Artist Inspiration: Plant Cure (Part 2)

Todays’ guest post is introduced by Maddy Rosenberg, curator and founder of CENTRAL BOOKING. The New York Academy of Medicine Library and CENTRAL BOOKING collaborated on the exhibition Plant Cure.  For this exhibition, five artists were selected to do research at the Academy Library over six months to produce work with their own unique take on medicinal plants. The project will culminate with an exhibition at CENTRAL BOOKING on the Lower East Side from September 6-October 29, 2017. Part 1 can be read here.

The next two artists featured in the Plant Cure collaboration between CENTRAL BOOKING and the New York Academy of Medicine Library are Susan Rostow and C Bangs. Susan’s sculptural work is extremely textural and beckons to be touched, while with C it’s our eye that takes the journey over the surfaces. Both artists’ works engage us and demand closer scrutiny.

Susan Rostow

I spent many wonderful hours of my childhood reading the encyclopedia. A set of books from A to Z neatly organized on a shelf with the entire world’s information gave me great joy. I may be a romantic, waxing poetic and nostalgic about the past, but that has not stopped me from enjoying the present times of clicking and swiping through Google images and other websites. My ongoing fascination with information, books and images continued to grow through decades and is presently expressed in my sculptural books.

The first time I entered the New York Academy of Medicine Library and was surrounded by rare books dating from the 15th through the 18th centuries, I felt as though I traveled back in time and entered the Middle Ages. I was taken with the smell of the leather covers, amazed by the weight and size of some of the books, marveled at the odd titles on the bindings, and was captured by highly detailed and precise illustrations. Prodigiorum Ostentorum Chronicon (1557) by Konrad Lykosthenes and Osteographia, or, The Anatomy of the Bones (1733) by William Cheselden are a couple of my favorites.

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Susan Rostow working in studio.

Feeling incredibly inspired, I took my excitement to the studio along with photos of the pictures from the various books I had observed. Armed with a plethora of images and plenty of ideas, I began to work on my vision. Images of medicinal mushrooms and text pertaining to plant cures were put to use by first making carborundum printmaking plates. This is a low tech method used for making plates by hand. This simple, but elegant technique allowed me to connect with some of the similar hand techniques used by the original artists. I printed them with an etching press, a simple press whose basic principle has not changed for centuries. Choosing to use this technique with an old style press made me feel connected to some of the reproductions from the New York Academy of Medicine Library’s rare book collection.

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Susan Rostow, Bone Fungus. 2017, mixed media sculptural book with carborundum prints on paper, dried mushroom, wood, parabolic mirrors, real and plastic bones, sand, glass beads and pigments, 25 x 26 x 26 inches.

After printing hundreds of images of mushrooms and text on paper, the prints were bound together with dried mushrooms, mud, natural glues, and pigments. Paper, tree fungus, roots, soil, and casts from bones merged together creating sculptural books that look, smell and feel like unearthed relics secreted beneath the earth. Hopefully this synthesis captured some of the magic that I felt when I first viewed these incredibly illustrated books.

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Susan Rostow’s sculptural book Bone Fungus (left and center), and detail of Cheselden’s anatomical illustration (1733) (right).

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Prodigioky Ostentory Chronicon (left) William Cheselden’s anatomical illustration (1733) (center), and detail from Susan Rostow’s sculptural book Bone Fungus (right).

C Bangs

My art investigates frontier science combined with symbolist figuration from an ecological feminist point of view. A decade long collaboration with quantum consciousness physicist Dr. Evan Harris Walker has lead me to incorporate his equations in my paintings in a manner mutually agreed upon, designed to posit questions related to his theories. Functioning as design elements that often speak to the interconnectivity of everything in the cosmos, the equations parallel the sacred writings found in illuminated manuscripts. In recent collaboration with my partner, Dr. Greg Matloff, we investigate consciousness from the point of view of panpsychism philosophically, historically and scientifically.

The books I researched at the New York Academy of Medicine Library included Robert Fludd and Konrad Lykosthenes. What does humankind preserve and what do we eliminate? Fludd had a theory of cosmic harmony and Kepler correctly accused Fludd of being a theosophist. Additionally Fludd is remembered as an astrologer, mathematician, cosmologist, Quabalist and Rosicrucian. His writing centered around sympathies found in nature between man, the earth and the divine.

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Flowering Pavonis seeds used as an abortifacient with fetus studies. C Bangs (2017).

Maria Sibylla Merian’s Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (1705) at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden ultimately lead me to contact the New York Botanical Garden. Merian wrote that slave women’s use of the peacock flower was deeply political, using it to abort pregnancies forced upon them by their slave owners. The history of abortifacients is nearly as old as the written word and the determination of pregnancy was left to the woman, who was not considered pregnant until she declared herself to be so. When the Catholic Church realized that they could not regulate abortifacients or convict the women who used them, they began persecuting midwives, declaring them witches.[1] The enforcement of religious law and witch burning was an effective tool for breaking a chain of knowledge about abortifacients that had been in circulation for over a thousand years. Despite Merian’s revelation about the peacock flower in her book, widely used by botanists and men of medicine, this knowledge was ignored. Merchants valued the plant’s looks and shipped large amounts of its seeds to their home countries, where the flower decorated many royal gardens.

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Flowering Pavonis and diagrams from Robert Fludd’s Utriusque cosmi majoris scilicet et minoris metaphysica (1617-1621). C Bangs (2017).

Ironically, when I wished to photograph the peacock flower at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden or the New York Botanical Garden, I found that it had been deaccessioned by Brooklyn and is kept in a section not available to the public at the New York Botanical Garden.

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Flowering Pavonis and images from Konrad Lykosthenes’ Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon (1557). C Bangs (2017).

Reference:
[1] Edwards, Stassa. The History of Abortifacients. Jezebel: 2014, November 18.

Artist Inspiration: Plant Cure (Part 1)

Todays’ guest post is introduced by Maddy Rosenberg, curator and founder of CENTRAL BOOKING. The New York Academy of Medicine Library and CENTRAL BOOKING collaborated on the exhibition Plant Cure.  For this exhibition, five artists were selected to do research at the Academy Library over six months to produce work with their own unique take on medicinal plants. The project will culminate with an exhibition at CENTRAL BOOKING on the Lower East Side from September 6-October 29, 2017.

