Item of the Month: The Medical Museum, Mythology and Medicine

By Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator and Reference Librarian for Historical Collections

Medical Museum title page 1763

Recently, while looking for something in the rare periodicals collection at NYAM, I came across a charming allegorical frontispiece that appeared in the first volume of The Medical Museum, a short-lived journal that appeared in three volumes published in London 1763 and 1764.  The editors of the journal, who described themselves as “Gentlemen of the Faculty,” remain unknown.  The subtitle and the introduction make clear that they viewed themselves primarily as the collectors and disseminators of already published works from a variety of sources. 

Even 18th century people struggled to make sense of an overwhelming amount of information.  “Many physical people very justly complain of the great expense attending the purchase of medical treatises, especially foreign ones… the pains and time to select and examine the matters that may concern their profession, are with many too much to be dispensed with,” (ix) they noted, while explaining the task they had chosen for themselves, that of serving as the selectors of the most useful materials from disciplines ranging from anatomy, medicine, chemistry, botany and other assorted sciences.  Works from a remarkable range of publications appear in the Museum, many of them translated from their original languages into English to make them more accessible, as the compilers hoped their journal would find an audience among the public, not just among medical men.

Medical Museum frontispiece 1763

The first volume contains a specially engraved frontispiece that shows Apollo bringing his son Asclepius to the centaur Chiron to learn about the art of medicine.  Coronis, Asclepius’ mother, was either killed by Apollo for being unfaithful to him or died in childbirth, and Apollo rescued the unborn baby from her womb.  Needing someone to raise the boy, Apollo handed him over to Chiron, who taught him the healing arts.  Asclepius went on to father many daughters, some of whom are also remembered for their connections to medicine and health.  One of his daughters, Hygeia, is the goddess of health, while another, Panacea, is the goddess of universal remedies.

If you visit The New York Academy of Medicine’s building, you will see that Asclepius and Hygeia were important touchstones for NYAM and for the building’s designers as well.  An ornamental frieze above our front door depicts the two of them together, attended by their snakes and dogs, a visual reminder of the classical heritage of medicine.


“Physica Sacra,” Johannes Jacob Scheuchzer, 1731 : Guest Post by Morbid Anatomy’s Joanna Ebenstein



My name is Joanna Ebenstein; I run a blog called Morbid Anatomy as well as the related Morbid Anatomy Library—an open-to-the-public research collection in Brooklyn, New York—and the Morbid Anatomy Presents series of lecture and workshops. All of these projects aim to explore the intersections of art and medicine, death and culture, with a particular focus on historical medical collections and libraries.

In the run-up to NYAM’s October 5th Wonder Cabinet and Medical History Festival (which I am co-curating), I have been invited to write a series of guest posts in which I will report on the treasures and curiosities I find in my explorations of NYAM’s excellent rare book and historical collections. In this, the first of that series, I would like to focus one of my favorite books—and one of the most enigmatic books of all time—Johannes Jacob Scheuchzer’s 4-volume high baroque extravaganza of art, science, mysticism, and all worldly knowledge, Physica Sacra.

NYAMsacra7Originally published in 1731, this bizarre large-scale book features over 700 copper plate engravings. With a fine balance of careful observation and allegorical imagination, these depict—in frames each more fanciful than the last—such scenes as: lamenting fetal skeletons with the motto “homo ex humo” (‘man from the ground’, or ‘dust’); a variety of anatomical views of the human body projected on drapery or foregrounding mysterious landscapes; birds in biblical landscapes augmented by baffling cyphers; comparative snowflakes with the text “thesauri nivis” or “treasures of snow”; and much more.

These images serve as an excellent reminder that our views of science—and particularly the study of the human body—have changed over time. As explained by Martin Kemp and Marina Wallace in their book Spectacular Bodies:

The purpose of anatomical images during the period of the Renaissance to the 19th century had as much to do with what we would call aesthetic and theological understanding as with the narrower interests of medical illustrators as now understood . . . . They were not simply instructional diagrams for the doctor technician, but statements about the nature of human beings as made by God in the context of the created world as a whole . . . they are about the nature of life and death. . . .

