Posts tagged: rare book collection

MHL highlights: Mendicant collection

By , September 5, 2012

A selection from the Center for the History of Medicine's mendicant collection

In 2003, the Center for the History of Medicine acquired a collection of about 200 pamphlets, books, and ephemera, ranging in date from the early 19th century to the 1960s, intended to be sold by the disabled. Loss of vision, limbs, and mobility through war, occupational accidents, and disease are recurring themes. Most of the earlier examples are poems in 4 or 5 stanzas describing the cause of the disability and appealing to strangers for charity. These ephemera offer a unique look at American life in the 19th and 20th centuries: the rise of the railroads and industry, the Civil War, the temperance movement, and the scarcity of community or social support for some ranks of the disabled are amply documented in this collection.

A small selection of the collection has recently been digitized and is now available through the Medical Heritage Library. The scanning of these items was funded by the Library Services and Technology Act, provided through the Boston Public Library’s Digital Commonwealth program.

MHL highlights: electricity in medicine

By , May 14, 2012

Frontispiece from “An essay on electricity, the theory and practice of that useful science, and the mode of applying it,” by George Adams, 1785, shows a physician applying current generated by an "electrical machine," to a patient’s arm.

“The Society having heard from some of their Correspondents in Germany that what they call a Vegetable Quintessence had been fired by Electricity, I take this Opportunity to acquaint you, that on Friday Evening last I succeeded, after having been disappointed in many Attempts, in setting Spirits of Wine on Fire by that Power.”

So begins a collection of correspondence written by the physician and scientist William Watson and addressed to Martin Folkes, who eventually succeeded Sir Isaac Newton as President of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, commonly known as “The Royal Society.” The collection, printed in 1746, details a series of experiments that Watson carried out, and is noteworthy for his observations on the conductive properties of water and the effect that atmospheric moisture had on electrical experimentation.

Long before they fully comprehended its origins and properties, early physicians were fascinated with the potential therapeutic uses of electricity. However, it wasn’t until the Enlightenment that scientists began a more thorough examination of the essential characteristics of electrical phenomena and their possible uses in medicine. With the invention of the Leyden Jar in 1745, doctors and scientists who had long been able to generate electricity on primitive, hand-cranked electrostatic generators, were finally able store it. In the following years and decades, equipment for both the storage and generation of electricity was refined, increasing the possibilities for more sophisticated therapies.

"The law of electrical repulsion and attraction," from "Electricity in health in disease. . ." by S.H. Monell, 1908.

The Medical Heritage Library now contains a substantial collection of primary-source materials that illustrate these early forays into electrical experimentation, many of which were contributed by the Center for the History of Medicine. The collection spans three centuries, covers everything from electrophysiology to quackery, and includes original works by Galvani, Ampère, Nollet, Cavallo, and Becquerel, among many other notables.

Patrons can trace the evolution of the field from it’s earliest days via the whimsical correspondences of enterprising 18th century scientists like Watson, referenced above, through to the 20th century, which brought the development of more modern electrotherapies and diagnostics. Also included are a number of early works on the construction of machines for generating and storing electrostatic charges, as well as a selection of 19th-century electrotherapeutic device manufacturers’ catalogs.

Visit the Medical Heritage Library website to view a growing collection of over 33,000 historical medical books from around the world.

Digital highlights: Girolamo Fabrizio d’Aquapendente, early surgeon and anatomist, in two editions

By , December 18, 2011

Girolamo Fabrizio was a 16th century surgeon and trail-blazing anatomist, a well-known teacher, and an early expert in the science of embryology, which he investigated through a series of dissections on animal subjects.

Here at the Center, we recently digitized two posthumously-published, 17th century copies of his surgical writings. Both translated from the original Latin, these two books represent early editions of Fabrizio in Italian and German, which would have made his work available to the wider public, and cover topics ranging from the treatment of wounds and ulcers, to fractures, dislocations, and tumors. The two books are illustrated with engraved plates by Giovanni Georgi that show surgical instruments and apparatus as described in the texts, along with highly detailed anatomical preparations.

Taken together with the scores of early medical books that the Center has already digitized and contributed to the MHL, these two works offer a detailed glimpse into a vein of primary source material that memorializes the history of medicine as practiced by physicians from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment and beyond.

The Italian text, published in Padua in 1671, can be found here. The German, published in Nuremberg in 1673, is here.

You can visit the Medical Heritage Library online, which contains a growing catalog of over 13,000 individual, fully-searchable volumes, including many early works on surgeons, surgery, anatomy, and a wide range of diverse topics.