I approached Lisa O’Sullivan, the Director of the New York Academy of Medicine Library, who I had first met when she participated in one of our panels at the gallery, with an idea for a collaborative project. An important component of CENTRAL BOOKING’s programming has always revolved around art and science as well as artist’s books, therefore a collaboration with the New York Academy of Medicine seemed only natural.

For the project, ultimately named Plant Cure, five artists were selected to do research at the Academy Library over six months to produce work with their own unique take on medicinal plants. The project will culminate with an exhibition at CENTRAL BOOKING on the Lower East Side from September 6-October 29, 2017, featuring the work of the artists in dialog with other artists who have also been intrigued by the theme in their own work. At the Academy, display cases document the research, source material, and working methods employed by each of the five artists in the process of creating their work for Plant Cure.

Over the next few weeks, I am pleased to be able to present here those five artists as they discuss their work and time at the Academy Library. This week we begin with James Martin and Nancy Campbell, both whose final project work is in printmaking, but through very different approaches and results.

James Martin

My questions: how have artists and anatomists from the past chosen to depict what lies beneath the surface of the body? How have botanists and artists portrayed the plants thought to have curative properties? What are the common design elements of these life forms? Have the different printing processes changed the nature of this visual information? And my creative query—how can I re-purpose these incredible pictures from the Academy Library and create something completely new?

I narrowed my focus to anatomical texts that explored arterial and venous networks, attracted to the obvious analogies to plant forms. Historical Collections Librarian Arlene Shaner was able to suggest many fascinating volumes, such as:

The crisp and stylized engravings of John Lizars (1825) use red and blue colors to graphically present the networks of veins and arteries. Antonio Scarpa’s large engravings on the subject of aneurysms are arranged with clarity and artfulness. Closeups of these lethal defects are beautifully abstract. Lithographs of arteries by Richard Quain and Joseph Maclise (1844) have a more poignant quality. The cadavers are not generic bodies, but individuals, often young. Instruments of dissection are part of the still life. Another completely different, but fascinating approach, is Wilhelm Braune’s Topographical Atlas (1888). The color lithographs are accurate renderings from frozen slices of cadavers. Our modern MRI imaging is the closest analogy. Some of these butcher shop portions produce a shiver of revulsion. But, the images are flat and the resulting shapes allow for alternate design opportunities.

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Torso from Frederich Tiedemann’s Explicationes tabularum arteriarum corporis humani (1822).

For my exploration of medical botanicals, I began with the line woodcuts of Fuchs (1542). It could be used as a field guide today such is the clarity and accuracy of its observations. The engravings in William Woodville’s Medical Botany (1793) are even more detailed and nuanced. Structures are clear and complete from root to flower. The addition of color in the Henry Trimen and Robert Bentley’s Medicinal Plants (1880) imparts an even more lifelike quality to the illustrations.

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Hellebore from William Woodville’s Medical Botany (1793).

As part of my creative process, I took digital photographs of plates contained in the above described books. Back in my studio, I work with these photos with editing software. Beginning with anatomical images, I establish the “bones” of the composition.  These are layered with my photographs of tree bark to provide textures, shapes, and a non-specific context, with the relevant botanicals added to the mix. The finished piece was then printed via an inkjet printer on printmaking paper. I added another element with the application of monotype inks printed from mylar over the digital prints for a slight softening of the sharpness and more richness to the color.

Tree bark photograph used in Torso with Hellebore (Left). Monotype plate for Torso with Hellebore (Right).

My creative mash-ups of these historic images have been inspiring and fun. Thanks to all at the Academy for hosting this project and to Maddy Rosenberg of CENTRAL BOOKING for organizing this residency and the upcoming exhibition Plant Cure.

Torso with Hellebore

Torso with Hellebore by James Martin archival digital print with monotype.

Nancy Campbell

I absolutely adored my time spent in the Drs. Barri and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room at the New York Academy of Medicine. Handling objects so old, delicate, and precious was a rare treat, indeed.

While I enjoyed studying an array of different volumes in the Academy Library, Okamoto Ippo’s Jūshi kei ryaki wago (1693; 3 vol. book of Moxa-cautery) was a perfect match for me. Medieval Japanese picture scrolls have been a long fascination, and I have studied them in museum exhibitions in Japan and the USA. Of course, I have never held an actual medieval scroll and experienced the sequential unfolding of its story (scrolls being so incredibly fragile). Therefore, handling a 17th century Japanese book during my residence, with its ultra-thin, semi-transparent printed paper, was an amazing first-time experience for me and one that will surely affect my work for years to come.

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Artemisia by Nancy Campbell.

In my artwork I strive to evoke an Eastern sense of balance between fragility and strength while using a system of highly structured, intricate abstraction. My methods are slow and measured, but I work for a spontaneous result that inhabits an ambiguous realm between the visible and invisible, the logical and the intuitive, the representational and the abstract. Echoed in all of my work is a continuous play of opposites – often found at the heart of Japanese aesthetics.

02.Nancy Campbell, Meridian

Meridian by Nancy Campbell.

My work for the Plant Cure exhibition references text and diagrams that appear to be layered on top of one another. Each page in the Japanese books I viewed has hints of the previous page showing through the thin Japanese paper. I printed and painted on both sides of Japanese papers and used the method of collage (with Japanese glue) to layer multiple sheets together. A large screenprint based on a collage is still in process.

Eyes Turned Skywards

By Anne Garner, Curator, Rare Books and Manuscripts

Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone….as the song goes, or, on a day like today, when the moon encroaches on the sun. With all eyes turned skywards, we’re taking the long view on star-gazing, looking back to many of our great sixteenth-century astronomy books for inspiration.  Last week, in honor of today’s solar eclipse, we hosted Atlas Obscura in our rare book room for a ticketed event highlighting some of our favorite images of the stars, planets and astronomers– those inquisitive heavenly creatures who made great strides in changing what we know about the physical universe.

