Theatrum Anatomicum, by Caspar Bauhin and Theodor de Bry, 1605 : Guest Post by Morbid Anatomy’s Joanna Ebenstein

Bauhin1Here are some wonderful images from another of my favorite books in the NYAM historical collections, Theatrum Anatomicum (1605), by Caspar Bauhin and Theodor de Bry. This edition also has some especially lovely image ghosting going on.

This post was written by Joanna Ebenstein of the Morbid Anatomy blog, library and event series; click here to find out more.

Icon durae matris in concavâ superficie visae…, Jan Ladmiral and Frederik Ruysch, 1738: Guest Post by Morbid Anatomy’s Joanna Ebenstein

Here is a lovely small frontispiece etching and some lush and wonderful mezzotints by Jan Ladmiral, pioneer of early color printing, drawn from the NYAM copy of Icon durae matris in concavâ superficie visae, ex capite foetus humani octò circiter à conceptione mensium, desumtae; ad objectum artificiosissimè praeparatum à clarissimo viro Fred. Ruyschio by Jan Ladmiral and Frederik Ruysch from 1738.


Ladmiral3 Ladmiral2


This post was written by Joanna Ebenstein of the Morbid Anatomy blog, library and event series; click here to find out more.

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.


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

Good eyes are your protection

By Rebecca Pou, Project Archivist

goodeyesareyourprotection“Wear glasses if the doctor advises you to do so.” “Don’t rub your eyes with dirty hands.” “If you suspect eye trouble, see an oculist at once.” This sound advice comes from a 1917 trifold leaflet aimed at school children and published by the Illinois Society for the Prevention of Blindness (ISPB), which was founded in 1916.

breadwinnersWhile the pamphlet contains helpful recommendations on eye health, the illustrations and design are particularly charming. Eyes peer out from the sign on the front cover, but we discover that those eyes belong to a boy in spectacles on the page beneath and the sign has cut outs. The eye holes must have been irresistible to children and are surrounded by guidelines for healthy eyes.


Click to enlarge.

The pamphlet stresses that proper eye care beginning in childhood confers life-long benefits, especially in a cartoon comparing two couples from an eye screening in childhood through old age. The pair that cares for their eyes flourishes in life, excelling in academics, extracurricular activities, and, in the case of the man, his profession. The other couple is plagued with nervousness and headaches, and both have trouble with work. While the pamphlet is aimed at children, the lesson is for parents as well. In her old age, the content woman is grateful to her mother for getting her the eye care she needed, while the unfortunate pair’s parents had dismissed the eye examiners’ recommendations.


Click to enlarge.

And for anyone who might need further convincing, the Society contrasts good sight and bad sight in black and white.


In his landmark book, The Evolution and Significance of the Modern Public Health Campaign, published in 1923, C-E. A. Winslow asserts that education and changed behavior are central to modern public health efforts.  He says, “the fight must be won, not by the construction of public works, but by the conduct of the individual life.” In this pamphlet, the ISPB is clearly appealing to individuals, encouraging them to choose good care over neglect, preventing the difficulties in life caused by blindness and eye disease.

Almost a century after the publication of “Good eyes are your protection,” the ISPB still exists and maintains a website. While their efforts seem more expansive, consisting of education, research and programs, the organization remains “dedicated to the care, protection, and preservation of sight.”

Item of the month: Scrapbook of Doctor John T. Nagle, One Album, Three Perspectives

By Christina Amato, Book Conservator

Our item of the month is a scrapbook compiled by Dr. John Nagle from the years 1868-1900.  Dr. Nagle was an employee of the New York City Bureau of Vital Statistics, and the album mostly consists of newspaper clippings concerning births and deaths, diseases, methods of disposing of bodies, etc.  It is an interesting item on many different levels.  When an item comes into the conservation lab, the first thing we naturally see is damage.  The album’s spine had fallen off, many of the newspaper clippings inside were crumpled and broken, and the front cover had warped in a particularly exuberant fashion:

Foredge before treatment.

Foredge before treatment.

Most visitors to the lab who encounter the album, however, just see the charming artwork on the cover:

scrapbook after

A student of book history might be more inclined to see it as a typical example of a publisher’s cloth binding.  Starched bookcloth, which was invented in the 1820s, allowed for the mass production of embossed covers such as the one above. A heated brass die would be used to stamp the cover, and even as late as the 1870s, when Dr. Nagle started compiling his scrapbook, each detail of the die would have been hand carved.

A researcher might have a different take on this item altogether. Though mostly consisting of statistics, which are fascinating in their own right, there are several small clippings that provide intriguing clues into the nature of Dr. Nagle himself:


In addition to sunny afternoon promenades, Dr. Nagle was known to engage in daring, maritime rescues, and heated competition over the title of “handsomest man”:


handsomest man

Depending on who you ask, the most interesting thing about this album could be its physical structure, the details of the cover design, or the content.  Regardless of where your interest may lie, conservation treatment has rendered the book accessible to all.  If you are interested in seeing this item, contact us at (212) 822-7313 or

Scrapbook after conservation treatment.

Scrapbook after conservation treatment.

