Posts tagged: rare book collection

Oedipus and the Sphinx: a Gift for Isador H. Coriat

By , January 6, 2015
Bookplate of Isador H. Coriat, circa 1923. Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.

Bookplate of Isador H. Coriat, circa 1923. Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.

The acquisition and collection of books has long been a vocation and avocation for physicians, and one of the hallmarks of the true collector is the use of a distinctive bookplate to indicate ownership and provenance.  Medical libraries, in particular, have often collected bookplates of physicians, just as they have preserved and treasured their books, as the plates often display a high degree of craftsmanship and tend to incorporate elements of familiar medical iconography.

While some bookplates have only the simplest designs, with just a name or device of the owner, others are more artistic and evocative of the owner’s interests.  John Collins Warren’s bookplate showing the family’s armorial shield—the basis for the arms of the Harvard Medical School—is one such familiar item, as is the nautilus shell bookplate used by Oliver Wendell Holmes, commemorating his famous poem, “The Chambered Nautilus,” but there are many other examples in the rare book collection here at the Center for the History of Medicine.

The intention and planning behind a bookplate, though, is rarely recorded.  The recent acquisition of a sheaf of letters documents the design of a bookplate for pioneer psychoanalyst, Isador H. Coriat (1875-1943), one of the first followers of Freud in Boston.  The letters, mostly from Coriat’s wife, Etta Dann, are addressed to woodcut artist Julius J. Lankes (1884-1960), and concern the commission, design, and execution of a bookplate—a gift to Coriat from his wife.

Etta D. Coriat first wrote to Lankes late in 1922: “Having seen & admired your work in The Liberator & at Goodspeed’s [a Boston bookstore] for several years, I am most desirous of obtaining as a gift for my husband, one of your bookplates.  Can you submit a design characteristic of his work and also let me know about what it would cost?  You will find Dr. Coriat in Who’s Who in America—that, I think, will give you the scope of his work,” (December 11, 1922).

“After reading your letter, I decided that I had kept the secret long enough & so told Dr. all about it. He was delighted & when I asked him if he could suggest anything, he immediately said that Oedipus questioning the Sphinx was very appropriate & symbolic…. You see Dr. was one of the pioneers in this country in psychoanalysis, and his chief interest & work centers in that, it being the most scientific medium through which the neuroses & mental diseases can be interpreted & treated.  The application of psychoanalysis to cultural things as well has cleared the way for better work.  The plate will be used on all worthwhile books—cultural as well as medical,” (March, 1923).

Mrs. Coriat was deeply interested in the design and execution of the plate. “We were very much impressed with your conception of the subject…. The sketch marked A we liked best, just as your wife did, although I think the others could also be worked up with success.  As you say, the figure of the man in A could be less weak and the sword a little plainer, which I suppose would have been corrected anyway.  The name is spelled correctly on A, but insert the middle initial which is H. (Isador H. Coriat), no degree following and no prefix of Dr.—use just the name…. The more I look at them, the better I like them, and I am glad you found pleasure in working it all out.  I liked C too but the facial expression of A impressed me the most.  Dr. doesn’t like skulls—though I’d tell you,” (March 30, 1923).

“I am enclosing both proofs so that you will know what I mean when I ask you to try—if you can—to change the facial expression of the last proof so that it will look like the first one.  Is it some technical thing that changes the expression?  The second one looks a bit cruel and not as questioning as the other one,” (undated).

“We think the bookplate is going to prove a masterpiece and find it more fascinating every time we look at it.  I can easily see that the finished plate will be more beautiful in its lights & shades,” (April 24, 1923).

“Your charge for the bookplate is all out of proportion to its value as a work of art, and I can only hope to make up the difference in appreciation.  I have never given Dr. anything that he cares more about and certainly that I love so much,” (undated).

“I wish I could tell you how charmed we are with it [the bookplate].  It grows more impressive with age.  Isn’t that a sign of a good product?  Don’t forget to put your signature to the block,” (undated).

“And now let me tell you how much we like the bookplate and several of the medical men from different parts of the country to whom I have shown it were really quite charmed with it…. Doctor hasn’t decided just how many he will need, and I wish you could see how fine it looks in those large books.  Dr. has a very fine collection on symbolism—quite rare ones—which in time will probably go to the Boston Medical Library, as they haven’t any of them,” (June 12, 1923).

And what was Coriat’s opinion of the final result?  “I think it about time I expressed to you personally the satisfaction and pleasure which your book plate has given me.  The subject having so many variants, your particular conception of it was eminently gratifying.  It also pleased me to learn that you considered it one of your best plates and by all means use it in your forthcoming book…. Your work has had a special appeal to both Mrs. Coriat and myself for some time,” (November 14, 1923).