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A pocket-sized French book, Les fleurs et secrets de medicine, published around the turn of the 16th-century, offers this partially covered sun, in the image on the left.  On the right, from the same book, our hero, the astronomer.

After Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the most popular poem produced by the ancient Greeks was Aratus’ Phaenomena.  Aratus, born in Soli in Cilicia, lived in the late fourth and early third centuries B.C.E.  As a young man, he studied Stoic philosophy in Athens at the school founded by Zeno. Building on a tradition of didactic poetry exemplified by the epic poet Hesiod, the Phaenomena, Aratus’ only complete extant work, explained the constellations and the effects of the planets and stars on human event in verse. A Latin translation of the poem appears in our 1499 Astronomicae Veteres, a compilation of early astronomy texts printed by Aldus Manutius in Venice.  Many of the woodcut images of constellations accompanying the poem date to an earlier Venetian publication of Hyginus’ star atlas, printed by Erhard Ratholdt.

The image of the Pleiades in the illustrated Aratus can likely be attributed to the artist of the famous Hypnerotomachia Poliphili also published by Aldus Manutius in the same year.

The Academy Library has five copies of the Fasciculus Medicinae –a compilation of medical treatises, many from the medieval period first published in 1491 (our earliest edition dates to 1495).  This compiler was probably an Austrian physician named Kircheim, which the Italian publishers corrupted to Ketham.  Kircheim, born in Germany, was professor of medicine in Vienna in about 1460.

The Fasciculus Medicinae contains the earliest realistic anatomical images in print.  The book’s astonishing woodcut illustrations include skilled renderings of medieval prototypes including this one of Zodiac Man, below.  The woodcut offers a visual demonstration of the belief that the planets and stars governed the openings of the body.  The accompanying text advised when bloodletting could be safely done to treat different parts of the body, depending on the dominant sign. A variation of Zodiac Man continues to feature in astrological publications through the early twentieth-century, as a staple feature of the English and American almanac.

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Ketham’s Zodiac Man (1522).

The sixteenth-century Spanish physician and surgeon Andrés de León includes this excellent Zodiac Man (below) in his 1590 De Annatomia.

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de Leon’s Zodiac Man (1590).

The German monk Gregor Reisch is responsible for the astonishing Margarita Philosophica (Philosophical Pearl), first published in 1503. This early general encyclopedia purported to gather together all of the general knowledge considered mandatory for any real Renaissance man. The Margarita was used as a general textbook both for private study and in universities throughout Western Europe.  Our 1517 copy, published in Basil, includes arresting woodcut images, including a scene of Astronomia aiding Ptolemy in his sky-watching ventures, a Ptolemaic armillary sphere, and an image of celestial phenomena.

Images from the Margarita (1517): Astronomia aiding Ptolemy (left), Geocentric World (center), Meteora (right).

It also includes this timely woodcut (below), illustrating the various positions of the Earth, the Sun and the Moon when eclipses occur.

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From Reisch’s Margarita (1517): Eclipse, 1517.

The Dalmatian author Federico Grisogono’s Pronostica offers readers a working volvelle (below) which could be used to predict the critical days of solar and lunar fevers. Attentive and star-savvy caregivers might be able to determine optimal treatment for their patients using Grisogono’s movable diagnostic tool (but don’t ask us to forecast the day your fever will lift, it’s complicated!).

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Grisogono’s volvelle (1528).

Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t include the astronomy publication that causes the big(gest) bang of the century. In 1543, Mikolaj Kopernik (better known to us by his Latin name Nicholas Copernicus) published his watershed De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri sex, or six books on the revolution of the heavenly spheres, shortly before his death. The book recorded Copernicus’ assertion that the planets revolve around the Sun, and not the Earth.  Copernicus’ ideas are taken by two later Renaissance astronomers who solidify his work. Tycho Brahe uses his heliocentric assertion to collect observations of the sun. Johannes Kepler does the heavy-lifting in terms of calculations, applying Tycho Brahe’s data to Copernicus’ heliocentric assertions and working them out mathematically.

Copernicus’ work created aftershocks for scientific observers attempting to map the physical universe, similar to those produced by Andreas Vesalius when he published his landmark De fabrica humani corporis (thus altering the anatomical map of the body) that same year.  Our edition of De revolutionibus is the second, from 1566.

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Image of concentric circles. Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus (1566).

Incidentally, you can consult another famous astronomer’s work, Cardano’s Libelli quinque, to see this nativity, or astrological chart for Andreas Vesalius’ life (as well as charts for other Renaissance celebrities like Albrecht Durer, Martin Luther, and a Medici or two).

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Cardano’s Vesalian chart (1547).

You’ll find the two remaining ticketed Atlas Obscura events for 2017 listed here and here.

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Thanks to attendee Jasmine for this great pic!

Just my Optotype

By Emily Miranker, Events & Projects Manager

You’ve probably seen the star of today’s post. Or, rather, peered at it trying to see it clearly (like yours truly). That pyramid of big letters with subsequent lines of more letters getting smaller and smaller: the eye chart.

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The relationship of the distance at which the test is done and the distance as which the smallest figure is (correctly) identifiable defines the patient’s visual acuity. Source: John Weiss & Son (1898).

The German physician Heinrich Kuchler created the first eye chart in 1836 with cuttings from books, papers, and almanacs that he glued to a sheet in ever decreasing size.

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Kuchler eye chart. Source: SchoolHealth.com

While Kuchler’s example above is not as cleanly designed as this post’s first image, it was a definite improvement over times past. People basically had to self-diagnose themselves or read a piece of text with a doctor and pick the (hopefully) correct lenses. By the nineteenth century, the need for individualized lenses was clear. In 1862 Dr. Franciscus Donders asked his colleague (and eventual successor to the directorship of the Netherlands Hospital for Eye Patients), ophthalmologist Herman Snellen to design a chart.[1] Now called the Snellen chart, it has become one of the most common.