Uncle Sam, M.D.

By Paul Theerman, Associate Director

Health Almanac, 1920 front cover.

Health Almanac, 1920 front cover.

How to get the word out? For the last two hundred years, health has been as much about education and prevention as intervention and response. And so an intrepid young doctor in the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) latched onto using the almanac as a public health vehicle. Health Almanac 1920 (Public Health Bulletin No. 98; Washington, GPO, 1920) was a 12-page almanac entwined in a 56-page public health pamphlet. Amid checking for the phases of the moon or the times of sunrise and sunset, one could find short pieces giving warning signs for cancer, means to prevent the spread of malaria, the necessity of registering births, and how to build a good latrine. These and many other topics were all presented by “Uncle Sam, M.D.”; the almanac was free for the asking.

Uncle Sam Image 4--July right page

Health Hints and Notable Events for July 1920. Click to enlarge.

In the distant past, almanacs became linked to health through “astro-medicine” or “iatromathematics,” that is, medical astrology. Each of the signs of the zodiac was held to influence a system of the body, from Ares controlling the head to Pisces the feet, and so for everything in between. Almanacs were calendrical and astronomical, and in addition to marking sunrise and sunset, the phases of the moon, and religious holidays, they charted the day-by-day progress of the moon through the zodiac, with its supposed medical consequences. To this technical data, the most famous American almanac, Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, added moralistic lessons and practical advice, wittily presented. Health Almanac 1920 provided these same features within the context of progressive secular government. The publication started with inspirational statements from President Woodrow Wilson, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Surgeon General —who together formed the chain of command for the Public Health Service! Instead of a calendar of religious seasons and saints’ days, the almanac noted national days and significant events in the history of medicine and in “The Great War,” just concluded. Everywhere were health aphorisms: “Good health costs little, poor health costs fortunes” (from the back cover), and “Large fillings from little cavities grow” (April 20). Some “health hints” were quite flatly presented: “Every home should have a sewer connection or a sanitary privy” (July 20), and “Food, fingers, and flies spread typhoid fever” (July 31). Some were just to the point: “Be thrifty” (November 15) and “Wear sensible shoes” (December 18). Throughout, the almanac highlighted the role of the USPHS in promoting health.

Uncle Sam Image 2--back cover

Health Almanac, 1920 back cover.

The Health Almanac was published in 1919 and 1920—we have the 1920 edition—as was a parallel publication called the Miners’ Safety and Health Almanac, put out by the Bureau of Mines. Both were the brainchild of Dr. Ralph Chester Williams (1888–1984), then at the outset of his successful career with the Public Health Service. Born in Alabama and a 1910 graduate of the University of Alabama Medical School, Williams entered the USPHS in 1916 and was posted to the Bureau of Mines during World War I. Pulled into the Office of the Surgeon General, he edited Public Health Reports, served as Chief Medical Officer to the Farm Security Administration, as Medical Director of the USPHS’s New York City office, and starting in 1943, as Assistant Surgeon General and head of its Bureau of Medical Services. In that capacity he oversaw a third of the operations of the USPHS, including immigration inspection and USPHS hospitals. In 1951 the Commissioned Officers Association of the USPHS published his standard history, The United States Public Health Service, 1798–1950. At almost 900 pages, it dwarfs the Health Almanac 1920, but both show their author’s dedication to getting the word out about health and, not incidentally, about the agency that helped make that happen.

Of Unicorns on Land and Sea

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

This spring the Cloisters, the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that showcases the art and architecture of medieval Europe, is celebrating its 75th anniversary.  The most famous (and probably most beloved) items in the collection are the Unicorn Tapestries, the seven tapestries that tell the story of the hunt for this elusive animal.  A special exhibit about the unicorn is on display at the Cloisters through August 18th.

Unicorn horns and their purported medicinal uses are described in a variety of early books on drugs and natural history.  One of these, Pierre Pomet’s Histoire generale des drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux, & des mineraux… (Paris, 1694) contains a detailed section on the unicorn, complete with an illustration of the five types of unicorns:

Pomet (1658-1699), a druggist to Louis XIV, also maintained an apothecary shop in Paris.  His Histoire was first translated into English in 1712, and appeared in a second edition in 1725.  The book contains detailed information about plant-based remedies, but also describes the compounding of various cures made from parts of exotic animals, metals, minerals, stones, and a variety of other substances.  In the case of the unicorn, Pomet admits almost immediately that what is sold by apothecaries as unicorn horn comes not from a unicorn at all, but from a fish, the narwhal, whose attributes he describes later in the animal section of the book. Of course, Pomet was wrong to describe the narwhal as a fish, as it is really a species of whale and whales are mammals.

The horns of unicorns and narwhals were believed to be effective as an antidote to all kinds of poisons and to cure various unspecified plagues and fevers.  Some people wore the horns as protective amulets, while others collected complete horns as curiosities for display.  While Pomet offers many details about both unicorns and narwhals, he hedges his bets regarding their efficacy, explaining that while some people believe in their worth, “I shall neither authorize nor contradict, having never had sufficient Experience of it.”