MHL digital highlight: Lewis Sayre’s treatment of spinal curvatures

By , November 8, 2011

(above) One of a series of triptychs from Lewis A. Sayre's "Spinal disease and spinal curvature: their treatment by suspension and the use of the plaster of Paris bandage." (London: Smith & Elder, 1877)

Lewis A. Sayre (1820-1900), was a surgeon of significant renown and an important figure in the history of orthopedics in America. He was a charter member of several medical societies, including the American Medical Association, and served as its president in 1880. Among the procedures that he pioneered in his private practice was a process during which the patient was suspended, hanging by the arms, in order to stretch the spine and relieve stresses caused by an irregular curvature, while a plaster of Paris “jacket” was fitted in order to hold the spine in place after suspension. In this particular book, Sayre details his experiments treating scoliosis and Pott’s disease (spinal tuberculosis) with the plaster jacket. He also includes an extensive series of clinical comparisons between his jacket and the more expensive and cumbersome iron braces that were in use at the time. The case studies, which describe a range of successful outcomes, are richly illustrated with drawings and photographs like the ones above.

Recalling his first use of suspension before the application of the jacket, by which he intended to accomplish nothing more than a temporary alleviation of symptoms until a commercially-available brace could be acquired, Sayre writes:

In November 1874 a little boy, four years of age, was brought to me having a sharp posterior curvature of the three last dorsal and the first lumbar vertebrae, together with partial paralysis of the rectum and one leg … I directed one of my assistants to suspend the boy by the arms, in order to see what effect would be produced; and I noticed that, as soon as the body was made pendent, there was more motion in the paralysed limb than before, that the pain was very much relieved, and that the patient was breathing with greater ease. While he was suspended in this manner, I pulled down his shirt and tied it between his legs, thus making it fit the body closely and smoothly; and then, commencing at the pelvis, I applied rollers saturated with plaster of Paris around the entire trunk. At first I was anxious concerning the effect that would be produced on the respiration, but inasmuch as the boy cried lustily, all my fears in that respect were quickly dispelled: so I went on, reversing the bandage, bringing it back to the pelvis, again carrying it upwards, &c., until the body was completely encircled by four or five thicknesses of the roller. The child was then laid with his face downwards on a sofa, and was instructed to remain there until the plaster had become firmly set. When I returned shortly afterwards, I found, to my surprise, that the little fellow had got up from the sofa and walked across the room to a window … When this dressing had been completed, I requested the parents to bring back the child after an interval of ten days, when I proposed to apply and adjust a Taylor’s brace. The above-described plaster jacket had been put on simply for the purpose of rendering the child comfortable whilst being carried home. I did not see either the child or its parents until the following February.

This book is just one of over 70 titles dealing with spinal diseases and abnormalities, from the 18th- through 20th-centuries, that have already been added to the Medical Heritage Library, including one of Pott’s original works on spinal tuberculosis, which the Countway digitized in March of 2011.

Handling Harvard’s Special Collections

By , October 4, 2011

Houghton Library recently released a video tutorial on proper techniques for patrons when handling bound, unbound, and oversize items in Harvard special collections.

MHL at two million images: a behind-the-scenes look at the project

By , August 26, 2011

(Above) A collage of images from Countway books recently digitized and added to the MHL

This month, the Center for the History of Medicine contributed its two-millionth page-image to the Medical Heritage Library. That number translates into almost 6,000 volumes that have been digitized in their entirety (and downloaded over 90,000 times), or nearly two-thirds of our forecast total contributions to the project.

Those who are interested in the process of library digitization might also be interested to learn more about what those statistics mean in terms of logistics and workflow. What does it take to produce millions of page-images from a collection of hundreds of thousands of rare and fragile books? How much time is required? What are the biggest challenges involved? In this two-part series of blog posts, we will examine a large-scale digitization project from the inside.


At the outset of the project, the Center committed to contributing more than just basic black-and-white scans to the MHL. Along with the other contributing members, we chose to produce high-quality, full-color images accompanied by plain text files created with optical character recognition software (OCR). This allows our users to experience these works either as close approximations of their original physical states (i.e. full color page-turning ebooks), or as simple text files that can be searched, manipulated, and easily read on portable devices. Because we committed ourselves to this level of quality in production, a great deal of effort needs to be put in to every book that we send through the process, and to keep up with this kind of work, a digitization project requires staffing.

Here at the Center, the MHL team consists of six members, two of whom work exclusively on the project. We have two project administrators (Scott Podolski and Kathryn Hammond Baker), two selectors (Jack Eckert and Joan Thomas), one dedicated cataloger/workflow manager (Jay Moschella), and one dedicated part-time employee who works on various aspects of the project including workflow and QC (Sarah Spira).

To stay on top of the work required, our staff needs to meet regularly with one another, and to remain in constant contact with other MHL contributors and service providers, including project funders, MHL overseers, staff members from our numerous partner libraries, our scanning center, our moving company, and others. Without a commitment to open communication and cooperation, a logistically complex digitization project like the MHL would simply not be feasible.