According to Smith-Ketterwell Eye Research Institute scientist and an eye chart design expert, Dr. August Colenbrander, Snellen experimented with dingbats, shapes and even lines of text for the eye chart.[2] But patients could assume the ending of phrases based on context, and symbols were hard to describe. So Snellen stuck to letter forms –but do they look a little odd to you?

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To the right of the above Snellen Chart is an E Chart, sometimes called a Tumbling E Chart, which works along the same principles but is used for those who cannot read, like children, or patients unfamiliar with the Latin alphabet. Source: Reynders, John, & Co. (1889)

If your answer is yes, you’re picking up on the fact that Snellen developed a specific kind of letterform called an optotype. Once he concluded that letters were better for vision, he speculated that subjects would identify equally weighted letters of consistent size more easily. So he created a complete typeface in a grid system.

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Optotype on 5×5 grid. Source: http://abcdefridays.blogspot.com

Typical typefaces have different line thicknesses and ornamental touches (like the dot on lowercase i’s, the cross-stroke of T’s).  Letter proportionality is usually determined by family groupings (like h, m, n, r, and u). Snellen developed a 5 x 5 grid for his optotypes so the width and height of an optotype is five times the thickness of the line weight.[3] Snellen based his grid on a medical measurement, the arcminute, or one sixtieth of a degree.[4] In optotypes, the weight of a line is equal to the negative space between lines. Typically, C and D would appear wider than Z. The opposite is true of optotypes.

Snellen isn’t the only game in eye chart town. Others include the Jaeger chart, Landolt C, LEA test, LogMAR charts and the Golovin-Sivtsev table. Retired eye surgeon and antique eye glasses expert David Fleishman attributes the Snellen’s widespread popularity even after the advent of other vision assessments to it’s being a “low-tech solution to a complex problem because it was cheap and easy to use.”[5] The 21st century is making its own easy to use -if high-tech solutions– such as the newly released Warby Parker Prescription Check app which utilizes a user’s laptop and iphone to check their vision. The app allows an eye doctor to assess your prescription; though the app stresses it does not replace a comprehensive eye exam.

Warby Parker app

Warby Parker website.

Whatever computer screens hold for the future of vision checks, the Snellen remains one of the top selling posters in the United States.[6]

Special thanks to Avery Trufelman and the 99 Percent Invisible podcast team for inspiration from Episode 242: Mini-Stories: Volume 2.

References:
[1] Kennedy, Pagan. “Who Made that Eye Chart?” The New York Times. New York: May 14, 2013.
[2] Frear, Lori. “What are Optotypes? Eye Charts in Focus,” I Love Typography: July 12, 2015. Accessed 8/1/17.
[3] Frear, Lori. “Examining the Fascinating Typographic History of Eye Charts.” Gizmodo: September 24, 2015. Accessed 8/2/17.
[4] Kalatschinow, Alex. “Optotype: Typography of the Eye Chart,” ABCDEFridays: A Typographic Inspiration Blog: Tyler School of Art of Temple University. Accessed 8/2/17.
[5] Kennedy.
[6] Bordsen, John. “Eye Chart Still the Standard for Vision.” Seattle Times. Seattle: August 9, 1995.
Eye chart blog shop ad

“The Politics of Infrastructure” Class Review

By Audrey Sage Lorberfeld, Digital Technical Specialist

As part of the ongoing collaboration between the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research (BISR) and The New York Academy of Medicine Library, I was able to spend the beginning of summer contemplating how material and immaterial infrastructures affect peoples’ daily lives.

Throughout the BISR course titled “The Politics of Infrastructure,” taught by one of my favorite professors, Danya Glabau, we covered everything from why park benches are a certain length (so that people don’t sleep on them), to the United States’ unique economy of technological obsolescence. We took some deep dives into theoretical texts, such as Michelle Murphy’s Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty and Bruno Latour’s Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. We were also encouraged to apply what we read to our daily lives. During my morning commutes, I suddenly found myself wondering if an umbrella or a subway car were inherently political objects (and what this might mean for their construction and use).

As always, there were beautiful treasures from the Academy Library that we were able to view during class, thanks to our Rare Books and Manuscripts Curator Anne Garner’s expansive knowledge of our holdings. One item she found for the class that was particularly striking was Stephen Smith’s The City That Was (1911).[1] We used this item as a complement to our unit titled “Infrastructure and Public Health,” where we read critical texts such as Paul Farmer’s “An Anthropology of Structural Violence” and Manjari Mahajan’s “Designing Epidemics: Models, Policy-Making, and Global Foreknowledge in India’s AIDS Epidemic.”

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Image from Smith’s The City That Was (1911) showing the “Region of Bone-Boiling and Swill-Milk Nuisances.”

Smith was a New Yorker who many now regard as the father of public health. He founded the American Public Health Association and was the first to attribute the spread of typhus and cholera to environmental conditions around New York City.[2] Without him, New York would likely not have advanced into the public health-conscious city it is today (at least not as quickly). In The City That Was, Smith outlines through detailed illustrations various areas of the city that were public health concerns. I hate to imagine what Nolita’s trendy residents would think of their apartments if they knew they were once next to noxious hide-curing and fat-gathering houses.

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Image from Smith’s The City That Was (1911) showing the “Region of Hide-Curing, Fat-Gathering, Fat and Soap Boiling, and Slaughter-Pens, Behind the Bowery Shopping Houses.”

While examining physical infrastructures, past and present, provided us with the tools to critique New York’s metropolitan landscape responsibly, we also learned about more cerebral types of infrastructure. One author whose work particularly struck me was Susan Leigh Star. In her article titled “Power, Technology and the Phenomenology of Conventions: On Being Allergic to Onions,” she examines the power of living in between worlds, and challenges her readers to question the idea of standardization. Of the latter, she brings attention to stoplights, writing: “The initial choice of red as a colour of traffic lights that means, ‘stop’, for example, is now a widespread convention that would be functionally impossible to change, yet it was initially arbitrary.” And it’s true — who decided that red meant stop? Why does red mean stop everywhere now, from stop signs to walk signals?

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Diagram showing Star’s theory of the dimensions of power, from “Power, Technology and the Phenomenology of Conventions: On Being Allergic to Onions,” 1991.