Many volumes from Isador H. Coriat’s book collection were bequeathed to the Boston Medical Library at his death, and examples of the bookplate with Oedipus and the Sphinx are easy to find.  The one depicted here is mounted in a 1591 Venetian edition of Albrecht Dürer’s Della simmetria dei corpi humani, libri quattro.


Medical Heritage Library digital objects now discoverable in DPLA

By , October 19, 2014

The Center is pleased to join with other Medical Heritage Library (MHL) collaborators in announcing that MHL holdings are now discoverable through the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).

The Center for the History of Medicine is a founding member of the Medical Heritage Library, a specialized research collection stored in the Internet Archive, which currently includes more than 60,000 digital rare books, serials, audio and video recordings, and ephemera in the history of medicine, public health, biomedical sciences, and popular medicine from the medical special collections of 22 academic, special, and public libraries.

MHL materials have been selected through a rigorous process of curation by subject specialist librarians and archivists and through consultation with an advisory committee of scholars in the history of medicine, public health, gender studies, digital humanities, and related fields.  Items, selected for their educational and research value, extend from 1235 (Liber Aristotil[is] de nat[u]r[a] a[nima]li[u]m ag[res]tium [et] marino[rum]), to 2014 (The Grog Issue 40 2014) with the bulk of the materials dating from the 19th century.

“The rich history of medicine content curated by the MHL is available for the first time alongside collections like those from the Biodiversity Heritage Library and the Smithsonian, and offers users a single access point to hundreds of thousands of scientific and history of science resources,” said DPLA Assistant Director for Content Amy Rudersdorf.

The collection is particularly deep in American and Western European medical publications in English, although more than a dozen languages are represented. Subjects include anatomy, dental medicine, surgery, public health, infectious diseases, forensics and legal medicine, gynecology, psychology, anatomy, therapeutics, obstetrics, neuroscience, alternative medicine, spirituality and demonology, diet and dress reform, tobacco, and homeopathy. The breadth of the collection is illustrated by these popular items: the United States Naval Bureau of Medical History’s audio oral history with Doctor Walter Burwell (1994) who served in the Pacific theatre during World War II and witnessed the first Japanese kamikaze attacks; History and medical description of the two-headed girl : sold by her agents for her special benefit, at 25 cents (1869)the first edition of Gray’s Anatomy (1858) (the single most-downloaded MHL text at more than 2,000 downloads annually), and a video collection of Hanna – Barbera Production Flintstones (1960) commercials for Winston cigarettes.

“As is clear from today’s headlines, science, health, and medicine have an impact on the daily lives of Americans,” said Scott H. Podolsky, chair of the MHL’s Scholarly Advisory Committee. “Vaccination, epidemics, antibiotics, and access to health care are only a few of the ongoing issues the history of which are well documented in the MHL. Partnering with the DPLA offers us unparalleled opportunities to reach new and underserved audiences, including scholars and students who don’t have access to special collections in their home institutions and the broader interested public.“

The MHL collection joins more than 7.6 million items available currently through DPLA. DPLA, an all-digital library that offers a single point of access to millions of items from libraries, archives, and museums around the United States, provides a generous array of interfaces into its collections. Users can browse and search by timeline, map, virtual bookshelf, and faceted search; save and share customized lists of items; explore digital exhibitions, and interact with DPLA-powered apps in its app library.

Robert Miller, Global Director of Books for the Internet Archive, noted, “Digitizing this collection has breathed new life into rare and unique texts that were previously only available in printed form. These items have already been downloaded over 3.7 million times. Combining a digital platform for access with curated content is a winner for the open knowledge movement.”

Creation of the MHL’s digital collection was funded by the Open Knowledge Commons, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities and by the contributions of many of its principal and content contributors. The MHL continues to seek new collaborators and content; among the contributions anticipated for 2015 are oral histories with women leaders in medicine, 19th century British monographs, and American monographs, 1865-1923. New content is searchable as it is deposited and indexed from the MHL website, the Internet Archive, and the DPLA.

About the Medical Heritage Library
The Medical Heritage Library (MHL), a digital curation collaborative among some of the world’s leading medical libraries, promotes free and open access to quality historical resources in medicine. Our goal is to provide the means by which readers and scholars across a multitude of disciplines can examine the interrelated nature of medicine and society, both to inform contemporary medicine and strengthen understanding of the world in which we live. The MHL’s growing collection of digitized medical rare books, pamphlets, journals, and films number in the tens of thousands, with representative works from each of the past six centuries. The MHL can be found at, on Facebook, and Twitter (@medicalheritage).