(Above) A 16th c. volume bound in fragile period manuscript waste. (Below) Books bound in 19th c. sheepskin display the characteristic types of degradation that prevent us from digitizing. (Photos: Stephen Jennings)

The Center holds over 200,000 volumes in its rare book collections, and the process of selection for this project weeds out those volumes that are not suitable for digitization. There are several important criteria that our selectors base their decisions on, including subject relevance, the existence of publicly-accessible copies already available on-line, and whether or not the works are still in copyright. A major factor in determining whether or not we can digitize a volume is condition. A large number of our volumes are printed on acidic, embrittled paper, or are bound in extremely fragile or damaged cases that predate industrialized binding techniques. Unfortunately, such materials can not be safely sent through the imaging process without risking further deterioration, and need to be held out until such time as funding for future preservation efforts is made available. Therefore selectors need to carefully screen each volume.


As is the case in many large library systems, a significant portion of our catalog is comprised of “legacy” records, which were created over the years according to now outdated metadata standards. But findability, even in the age of keyword searching, is still largely dependent on uniform input standards, and therefore cleaning up our catalog, and making sure all of our records are consistent and up to date is an essential task.  All works on a single topic, like the common cold, for example, will be easier to find for users if they are collated under a single, intuitively searchable heading.

58 linear ft. (or one full shipment) of cataloged books ready for shipment.

But right now, many of these works might still be categorized separately from one another under similar, but distinct headings, like “colds,” “viruses,” “the common cold,” “rhinovirus,” “sickness,” (and so on), while many other works might have no subject headings at all. And just as storing all works on a single topic in one place on the shelves of a library helps patrons track down what they need in person, appending uniform subject headings in a digital library helps patrons all around the world to retrieve better and more useful search results.

Many of these older records were also created using outdated standards for descriptive metadata, which might mean that their titles are incomplete, that authors or editors were not properly entered according to modern standards, or that any number of errors or omissions that could hinder findability might still be present. Here at the Center, we catalog between 600 and 800 volumes every 5 weeks before sending them off to be digitized.  While this represents a very serious investment in updating our metadata, we feel that the results (more easily discoverable, well-cataloged titles) more than justify our efforts.

Part two of this blog post will look at the process of physically moving large numbers of rare books between libraries for digization, the work done behind the scenes at the imaging lab, and how we carry out quality control. Please contact us at the Centor for the History of Medicine if you have any questions about this project or the work that we put into it.

Digital highlights: Shut your mouth and save your life

By , August 4, 2011

A gallery of mouth-breathers adorns the cover of this strange work by George Catlin

Among the collection of works on hygiene and general health that the Countway has submitted to the Medical Heritage Library, one finds an eclectic mixture of theory and practice advocating everything from the reformation of cemetery burial to the donning of proper footwear; from water cures to treatment of diseases attendant to sedentary office life in the early 19th century. Through a simple subject search one can peer directly into a world where publishers and authors were attempting (often misguidedly) to apply the burgeoning scientific approaches of the day to every aspect of human health, with widely differing results. This work, which is dedicated to “the nervous and bilious,” promises to educate readers about the “art of invigorating and prolonging life by food, clothes, air, exercise, wine [and] sleep,” but nevertheless ends, somewhat ominously, with an extended section devoted to “the pleasures of making a will.”

George Catlin (1796-1872), was a painter and writer who traveled the country with General William Clark (of Lewis & Clark fame), among others. He gained international fame for his portraiture of the indigenous tribes he encountered during those expeditions, but he also wrote several books on the topic of “mouth breathing,” in which he contrasted respiration practices of Native and non-native Americans in order to support his ideas about the important role played by proper breathing methods in human hygiene.

Catlin's own drawings, which somewhat dramatically contrast the health, happiness, and well being of open- and closed-mouth sleepers.

In one such book, titled Shut your mouth and save your life, he writes fondly of  the many so-called savage tribes encountered during his travels. And, noting that these native tribes seemed to have no “fools (idiots), no deaf and dumb, and no hunchbacks,” among them, Catlin draws a direct link between their “closed-mouth” sleeping practices and their physical constitutions, which he perceived to be unusually strong. It follows, then, that he goes on to ascribe many of the ailments of “civilized” peoples to an epidemic of deleterious, open-mouth breathing, especially during sleep:

The mouth of man, as well as that of the brutes, was made for the reception and mastication of food for the stomach, and other purposes; but the nostrils, with their delicate and fibrous linings for purifying and warming the air in its passage, have been mysteriously constructed, and designed to stand guard over the lungs — to measure the air and equalize its draughts during the hours of repose . . .

It is a well-known fact that fishes will die in a few moments, in their own element, with their mouths kept open by the hook; and I strongly doubt whether a horse or an ox would live any length of time with its mouth fastened open with a block of wood during the accustomed hours of its repose; and I believe that the derangement of the system by such an experiment would be similar to that in the human frame, and that death would be sooner and more certain; and I believe, also, that if the American Races of Savages which I have visited, had treated this subject with the same indifference and abuse, they would long since have lost (if not have ceased to exist) that decided advantage which they now hold, over the Civilized Races, in manly beauty and symmetry of physical conformation; and that their Bills of Mortality would exhibit a much nearer approximation to those of Civilized communities than they now do.

Readers can find a selection of books about hygiene and other topics, including works by George Catlin, here, or by using other, more specific subject and keyword searches on the MHL advanced search page.

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