Notes on Collecting Some Physicians’ Great Books

R. Ted Steinbock, M.D.
Radiologist in Private Practice

           Collecting rare medical books can be a source of great personal enjoyment and inspiration as well as of knowledge for physicians and historians. The physicians who wrote the books that have had an impact through the centuries on medical thought and practice are themselves literally bound up in each volume, ready to speak to us today as we leaf though their pages. Rare medical books come in all manner of bindings, printing quality, illustrations, and languages, yet they are able to create a compelling desire to understand the intricate structure and function of the human body.

Berengario Da Carpi (1470), who was the professor of anatomy at Bologna from 1502 to 1522, published in 1521 a Latin commentary on the 14th century anatomical work of Mondino, to which he had made many additions and revisions. That volume, his Commentaria cum Amplissimus Additionibus super Anatomia Mundi, was the first work since the time of Galen in the third century to display anatomical information based on personal observation and investigation. Also, this very rare book was the first to contain anatomical illustrations based on the anatomist’s own dissections. Furthermore, it contains the first mention of the vermiform appendix, the first accurate account of the thymus, and the most extensive description of the human reproductive organs and of a fetus up to that time. Berengario, ranks as the first to begin the long tradition of illustrating standing dissected figures in a naturalistic setting.

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) is a name that is known and revered by all students of medicine. Born in Brussels, he studied at Louvain, Montpelier, Paris, and finally at Padua where he was appointed professor of surgery and anatomy. In 1543, at age twenty-eight, Vesalius published his epochal woodcuts that are famous for their accuracy, classic beauty, and minute detail. They had been under Vesalius’ supervision by the artist, Jan Stephan van Cakcar, who had been a pupil of Titian. The publication of De Humani Corporis Fabrica marks the birth of modern medicine; Vesalius had broken away form the classical tradition and personally dissected the human body for scientific investigation in order to advance knowledge and to stimulate a more scientific approach to medical and surgical practice.

Not quite a century later, William Harvey (1578-1657) made his legendary advance in physiology. Harvey, who was born in England and educated at Cambridge, like Vesalius, received his MD degree from Padua 1602. After returning to London, Harvey became physician at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and by years of solitary research that involved mainly dissection and experimentation on mollusks insects, and cold-blooded animals, became the first to comprehend the exact function of the heart and the uninterrupted circulation. In 1628, in Frankfort, he published is unimposing little book, De Motu Cordis, that started a revolution in medicine and founded the science of physiology. Harvey’s book went through a number of editions in just a few short years. In bookstores and libraries, it is often found beside his other, somewhat later, important work on embryology.

Two centuries later, across the Atlantic Ocean in frontier America, an early pioneering clinical investigation was carried out that became a milestone in medical physiology and advanced research and clinical work on the gastrointestinal tract and secondarily the brain. In 1822, William Beaumont (1785-1853), who was an Army surgeon stationed at isolated Fort Mackinac in northern Michigan, was summoned to treat French-Canadian voyageur, Alexis St. Martin, who had received an accidental gunshot wound to the abdomen. The wound eventually healed, but with a permanent fistula to the skin and thus an outside opening. Beaumont saw that this deformity provided a unique opportunity to investigate the process of digestion by observing the varying output of gastric secretions associated with the ingestion of different food and drink and also wit certain emotional states, especially frustration and anger.

Although he was being transferred from post to post on out northern frontier, Beaumont managed to maintain some contact with the equally nomadic voyager and thus continue to carry out simple, yet brilliant clinical investigations even under those almost primitive conditions. He published some of the results of his work later, in 1833, in Plattsburgh, New York. Although it is poorly printed and bound, his volume, Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion is a cornerstone of modern physiology that through the years influenced Dragsted, Ivy, Pavlov, and many other investigators. It ranks as one of our great medical classics.

Time and finances can limit collecting historically important medical books; however, it is also limited by the imagination and failure to realize that stimulates further historical investigations, the acquisition of books, and also our dedication to medicine and the care of our patients. Despite the obstacles, some physicians collect books related to their particular fields of medicine and surgery; for example, cardiology, ophthalmology, cardiology, neurology, various surgical specialties, psychiatry, etc. others concentrate on collecting books in a specific area of interest such as colonial medicine, medicine in certain regions of Kentucky, medicine in 18th century Paris, primitive medicine, and others when we stretch our imaginations. Still other collectors seek to find and acquire books by a physician or other person whom they considered to be an especially inspiring physician or source of inspiration of them. Some examples are Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sir Thomas Browne, and S. Weir Mitchell.

Regardless of the particular field of interest, each personal collection of great or rare medical books, be it large or small, has unique appeal and interest to the collector. Also, t provides countless hours of enjoyment and enhanced respect, if not awe, for the pioneering research and efforts of notable physicians of the past. Finally, in so doing, collecting books renews our commitment to our patients and to the science and practice of medicine.