I have not been able to find too much about this book in English, though my friend—and Wonder Cabinet speaker—Daniel Margócsy has promised a future lecture on the topic. In the mean time, Christie’s Auction House has a helpful entry on the book that explains that Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672–1733)—a Swiss doctor and natural scientist—”planned the Physica Sacra as an explanation of and a commentary on the Bible on natural-scientific grounds. He himself oversaw the illustrations which were largely based on his own natural history cabinet or on other famous European cabinets of rare specimens.”

Scheuchzer’s work also inspired an art exhibit at the University of Massachusetts—Dartmouth in 2007/8: “Science, Religion, Art.”  The organizers note that:

a lifelong scholar, Scheuchzer’s pursuits of knowledge were wide-ranging and diverse, from science to medicine to paleontology. Like many scientists of the late 17th and early 18th century, Scheuchzer held to the belief that the Old Testament was a factual account of the history of the earth. . . . In a period before public museums, Scheuchzer presented a seductive view of an imaginary world, viewed through lush frames depicting secondary symbols, plants, animals, heads and other objects, providing the viewer rich material for an inspired vision of the interaction between the natural and the divine powers.

Below are just a very few of my favorite images from the book, some that I photographed from the original, and others coming from the set of almost half of the 737 images from the book (!!!) so kindly provided by greyherbert’s amazing Flickr stream; you can see them all by clicking here.

Stay tuned for more posts in the days and weeks to come!

Joanna Ebenstein, Morbid Anatomy
Guest post # 1

Eighty Years and Counting


This gallery contains 4 photos.

By Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator and Reference Librarian for Historical Collections Many of you are aware that the Malloch Suite of rare book rooms (the Coller Rare Book Reading Room and the Seminar Room) has been under renovation since early … Continue reading

Festival of Medical History & the Arts

We are excited to announce our first all-day extravaganza, co-curated by Lawrence Weschler, Morbid Anatomy, and the Center, and featuring esteemed speakers, artists workshops, behind-the-scenes tours, and more. Please check the Festival of Medical History & the Arts page and schedule for more information.

save the date Oct 5

Seeing With New Eyes: Rediscovering Medieval Manuscripts in a Digital Age

Today we have a guest post written by Monica Green, a longtime NYAM researcher.

Several times over the past 30 years, I’ve consulted a mid-13th-century manuscript in the New York Academy of Medicine’s holdings. This large, 94-leaf, handsomely bound volume was formative to my training as a historian of medieval medical history, having been the first “real” manuscript I examined when I was beginning my researches on the so-called Trotula texts in the early 1980s.

Opening of Caelius.

Opening of Caelius, f. 61ra

Like most scholars who study the history of intellectual traditions, my eyes were on my immediate object of study—in this case, a 12th-century compendium of texts on women’s medicine and cosmetics. My peripheral vision went no further than the other texts on women’s medicine that surrounded it in the manuscript. These were certainly enthralling: they included one of only two known copies of the Gynecology of the 4th-century writer, Caelius Aurelianus. But the other contents of the manuscript, let alone its structure as a whole, were all but invisible to me.

I did come back, many years later, with some questions about one of the surgical texts in the volume.  This was the visually stunning (and rightly famous) Surgery of the early 11th-century Cordoban physician, Abu al-Qasim Khalaf ibn ‘Abbas al-Zahrawi, whose work had been translated from Arabic into Latin in Toledo.  But the NYAM manuscript was not a unique copy (al-Zahrawi’s work exists in some 33 extant Latin manuscripts), and so—my questions quickly answered—I moved on again.

But my attention was brought back to the NYAM volume again last year, because of some questions being raised by a new project.  Two problems seemed to revolve around each other:  why was there a 50-year gap between when the Arabic-into-Latin translator Gerard of Cremona died in 1187 (he was the one who had translated al-Zahrawi) and when his texts first started to be regularly used and cited?  And, secondly, why did so many copies of these works, once they did appear, seem (a) to cluster around Paris and (b) show a level of magnificence in decoration that most medical texts had never previously enjoyed?