For me, the power of Star’s scholarship really became solidified throughout her discussion of marginality, though. She writes:

“We are at once heterogeneous, split apart, multiple — and through living in multiple worlds without delegation, we have experience of a self unified only through action, work and the patchwork of collection biography . . . That is, in the case of Pasteur or any executive, much of the work is attributed back to the central figure, erasing the work of secretaries, wives, laboratory technicians, and all sorts of associates. When this invisible work . . . is recovered, a very different network is discovered as well . . . All of these ways of gaining access imply listening, rather than talking on behalf of. This often means refusing translation — resting uncomfortably but content with that which is wild to us.”[3]

As someone who works in the intersection of medicine and the social sciences, the ideas in the above quote seem especially relevant. Biological scientists hate lingering in the unknown, while social scientists get tenure by writing about it. The idea of a library whose collections reflect the chameleonic history of medicine likely exists in a space much like Star’s “multiple worlds.” And, similar to those lab technicians whose names you never read about when a team of scientists win the Nobel Prize, libraries function largely on invisible labor. Thanks to Star, I am getting more comfortable with my own brand of marginality, too.

Glabau lead us expertly down these paths and many more during my time as a BISR student in “The Politics of Infrastructure.” We are currently hosting another one of her classes (“Science, Race, and Colonialism“), so stay tuned for more synopses from the field.

References:
[1] Smith S, The City That Was. New York, NY: F. Allaben; 1911.
[2] A Short Narrative of Dr. Stephen Smith. Medph.org. Published 2016. Accessed July 10, 2017.
[3] Star S. Power, Technology and the Phenomenology of Conventions: On Being Allergic to Onions. The Sociological Review. 1991; 38(S1):26-55, p29-30.

The Other Language of Flowers: The Doctrine of Signatures

By Emily Miranker, Events & Projects Manager

“Is that page winking at me?”

I said this at the office last week, and it’s actually not the weirdest of the sentences I’ve uttered at work here at the library. Some of those include, “That’s the prettiest hairball I’ve ever seen!” and “Yeah, I do wish garlic cured the plague.”

In this case, the sixteenthcentury page in question was winking at me (in a manner of speaking). Page 135 of our 1588 edition of Neapolitan natural scientist and polymath Giambattista della Porta’s Phytognomonica features a woodcut of eyebright. Eyebright is an alpine plant that gets its name for its use treating eye ailments.

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As this woodcut aims to make very clear with the frontal and side views on the bottom of the page, the fully open flower resembles a human eye. Image source: Giambattista della Porta, Phytognomonica (1588).

The resemblance of a plant to the body part or malady that it cures is a concept called the Doctrine of Signatures. Along with other early classical scholars, Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder and the Greek physician Dioscorides make reference to the Doctrine, but it was best developed by medieval Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1591).[1] The Doctrine was widely believed in the West, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though it did persist beyond.[2] Nineteenth century American historian and novelist Edward Eggleston observed, “The wild woods were full of creatures (flora and fauna) whose value was written on each of them in the language of signatures … considerately tagged at the creation.”[3] I love this notion, not for its accuracy–it is not accurate, definitely do not eat a plant with heart-shaped leaves if you have heartburn–but because I think it’s a terrific design concept. Simply put, function dictates form and outward appearance reveals therapeutic value.

I’m not alone in affection for the “much-maligned” theory that biologist Bradley C. Bennett called “the Doctrine.” He argues that in many preliterate societies, the association of plant name with its medicinal uses helped people remember useful plants.[4] Similarly, anthropologist G. H. Shepard Jr. suggested such names or signatures are like a mnemonic device for peoples for whom knowledge transmission is oral.[5] Of course, the Doctrine had detractors. Flemish herbalist Rembert Dodoens declared it “absolutely unworthy of acceptance” in 1583.[6] It is inherently subjective (not a good thing for science)–a leaf that looks like a liver to me might look like a kidney to you.

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Hair loss an issue? Maidenhair fern to the rescue. Image source: Giambattista della Porta, Phytognomonica (1588).

Signatures as a method to remember plants makes sense, particularly with all the scientific advances debunking the medical rationale since della Porta published his book. Bennett conducted an experiment that underscores the memory aid value of the Doctrine “that many valuable herbs were in use before the doctrine and that the organ-plant match was made later to accommodate and validate the doctrine.”[7] Of the over 2,500 plants with heart-shaped leaves, Bennett randomly selected 80. Twenty-one of those were used in medicine, and only three were used in cardiac medicine. So much for every ‘signed’ plant having therapeutic value.

So more accurately, the Doctrine of Signatures is a very human design concept. Indeed, it’s a human-centric design concept; seeing bits of ourselves in bits of plants. This makes sense when you consider that in della Porta’s time it was assumed the universe was created (by God) with mankind at the mortal pinnacle. And remarkably effective, not as a medical truism, but as a memory device.

For what is good design but a simple and powerful solution to a problem, in this case how to remember helpful plants. Not only is 20 percent of our brain devoted to vision, but there is a specific area in the frontal lobe of the brain critical to facial recognition: the fusiform gyrus. “We are hardwired to seek out a round object with two dark bands (one for the eyes, one for the mouth) even before we can see them clearly,” observes neuroscientist Andrew Tate.[8] Is it any wonder that people saw faces (not to mention other body parts) in the plants around them?

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Plants resembling the human hand and teeth. Image source: Giambattista della Porta, Phytognomonica (1588).