About DPLA
The Digital Public Library of America ( strives to contain the full breadth of human expression, from the written word, to works of art and culture, to records of America’s heritage, to the efforts and data of science. Since launching in April 2013, it has aggregated over 7.6 million items from over 1,300 institutions. The DPLA is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit.

About the Internet Archive
The Internet Archive ( is a top 200 Internet website with a mission to build a digital library of internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form. By working with great content holders and libraries such as those above, we can together provide both storage of and access to treasures that can inform and educate the global community.

Medical Heritage Library Digitizes Ida Cannon’s “Social Work in Hospitals”


Cover of Cannon’s “Social Work in Hospitals.”

Medical social work was a burgeoning field in the early decades of the twentieth century; what might now be considered a ‘holistic approach’ to medicine — dealing with the patient’s social background, life experience, job, and so on — was beginning to be regarded as a necessary corollary to medical treatment.

Ida M. Cannon published her Social Work in Hospitals in 1913 which, with the benefit of hindsight, seems to be unfortunate timing; within a year for many of her reading audience, the question will be numbers of hospital beds, recovery facilities, and medical staff, not so much how they treat their patients in a social context. Cannon followed her brother, Walter Bradford, to Boston from the family home in Minnesota. She supplemented her nursing education in Boston at the School for Social Workers and went on to work with Dr. Richard C. Cabot at the Massachusetts General Hospital. In 1914, a year after the publication of her book, she was named Chief of Social Service at the hospital; she held the position for over thirty years.

In her book, Cannon gives a brief overview of the history of medical social work starting with religious communities and their historical role as supporters of the sick. She presents the social worker as a valuable adjunct to the physician, able to interact with the patient in different ways and supplement medical care with social assistance.

Follow this link to read Social Work in Hospitals.

As always, for more from the Medical Heritage Library, please visit our full collection!

The Sir William Osler Collection

By , November 6, 2013
Osler at work on The Principles and Practice of Medicine, 1891. Harvard Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. #0002497.

Osler at work on The Principles and Practice of Medicine, 1891. Harvard Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. #0002497.

Sir William Osler (1849-1919) remains one of the world’s most revered physicians, and his works are prized by medical libraries. His most famous and influential publication is the textbook of internal medicine, The Principles and Practice of Medicine, which first appeared in 1892. After Osler’s death, subsequent editions of this fundamental textbook were edited and revised by Thomas McCrae and then Henry A. Christian until 1947, with an estimated 500,000 copies printed.

In 1935, Dr. Henry Rouse Viets (1890-1969) presented the Boston Medical Library with a collection of 21 different issues and states of The Principles and Practice of Medicine, English-language editions as well as foreign translations, supplementing the library’s already considerable holdings of this work. The Osler Collection now contains a virtually complete set of copies and issues of all sixteen editions, along with copies of British editions, and French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese translations, and even the pirated fourth British edition of 1901. Additional Osleriana titles were acquired in 1955 by the gift of Dr. Joseph Hersey Pratt (1872-1956), who had studied with Osler at Johns Hopkins in the 1890s. The Pratt gift includes autographed copies of some of Osler’s other works, as well as a number of rare medical titles with presentation inscriptions to Pratt from Osler himself.

The photograph above shows Osler at work on The Principles and Practice of Medicine in the sitting room of Hunter Robb, the chief resident in gynecology at Johns Hopkins Hospital.  Osler appropriated Robb’s room for several months until completing his manuscript in October, 1891.  The photograph is from the collection of  Dr. William T. Councilman (1854-1933). who was assistant professor of pathology at Hopkins before assuming the Shattuck Professorship of Pathological Anatomy at Harvard in 1892.  The mat of the original print bears the inscription, “Dr. Osler writing a book.  Attention is called to the air of deep thought & preoccupation.  See also the number of ponderous tomes lying around.  He has diligently read all these.  Will the book be a good book?  Yes, it may be.”  The original photograph is part of collection of Councilman’s personal and professional papers which was donated to Harvard by Dr. William C. Wigglesworth, Councilman’s grandson, in 1978.


Medical History’s “Social” Library- The Medical Heritage Library

The History of Healthcare blog recently posted about our Medical Heritage Library. Author Melissa Grafe promoted the MHL as a central source for research materials and tools, profiling the collection and the usefulness of the MHL blog as the place to go for links to new digital content and newly published articles in the history of medicine as well as tools for digital research.

In addition to Countway’s Center for the History of Medicine, she credits our collaborators and many of the MHL contributors — Columbia, Harvard, Yale, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the National Library of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, New York Academy of Medicine, the New York Public Library, the Wellcome Library, Duke University, the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Lamar Soutter Library, the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library at the University of California, San Francisco, Brandeis University, the Gerstein Science Information Centre, University of Toronto, and others.

