sales call in California.

Beginning on January 1, 1922 the business was renamed "Cameron's Surgical Specialty Company," with operations relocating to Will's home at 110 West Oak Street, Chicago (and the adjacent properties: 110-112 Oak Street).  The salesmen that Will recruited were specially trained in techniques perfected by the National Cash Register Company and were - by all signs - quite successful at their occupations.  By September 1, 1924 Cameron's Surgical Specialty Company had outgrown its modest facilities and moved the factory (offices remained at the Oak Street location) to 143 West Austin Avenue.  Only a temporary solution at best, the following December 5th saw the company settling into their permanent home, a 4-floor office/factory at 666 W. Division St. in Chicago, where "hundreds" of men and women were reportedly employed.  With the business expanding at a furious rate offices were also opened in New York (Fisk Building, 1674 Broadway) and London (Gordon House, 57c Cavendish Street) and Melbourne, Australia as of 1929.  Communications were networked mostly by telegraph, with the main offices going by the cable address "Camsurgo."

From its earliest days, Cameron's Surgical promoted two features as unique to their product line.  First, all diagnostic lamps and cords, as well as the necessary parts of the instruments, were constructed to withstand sterilization by boiling or steam pressure.  They also exclusively used bakelite as an insulating material, with all connections moulded in.  This meant that users wouldn't experience lamps "flashing and flickering out just when you need light."     


Cameron's Surgical also ran its own on premises affiliated publishing division  (Cameron Publishing Company) utilizing the presses for both technical manuals and publications on the various instruments.

The 1929 Stock Market Crash and subsequent Great Depression nearly had a devastating effect upon Cameron's Surgical.  Although the business did not shut down, operations were limited to three days a week for an indeterminate period of time.  Nevertheless, they struggled through the years that followed, thanks in part to three new instruments:

- The Cameron Heartometer.  Invented in 1937, it was one of the first medical instruments to take measurements from visual means (lights actuated by the pulse), rather than by sound.  This insured the most accurate way of measuring and permanently recording systolic and diastolic blood pressures, pulse rate, the force and character of heart action and peripheral vascular circulation throughout the extremities.  The Heartometer  was so successful that a separate yet affiliated company was formed for its distribution.

- The Cameron Cauterodyne.  A bloodless surgical knife.  It was used for both cutting and coagulation during procedures, with independent controls to regulate each of those functions.

- The Cameron Flexible Gastroscope.  This instrument allowed internal examination of the stomach through a lens-filled and lighted tube, inserted through the mouth.  The success behind the gastroscope was due to a unique partnership between Will and Dr. Rudolph Schindler.  A half-Jewish Berlin resident, Schindler managed to escape Germany in 1934 and settled in Chicago.  In Germany, Schindler had partnered with George Wolf, a Berlin instrument manufacturer.  Cameron's Surgical would provide a similar role in the U.S. for Schindler, the means to put his 30 years of research to practical deployment.  During World War II devises such as the Cameron Gastroscope captured the market left devoid of German instrumentation.

Thanks to these innovative products, along with their existing product line, Cameron's Surgical Specialty Company was eventually able to claim title as "World's Largest Supplier of Illuminated Instruments." 

During World War II, in addition to the continued manufacture of medical instrumentation, Cameron's Surgical shifted a portion of their production to the war effort.  Several Chicago businesses were producing the components for the Norden Bombsight, one of World War II's most heavily guarded secrets.  Cameron's Surgical manufactured the optics for the bombsight.   

Never content to rest on their laurels, Cameron's Surgical Specialty Company was always looking for new, innovative ideas.  Enter Cameron's Electromaton Company, another affiliated business operating out of 666 W. Division.  There was only one product line, namely one of the world's first battery powered illuminated men's razors.  In addition to the razor, blades were also marketed exclusively for this devise.

In September 1953, Cameron's Surgical Specialty Company lost its heart & soul.  Will Cameron passed away.  The following February his brother Alexander became the Chairman of the Board and President of Cameronís Surgical Specialty Company.  Alex held this position until July 24, 1957, when Cameron's Surgical Specialty Company was sold, a deal that was financially completed on July 9, 1959.  At that time the company passed out of the Cameron family and this history comes to its end.

Cameronís Surgicalís assets were acquired by George K. Hendrick, apparently for Howard B. Carroll, and eventually merged with Chicago's Miller Surgical Company to become the Cameron-Miller Surgical Company.  This company still exists in Chicago, using that hybrid name, and continues to produce quality medical instrumentation.