References:
[1] Bennett, Bradley C. “Doctrine of Signatures Through Two Millennia,” HerbalGram No. 78 (May-July 2008): 34-45.
[2] Simon, Matt. Fantastically Wrong: The Strange History of Using Organ-Shaped Plants to Treat Disease, Wired. Accessed 7/24/17.
[3] Eggleston, E. The Transit of Civilization from England to America in the Seventeenth Century. Appleton and Company: New York, 1901.
[4] Bennett, Bradley C. “Doctrine of Signatures: An Explanation of Medicinal Plant Discovery or Dissemination of Knowledge?” Economic Botany 61 (3). New York: The New York Botanical Garden Press, 2007: 246.
[5] Shepard, G.H. “Nature’s Madison Avenue: Sensory Cues as Mnemonic Devices in the Transmission of Medicinal Plant Knowledge,” Ethnobiology and Biocultural Diversity: Proceedings of the 7th International Congress of Ethnobiology. University of Georgia Press: Athens, GA, 2002: 326-335. Accessed 7/25/17.
[6] Arber, Agnes Robertson. Herbals, their origin and evolution; a chapter in the history of botany, 1470-1670. Cambridge: The University press, 1938
[7] Bennett, p 250.
[8] Tate, Andrew. “10 Scientific Reasons People are Hardwired to Respond to Your Visual Marketing,” Canva. Accessed 7/26/17.

A Brief History of the Vampire

By Audrey Sage Lorberfeld, Digital Technical Specialist

Most people associate vampires with Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula; however, the vampire has much older roots than that. Robert McCully reports that “the earliest known depiction of a vampire appears on a prehistoric Assyrian bowl…”[1] Much later came the vampiric texts with which we in the West are familiar, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Christobel (1797), Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1791), and John Keats’s Lamia (1819).[2] Finally, in 1897, comes Stoker’s Dracula.

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Chapter heading illustration, from Paul Barber’s Vampires Burial and Death: Folklore and Reality, 1988.

Perhaps the easiest place to start a history of the vampire is the differentiation between the folkloric vampire and the fictional vampire.

The Folkloric Vampire

Paul Barber warns that “if a typical vampire of folklore…were to come to your house this Halloween, you might open the door to encounter a plump Slavic fellow with long fingernails and a stubby beard, his mouth and left eye open, his face ruddy and swollen… [his] nose fallen in somewhat, the hair, beard, and nails grown, and new skin formed under the old” (a lovely phenomenon called ‘skin slippage’).[3] Other telltale signs of folkloric vamps are that people usually kill them with stakes (the act of which causes them to bleed and emanate ‘painful’ sounds); they like to attack cattle; they can regenerate;[4] and they bite.[5]

Regarding the origins of the folkloric vamp, Barber puts forth a forensic and socio-political argument. In short, Barber thinks that the idea of the folkloric vampire arose from the exhumation of decomposing bodies. These bodies normally have a little blood at their mouths, they get bloated, they smell, and they bleed when cut.[6] Barber believes that these bodies were likely scapegoats for society’s fears of plague or murder victims, whose bodies were buried in shallow graves (meaning that they decomposed faster).[7] When these ‘vampires’ were exhumed for inspection (which happened when a corpse was accused of being a vampire) and were ‘killed’ with stakes, it would be normal for a decomposing body to lack rigor mortis and also let out a painful sound, like the one mentioned previously. In reality, this sound is just the bloated body expelling methane.[8]

The Fictional Vampire

The fictional vamp, on the other hand, is the pop culture phenomenon. These vampires are “power mad” and want “nothing less than to take over the world, with the aid of an army of subordinate vampires.”[9]

This fictional vamp is the creature to which the real-life disease porphyria can be (dubiously) linked. Porphyria is a term given to multiple diseases that involve “enzyme defects in the haem biosynthetic pathway.”[10] Coming from the Greek word πορφύρα (pronounced “por-FOO-ra”), meaning purple, porphyria sufferers usually have red- or purple-tinged urine. This discoloration is caused by an excess of porphyrins.[11] Porphyrins are “light-activated chemicals that can be used to combat ills including tumors and diseases of the eye.”[12] Porphyria is also the disease many think plagued King George III.[13]

The specific type of porphyria most link to vampires is congenital erythropoietic porphyria (CEP), otherwise known as Gunther’s Disease.[14] Roderick McEwin writes that “this extremely rare disease presents on first exposure to light . . . blistering [the] exposed skin,” and that the urine, teeth, and bones, all stained pink, fluoresce in ultraviolet light.[15] These symptoms would explain why we usually associate vampires with burning in the sun.

Regarding the blood-sucking behavior of typical (fictional) vampires, Lane writes that it is possible early scientists linked vampires to porphyria patients because, in principle, it is possible to relieve the symptoms of porphyria by drinking blood. Not all scholars buy this argument, however. Maranda et al argue that there is no “scientific explanation for why people with porphyria would benefit from drinking blood” and that true porphyria patients suffer from scarring, which does not complement the world’s perception of (fictional) vampires.[16]

Another belief is that vampires arose from real people getting rabies. Juan Gómez-Alonso writes about how rabies sometimes presents in spasms and the emission of hoarse sounds that together make someone’s teeth clench and lips retract like those of an animal. The spasms are “generally triggered by some stimuli,” which include light (“photophobia”). Rabies might also explain vampires’ relationships to mirrors. Gómez-Alonso tells us that “a man was not considered rabid if he was able to stand the sight of his own image in a mirror.”[17]

There is almost too much that could be said about the vampire’s history. The vampire has been around for a long time, and continues to be a source of fascination. In fact, the next time you are on the 6 train, just look up and check out the ad for Casper® mattresses.

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Casper® ad on the number 6 subway line in New York City, photograph by author, 2017.

Further Reading:

References:
[1] McCully, Robert. “Vampirism: Historical Perspective and Underlying Process in Relation to a Case of Auto-Vampirism.” Vampires, Werewolves, and Demons: Twentieth Century Reports in the Psychiatric Literature, edited by Richard Noll, New York: Brunner/Mazel; 1992: p. 38.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Barber, Paul. Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. New Haven: Yale University Press; 1988: 2-13.
[4] Ibid., 19.
[5] Ibid., 32.
[6] Ibid., 121.
[7] Ibid., 124-5.
[8] Ibid., 158.
[9] McCully, 83.
[10] Youngs, Giles R., ed. Dobson’s Complaint: The Story of the Chester Porphyria. London: Royal College of Physicians of London; 1998: 1.
[11] McEwin, Roderick. Porphyria in Australia: A Review of the Literature, and the Australian Experience. Sydney: Health Commission of New South Wales; 1975: 6.
[12] Lane, Nick. “Born to the Purple: The Story of Porphyria.” Scientific American. December 16, 2002.
[13] Youngs, 11.
[14] McEwin, 43.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Maranda, Eric Laurent et al. “Porphyria and Vampirism-A Myth, Sensationalized.” JAMA dermatology 152.9 (2016): 975.
[17] Gómez-Alonso, J. “Rabies: A Possible Explanation for the Vampire Legend.” Neurology 51.3 (1998): 856–859.