See the whole article here.

Inconsistency, the slough of disease, and the steps of common sense.

By , March 22, 2013

Illustration from The Thomsonian Botanic Watchman, vol. 1, no. 1 (1834) p. 8. On the left an M.D. and Fellow of the Royal Society bludgeons a patient, who is being bled and is mired in the slough of disease, with a club labeled "calomel" (mercury chloride). On his jacket are the labels: "dieting", "regulate system," "depletion," "lancet," and "nitre." In the center, a man wearing the labels: "reason," "philosophy," and "common sense." And on the right, a man wearing the labels: "Thomson's system," "food," "steam," "lobelia," and "capsicum" leads a patient up the steps of common sense

Read The Thomsonian Botanic Watchman online.


This image was digitized as part of the Medical Heritage Library project. A collaborative online collection of primary source materials held by some of the world’s leading medical libraries, the Medical Heritage Library presently contains over 40,000 individual volumes that cover a broad range of topics within the domain of medical history. To read more about the MHL and its contributing partners, or to browse the collection, visit

MHL highlight: Civil War photography from the Army Medical Museum

By , June 26, 2012

Photograph and case history of Private Samuel Decker. He posed for this portrait at the Army Medical Museum along with the prostheses he developed after losing both hands to an artillery accident during the battle of Perryville. — vol. 5, image 5 (Click on image to enlarge.)

The Center for the History of Medicine recently digitized a remarkable collection of Civil War-era images titled Photographs of surgical cases and specimens. Nearly 150 years after it was first published, this six-volume set provides a sobering look at the state of the art in surgery during and after the war. The imagery in the collection is vivid, starkly illustrating the terrible effects of developing warfare technology on the human body, while the detailed case histories that accompany each photograph — recording the names and ranks of soldiers, specific battles, dates of injury, treatment narratives, and final outcomes — provide a wealth of medical and biographical information to scholars and casual readers alike.

Though versions of many of the individual images in the collection have been widely circulated, complete sets in bound volumes are extremely rare, and this is the first time that the entire collection, in its original form, has been made freely available to the public online.

Background & history

At the outset of the Civil War in 1861, the lack of experienced surgeons in the ranks of both the Union and Confederate armies represented a looming medical crisis. In 1862 the United States Army Medical Museum was formed, in part to advance practical research into new ways of treating and diagnosing the types of trauma that had become commonplace on the modern battlefield. Almost immediately after it was established, the museum’s first curator, Dr. John Hill Brinton, began collecting specimens from field hospitals and military grave sites. In the years that followed, individual portraits along with photographs of these specimens and accompanying case histories were disseminated to hospitals and medical institutions around the country.

(top) “Group of officers who have undergone amputation for gunshot injuries” from vol. 3, image 1. (Bottom) Minié ball embedded in skull at the Battle of the Wilderness — vol. 2, image 28.

In 1865, Lieutenant William Bell, who would later gain fame for his photographs of the American West, was appointed Chief Photographer of the museum. The artistic composition and quality of Bell’s work often bore greater resemblance to the celebrated portraiture of Matthew Brady than to standard, utilitarian medical photography. Under the direction of Brinton’s successor, Dr. George Alexander Otis, Bell photographed the portrait sitters and anatomical specimens in a studio at the museum, and was ultimately responsible for the majority of the images that comprise this collection.


The most common and deadly threat on the battlefield at the time was the gunshot wound, which was more prevalent and vastly more traumatic than in previous wars owing to the development of the “Minié ball.” A type of conical musket round, it could be rapidly loaded, then fired accurately and at a velocity high enough to cause devastating flesh wounds and shatter bone at great distances. Surgical cases and specimens includes an exhaustive variety of these types of wounds, illustrated through morbid specimens and portraits of surviving patients, with amputation or excision of joints comprising the majority of surgeries depicted.

This particular edition, which was sent from the museum to John Collins Warren, Jr., was likely assembled and published in the 1870s, and thus it also includes a number of civilian trauma cases from during and after the war that were considered relevant.

A word of caution to readers who wish to browse these books: many of the cases depicted involve extremely gruesome injuries that can, at times, be shocking to look at. Also, when reading the books online, it is important to note that each case history will appear on the page directly following the photograph it describes.