Suddenly, the NYAM manuscript took on new significance:  the illumination and decoration, which I had previously ignored, became newly important.  And so, too, did the “minor” texts, such as the Surgery of Horses, of which this is likewise an early copy.  This really was a most unusual manuscript, I realized. And the physical character of the book—its structure and decoration as well as its contents—were key to figuring it out.  So here I am this summer, back to consult it again.

f. 77ra, opening of Trotula

f. 77ra, opening of Trotula

The gynecological unit, which I had worked with most extensively, was the most typical:  the Trotula text, for example, opens with a lovely “puzzle” initial ‘U’, but there is nothing here to distinguish the manuscript from many hundreds of others made in the same period.

Not so for the surgical section of the manuscript.  First was the cautery section:  most of what must have been about two dozen images had been cut away (yes, they had art thieves already in the Middle Ages!).  But the two images that remain show, in quite typical northern European style, images of a surgeon applying hot burning irons to the surface of the patient’s body in order to heal, respectively, sciatica and heart or stomach problems.

f. 3ra, cautery scenes

f. 3ra, cautery scenes

f. 45ra, opening of Roger, Chirurgia

f. 45ra, opening of Roger, Chirurgia

Immediately following was a sequence of other surgical texts.  Each one of them had a striking opening initial, framed in gold leaf with elegant foliated designs that are very similar to the output of an artist’s workshop in Paris associated with the name of the Johannes Grusch.  The three-headed devil that opens the Surgery of Roger Frugardi is especially memorable.



f. 23va:  sample champie initial and clapsedra

f. 23va: sample champie initial and clapsedra

But in the middle of that sequence of smaller surgical texts (all of which probably came out of southern Italy) comes the al-Zahrawi text, with its own unique decoration scheme.  Here we find throughout the text elegant gold-leaf initials, drawn against alternating light blue or rose-colored backgrounds with white ink filigree.  (Art historians call this a “champie” decoration.)  And, of course, here we find the depictions of surgical tools that characterize all the copies of al-Zahrawi’s surgical text, whether Latin or Arabic. The different decoration schemes seemed to correspond to different places from where the commissioner of this book was getting his exemplars (the manuscripts from which this manuscript was copied).

So in what sense does being in a digital age give us “new eyes”?  I had the physical manuscript right in front of me:  800 years of history that I could touch with my hands.  Nothing “virtual” about this!  Ah, but the New York Academy of Medicine was not this book’s original home.  Because so many European libraries are now making their manuscripts available digitally online, it is possible to reconstruct virtually what medieval libraries looked like, to reassemble their components and reconstruct how they came into being.  Because I could learn more about other manuscripts produced at the same time, I was now beginning to understand how extraordinary this manuscript’s medieval home had been.

The NYAM manuscript was commissioned in the mid-13th century by Richard de Fournival, a surgeon and, eventually, the chancellor of the cathedral of Amiens.  (de Fournival had gotten special dispensation from the Pope to continue his surgical practice despite his being a cleric.  His father and nephew were physicians, too.)  The NYAM manuscript captures all the international networks that de Fournival belonged to:  English, Norman, French, and Italian.  Besides being a cleric and a surgeon (and a poet and musician), de Fournival was a librarian—not simply a collector but a curator of books.  The library he created of 162 volumes (comprising many 100s of different texts) literally changed the course of history in laying the foundation for a new, more sophisticated medical system in Europe that was as influential in establishing the social worlds of physicians and other medical practitioners as it was in defining their intellectual worlds.  It was de Fournival, I was realizing, that was instrumental in rediscovering Gerard of Cremona’s translations (including al-Zahrawi’s Surgery) and introducing them into the fertile context of the Parisian academic world.

In our day, Google and PubMed and any number of Internet resources make us lose sight of where knowledge comes from.  Everything seems freely available, whenever we want it.  But books were once extraordinarily precious.  Juxtaposing the digital with the real vellum and leather and wood and gold leaf of a medieval manuscript is an excellent reminder of the cultures of learning we still share across the centuries.

Monica H. Green is a specialist in medieval medical history and the global history of health.  She would like to thank Alison Stones for the impetus to bring “new eyes” to the NYAM manuscript, and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne for making this New York sojourn possible.  And, of course, the NYAM librarians for once again making the manuscript available for study.  Green will be spending the 2013-14 academic year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.  She can be reached at