College Student Reflects on Recent Academy Lecture

Today’s guest post is by Eliana Lanfranco, who is a rising sophomore studying at Georgetown University. She is majoring in medical anthropology and hopes to pursue a career in medicine in the future with the aim of returning to her home country to open a clinic. Eliana attended the Academy lecture with Project Rousseau, a non-profit organization, whose mission is to empower youth in communities with the greatest need to reach their full potential and pursue higher education. Project Rousseau takes a holistic approach to students’ educational problems delivering a variety of programs and strongly believes in the importance of exposing students to as many new experiences as possible, such as attending lectures at the New York Academy of Medicine!

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Eliana Lanfranco (center) with Project Rousseau Founder and President, Andrew Heinrich, and two younger Project Rousseau students.

On May 11, I attended “Facades and Fashions in Medical Architecture” at the New York Academy of Medicine.  This was my first time attending a lecture outside of my college classes, and I left with a different perspective on what lectures have to offer. The lecture did not contain slides filled with information I was required to know for a course, but rather an interactive, engaging talk filled with information I wanted to know. Through it, I learned about a new side of the history of medicine that I had never thought about before.

The lecture began with an overview of dispensaries, which were used primarily by the lower income groups in NYC (the wealthy had their own private doctors) in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Many of the volunteers in these dispensaries were doctors from affluent backgrounds who had recently graduated and wanted to gain clinical experience to become established doctors. Later, when hospitals began to serve both the poor and rich, recent graduates preferred the hospitals over the dispensaries, since the former had the latest equipment, such as x-rays and anesthesia, which the doctors could learn about and use.  It is interesting to see how this trend has, to some extent, remained among medical students today, and which medical institutions attract which students. Today, it may be easier to find a volunteer spot in community clinics than in hospitals, and medical students can oftentimes be more exposed to the health issues that affect certain communities who use these facilities.

The lecture also highlighted the way in which hospitals were built to be relatable to the patients and how their architecture reflected medical beliefs at the time. Older hospitals were built with long, narrow wings, as it was believed that the flow of air and light eliminated germs. Their architecture also tried to be welcoming and non-imposing to people walking past them; for example, mental health institutes were built to have a countryside feeling instead of looking like enclosed plots of land. Later, many of the hospitals built during the New Deal time period also featured murals painted by local artists in their waiting rooms. These murals were sometimes twofold, as they featured “controlled medicine” or modern medicine, and “uncontrolled medicine” or folk forms of healing. They portrayed historical figures in medicine, such as Louis Pasteur, and minorities in the field of medicine. As a patient, I would have been thankful for these murals since they offer some distraction from the endless wait in the waiting room.

In contrast, modern hospitals have been built in big clusters, along with skyscrapers. Their rectangular shape makes them reliant on mechanical ventilation, and their towering height makes them overpowering to people walking by. However, many try to maintain their air of welcome by making the entrances wide to show that it is not an institution for a select few. I think that these small details are very important because even though the majority of patients may not consciously think about the architecture they’re entering, these features greatly affect how patients, especially those who are not used to having structured medical systems in their home countries, feel about entering the hospital. I lived in a rural part of the Dominican Republic and the tallest hospital I saw growing up was four floors high. When I moved to New York City, I was surprised at the height of the hospitals and, although I am no longer a child, I am often intimidated by the buildings. It is good to see that some hospitals have incorporated details into their architecture to retain the air of welcome for patients, although as I, and many others, still quiver as we enter hospitals, I wonder how successful this approach has truly been!

Prior to this lecture, I was unaware that so many buildings I walked by every day, and that just looked like apartments with no historical importance, were actually hospitals and medical institutions.  Although older medical institutions can give us an insight into older medical beliefs and practices when carefully inspected  and can help us shape future medical practices, many of the older medical institutions have survived only through repurposing to other uses, such as apartments or firehouses; few have maintained their original purpose. It would be great to see the older hospitals that have survived, continue their original purpose or become museums so that their medical history can be saved, as has been the case with some buildings in nearby Philadelphia and Boston. As a pre-med student, the thought of attending an architecture lecture was, at first glance a little strange, but now I realize how related medicine and architecture are. A doctor’s primary aim is to treat all those in need, but without the right architectural design many patients may be hesitant to enter towering, intimidating hospitals!

Summer & Fall 2017 Catalog of Events

By Emily Miranker, Events and Projects Manager

Welcome to The New York Academy of Medicine Library’s Summer & Fall 2017 cultural programming.

For the third year running, we are partnering with our neighbor The Museum of the City of New York for a three-part series: “Who Controls Women’s Health?: A Century of Struggle.” Marking the centennial of New York State suffrage law, Century of Struggle is a free, three-part talk series that examines key battles over women’s ability to control their bodies, health choices, and fertility. The series reflects the Academy’s long history of involvement with improving maternal and infant mortality, and complements the forthcoming exhibition at MCNY Beyond Suffrage: 100 Years of Women and Politics in New York.

“Who Controls Women’s Health?: A Century of Struggle” speakers Randi Epstein, Faye Wattleton, and Jennifer Nelson.

Next in our special series, “Legacies of War: Medical Innovations and Impacts”—how the experience of war prompts medical innovation—we welcome Professor Beth Linker on September 28 to speak on World War One and veteran care, and Professor John Kinder on October 17 to explore the history of American war through the bodies of five veterans.

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Cover of Pictorial Review (Feb 1919).