Volumes I-VI of Surgical cases and specimens were digitized by the Center for the History of Medicine as part of our ongoing contributions to the Medical Heritage Library.  A collaborative online collection of primary source materials held by some of the world’s leading medical libraries, the Medical Heritage Library presently contains over 35,000 individual volumes that cover a broad range of topics within the domain of medical history, including hundreds of items relating to various aspects of Civil War medicine. To read more about the MHL and its contributing partners, or to browse the collection, visit

Report on the remarkable case of Captain Robert Stolpe, shot through the abdomen at the battle of Chancellorsville. After being wounded, Stolpe was forced to walk 1.5 miles back to a field hospital. A day later, the field hospital came under fire, and he had to walk another half mile with a portion of his lung protruding from the wound. Shortly after being admitted to a base hospital, he passed the musket ball in his stool and was found “walking about the ward smoking a cigar,” apparently having suffered no long-term, adverse health effects. — vol. 1, image 33.

Thousands of digitzed medical texts now available through HOLLIS

By , May 3, 2012

Verso of leaf with marginalia from a book of medical aphorisms published in Venice in 1502; currently the oldest book that Countway has contributed to the MHL. (Click to view full-size image)

For the past two years, The Center for the History of Medicine has been cataloging and digitizing hundreds of rare and historic medical books per month and adding them to the Medical Heritage Library. Until now, Harvard patrons who wished to access these materials online had to first search HOLLIS before manually searching through the Internet Archive (where all MHL materials are hosted) in order to use them. As of today, these titles can now be directly accessed through HOLLIS with a single click.

Local patrons who wish to browse the entire collection can go to the advanced search pane of HOLLIS, and enter “medical heritage library” into the “series” field. This search will return over 7,000 titles published throughout the past six centuries, and the faceted browsing capabilities of HOLLIS will allow the results to be easily broken down by useful qualifiers, including date, location, subject, and language, among others.

Countway Library Awarded NEH Grant for Digitization of Historical Medical Journals

American Journal of Insanity, v. 1, n. 1, 1844

The Countway Library’s Center for the History of Medicine will digitize early American medical journals as a part of an NEH-funded project awarded to the Medical Heritage Library (MHL) through the Open Knowledge Commons (OKC). Countway, a founder of the MHL, a multi-library collaboration, will contribute digitized journals to the Medical Heritage Library collection in the Internet Archive where they will be freely available to researchers.

“These journals and transactions provide a rich resource of data on matters relating to everything from local history to legal history, from housing to welfare policy. And, of course, they remain the basic and indispensable source for the internal history of the medical profession, its intellectual and (not unrelated) social development,” explains Professor  Charles Rosenberg, Ernest E. Monrad Professor of the Social Sciences, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University, a member of the MHL Scholarly Advisory Committee.  “In my own work, I have always found the articles, editorials, letters, and transcriptions of society debates to be fundamental. And only a handful of American libraries have a comprehensive collection of such materials. The publications of sectarian groups and local medical societies are particularly elusive—yet often provide the most circumstantial documentation of medical practice and debate ‘on the ground.’”

The grant, from NEH’s Humanities Collections and Reference Resources program, will support the digitization of approximately 200 journal titles published between 1797 and 1923, nearly 6,000 journal volumes. The project’s goal is to make broadly available complete runs of the nation’s earliest medical journals. Journals will be digitized from the collections of the medical libraries of Columbia, Harvard, and Yale Universities and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The National Library of Medicine and other MHL collaborators will assist by providing journal volumes that the four participants do not hold. The digitized journals will join the more than 33,000 monographs, serials, pamphlets, and films currently available in the MHL.

As a part of the project, the Countway Library will digitize 313,000 pages of historical journals; some of these exist in only a handful of libraries nationwide.  The Countway Library, a partnership of the Boston Medical Library and the Harvard Medical School, serves the Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, and Harvard School of Public Health as well as University researchers and students in history of medicine and the biosciences. Its Center for the History of Medicine is the nation’s largest history of medicine special collections in an academic medical center.

The MHL is a content centered digital community supporting research, education, and dialog that enables the history of medicine to contribute to a deeper understanding of human health and society.  It serves as the point of access to a valuable body of quality curated digital materials and to the broader digital and nondigital holdings of its members. It was established in 2010 with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation via the Open Knowledge Common to digitize 30,000 medical rare books.  In addition to the participants named above, MHL principal contributors are Johns Hopkins University, New York Academy of Medicine, the New York Public Library, and the Wellcome Library. The collaboration has since grown to include contributors of digital content, including Duke University, University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Lamar Soutter Library, and the Gerstein Science Information Centre, University of Toronto. For more information about the MHL collection, activities, and collaborators, see

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Humanities Collections and Reference Resources Grants allow institutions to preserve and provide access to collections essential to scholarship, education, and public programming in the humanities. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at:

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