Starting in mid-September, Kriota Willberg will lead an Embroidering Medicine Workshop. This workshop is the culmination of a six-month artist residency –the first ever such at the Academy Library- dedicated to the intersections between body sciences and artistic practices. The workshop explores the relationship between medicine, needlework and gender. Willberg focuses on the areas of the collection invoking the ideals of femininity and domesticity, as well as needlework (in the form of ligatures, sutures, and stitching of the body.)

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John Bell, The Principles of Surgery (1801).

Our collaboration with Atlas Obscura continues this year with topics like Anatomical Illustrations, Astronomy and Astrology, Cookery, and Women’s Medicine. The intimate sessions in our beautiful Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Room offer a chance to be enlightened by early alchemists, philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, physicians, and midwives. You’ll leave with the wisdom that they penned, including the ancient secrets of how to turn metal into gold, what fruit to eat to delay labor, and how the Zodiac Man guided medical practices.

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Joannes de Ketham, Fasciculo de Medicina (1522).

Later in the fall, socio-medical scientist Ijeoma Kola of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health presents “Unable to Breathe” on November 14. As asthma hospitalization rates skyrocketed, researchers shifted their focus from psychosomatic explanations to the toxicity of black urban locales. This talk explores how emerging asthma research in the 1950s and 1960s bolstered broader African American struggles for equity.

Download the Summer/Fall Catalog for more details. To register, click the names of events in the catalog, or visit www.NYAM.org/events. You can keep up to date on our events and activities by following us on social media, @nyamhistory.

We look forward to seeing you throughout the second half of this year.

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Our Hogwarts Digital Collection

By Anne Garner, Curator, Rare Books and Manuscripts

When Hogwarts librarian Irma Pince first appears in book one of the Harry Potter series, published twenty years ago this week, she is brandishing a feather duster and ordering young Harry out of the library where he’s pursing the noble (and ultimately world-saving) task of looking up the alchemist Nicholas Flamel.

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Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room.

Pince doesn’t exactly scream poster-child for open access.  And yet, a chance look at our card catalog recently revealed that the Academy Library might have something in common with Hogwarts, aside from its ambiance (The Library’s Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room, nestled on a locked mezzanine level of the Academy that visitors sometimes call its “Hogwarts floor,” frequently invites comparisons.)  That something is our collections.

To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the publication of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, The New York Academy of Medicine Library has launched a special digital collection, “How to Pass Your O.W.L.s at Hogwarts: A Prep Course.” Featuring rare books dating back to the fifteenth century, the collection reveals the history behind many of the creatures, plants and other magical elements that appear in the Harry Potter series.

The digital collection is organized as a fictional study aid for Hogwarts students preparing for their important magical exams, the O.W.L.s. The collection is organized into seven Hogwarts courses, featuring historical content related to each area of magical study. For example, the Transfiguration section focuses on alchemy and the work of Nicholas Flamel—a historical figure who is fictionalized in Rowling’s books.  Both Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and seventeenth century scientific literature represent Nicholas Flamel as an important alchemist responsible for achieving the philosopher’s stone (the real Flamel was a wealthy manuscript seller, and likely never an alchemist himself).

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Salmon, William. Medicina Practica, or the Practical Physician, 1707, featuring Nicholas Flamel’s Hieroglyphics.

The collection’s Care of Magical Creatures section features spectacular centuries-old drawings of dragons, unicorns and basilisks—plenty of prep material here to keep the attention of young wizards during this third year elective course.

The early naturalists Conrad Gessner and Ulisse Aldrovandi both devoted entire volumes of their encyclopedic works to serpents.   Some illustrations depicted snakes as we might see them in the natural world.  Others celebrated more fantastical serpentine creatures, including a seven headed-hydra and a basilisk.  Said to be the ruler of the serpents, the basilisk (from the Greek, basiliskos, for little king) looks a little like a turtle with a crown on his head.

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Aldrovandi, Ulisse. Serpentum, et draconum historiae libri duo…, 1640, pp. 270-271.

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Aldrovandi, Ulisse. Serpentum, et draconum historiae libri duo…, 1640, p. 363.

Off campus proves to be where the wild (er) things are.  In book one of the series, Voldemort gains strength by ingesting the blood of a unicorn.  Rowling’s unicorns have healing properties and can act as antidotes to poison.  The qualities Rowling assigns to these beautiful and rarest of beasts echo their characterization in early modern natural history texts.  Several of these works —illustrated encyclopedias that depict and describe both real and fantastic animals in the sixteenth century—present the unicorn as powerful healers.

We’ve written already about the French apothecary Pierre Pomet’s illustrations of the five types of unicorns, and his assertion in his 1684 history of drugs that unicorn horns sold in most apothecary shops were actually the horns of narwhals.

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Pomet, Pierre. Histoire generale de drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux, & des mineraux…., 1694, p. 9.(Click Here for a coloring sheet of this image!)

Conrad Gessner’s 4500 page encyclopedia of animals, the Historia Animalium, also includes a depiction of a unicorn (below). Gessner writes that unicorn horn and wine together can counteract poisons, and assigns it other efficacious properties.

In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, we meet a band of spirited and enigmatic centaurs in the Forbidden Forest.  Centaurs and mer-people fall into a category throughout the series of what Rowling refers to as “half-breeds”:  hybrid creatures who are part man or woman, and part animal. This category of beings is often diminished for being somehow less than fully human.  In the books, half-breeds don’t have the civil rights that other wizarding folk have. Hagrid, Dumbledore, and others are sympathetic to the creatures—In Harry’s fifth year, Dumbledore appoints one as Hogwarts’ Divination Professor.

While the History of Magic taught at Hogwarts is largely fictional, the Academy Library contains books in the real-life history of magic, including the 1658 manual Natural Magick by Giovanni Battista della Porta and a manual for witch-hunters by della Porta’s rival, Jean Bodin—two highlights of the digital collection. Another featured treasure is an actual bezoar (ours comes from the stomach of a cow, ca. 1862), and is used as a key potions ingredient by Hogwarts’ students.

As Hermione Granger says, “When in doubt, go to the library.” We hope you’ll heed her advice and check out our new digital collection, “How to Pass Your O.W.L.s at Hogwarts: A Prep Course.”

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