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Riesman Family Gift of Rare Medical Books and Manuscripts

December 3, 2021 - 9:04am by Melissa Grafe

The Medical Historical Library is pleased to announce a gift of approximately 230 books and manuscripts from the libraries of David Riesman, M.D. and John P. Riesman, M.D.  The books range over a wide variety of topics and time periods, with the earliest texts dating from the 16th century. While volumes containing the works from highly influential medical authors such as Florence Nightingale, Herman Boerhaave, and Thomas Willis are part of the gift, other books in the collection provide medical advice and science fun for more popular audiences. Examples include a 1774 copy of William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine and John Willison’s The Afflicted Man’s Companion (1794) , as well as “Tom Telescope’s” The Newtonian system of philosophy… for the use of young ladies and gentlemen, (1803), an introductory text to Newton’s scientific principles. David Riesman (1867-1940) graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1892 and was Professor of Clinical Medicine there from 1912 to 1933 and, after introducing the study of the history of medicine to the medical school curriculum, became the first Professor of the History of Medicine at Penn from 1933 until his death in 1940. He was the author of many books including Medicine in Modern Society, The Story of Medicine in the Middle Ages, and High Blood Pressure and Longevity. His collection of books was bequeathed to his son, John P. Riesman, M.D., a 1938 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School who became a surgeon at Yale New Haven Hospital in New Haven, CT and was affiliated with Yale Medical School. He was an active member of the Associates of the Medical Library at the Yale and the Beaumont Medical Club. Discover the collection, which is still being cataloged, in Quicksearch or Orbis.  Images from some of the books are highlighted in the Medical Historical Library’s Instagram account.

New Gift: The Wilfrid Rall Computational Neuroscience Research Collection

December 1, 2021 - 2:00pm by Melissa Grafe

The Medical Historical Library announces that the Wilfrid Rall computational neuroscience research collection (Ms Coll 83) is now open for researchers. The collection is a gift of Gordon Shepherd, MD, DPhil, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Neuroscience at Yale, and the family of Wilfrid Rall. Rall (1922-2018) was a neuroscientist whose work focused on the electrical properties of neurons and the functions of neuronal dendrites. His development of cable theory and the compartmental modeling approach for studying dendrites and synaptic integration helped found the discipline of computational neuroscience. The collection documents his research from 1963-1971, particularly his collaborative work with Gordon Shepherd using the compartmental modeling method to study the functional organization of the olfactory bulb. Research notebooks, correspondence, and reprints of Rall’s publications are included in the archive. Rall’s research notebooks are fully digitized and freely available online. The 11 notebooks, dating from 1963-1971, document his research on dendritic function. Shepherd writes, “Rall used to record the day’s computer runs, calculations and discussions, hypotheses, summaries of progress, and plans for the future. The volumes are a running record of his busy life as one of the first neuroscience biophysicists, and his conscientious efforts to keep up with the many projects and thoughts stimulated by his work. They provide unique insights into how Rall in his earliest work brought together several disciplines in creating the computational approach to analyzing the functional organization of neurons and neuronal microcircuits as the basis for the future field of computational neuroscience.”  

New Online Exhibition on Medical Astrology

August 3, 2021 - 10:24am by Melissa Grafe

When people think of astrology today, they may conjure images of online horoscopes and celebrities casting birth charts as part of popular culture. Astrology has a much longer lineage, particularly connected to medicine and science. Medical astrology was widely practiced in Europe between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Part art, part science, it was integral to several fields of study, linking medicine to natural philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy, among others. In spring 2021, art historian Laura Phillips, Ph.D., Graduate School Alumni Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Medical Historical Library, engaged in a deep review of the Library’s collections to surface the surprising amount of material connecting astrology to many aspects of early modern life.  Visually stunning, medical astrology images provided a way for people to see and remember how their bodies fit into the larger cosmos, helping to situate their health in relationship to the universe.    Dr. Phillips photographed, curated, and authored a new online exhibition exploring the visual history of medical astrology in early-modern Europe. Featuring nearly 200 images from the Medical Historical Library’s collection, the exhibition tells the story of a controversial yet popular healing practice that “represented the epitome of exact science” for its time.  The exhibition is a deep delve into early modern astrology, including videos describing the use of volvelles in Peter Apian’s Astronomicum Caesareum (1540), multiple versions of the “Zodiac Man,” and a thorough description of how astrology was woven into astronomy, health, popular culture, and medicine. We invite you to explore Medical Astrology: Science, Art, and Influence in early-modern Europe.

Overlooked Images of Medicine with Bert Hansen

May 3, 2021 - 4:44pm by Melissa Grafe

Explore The Bert Hansen Collection of Medicine and Public Health in Popular Graphic Art which includes over 1200 images and items produced between 1850 and 2010 with additional reference materials. The collection is a gift of historian Bert Hansen, Ph.D., whose goal was to document the visual record of medical practice and research and public health in America. This video was produced by the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, of which Yale is a member. View the Bert Hansen Study Guide for additional information. Over a period of thirty years, Hansen selected materials produced for the general public (not medical or public health professionals) that use medical imagery as an accompaniment to news items, for advertisements, for political satire, or for decorative items that celebrate medical history. Items in the collection include magazines, prints, posters, film publicity materials, product brochures, and promotional materials.  Hansen also donated photocopied reference materials, such as newspapers, as part of this gift. The collection includes over 600 prints, including chromolithographs and wood engravings from 19th-century magazines like Harper’s Weekly, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Puck, Judge, and Scientific American on topics including Pasteur’s treatments for rabies, cholera, diphtheria, polio, tuberculosis, vaccinations, hospitals, mental asylums, unsafe foodstuffs, and public sanitation. There are numerous illustrations using medical imagery in political satire. All materials are available for use in the Historical Library reading room. Collection items are listed and described, using information from Bert Hansen’s database, in a finding aid available through Archives at Yale.

Taking Note of Medical Education: exploring 16th to early 19th century medical education

March 19, 2021 - 10:07am by Melissa Grafe

The Cushing/Whitney Medical Library is pleased to announce that volumes from our manuscript collection, focused on medical education, are now available online! The effort to digitize these volumes and make them freely available worldwide was generously funded by the Arcadia Fund. The Historical Library holds a collection of volumes handwritten between the sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries documenting medical education in multiple ways. Student notes of medical lectures show transmission of knowledge by notable medical men such as William Hunter (1718-1783), physician and man-midwife to Queen Charlotte and William Cullen (1710-1790), one of the leading medical faculty members at the University of Edinburgh. Notebooks describing patient cases, diaries documenting travels to different medical schools or popular medical literature at that time, or even student projects such as a herbarium that described uses of plants, represent different manners of medical learning. For women like Eliza Heath, recipe (or commonplace) books contained medical “cures” from all kinds of written and oral sources in order to battle a wide variety of household ailments. Some of the earliest Medical Institution of Yale College (now Yale School of Medicine) student notebooks, containing the lectures from the founders and early faculty of our medical school, are freely available online as well. Dr. Nathan Smith, the first Chair of Surgery, lectured on the theory and practice of “physic” and surgery, captured in Richard Warner’s notes in 1818-1819, and in this anonymously written notebook for 1819-1820. Please explore these volumes on the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library site on Internet Archive, as part of the Medical Heritage Library. By early April, nearly 70 volumes will be available for online viewing and download. You can also find other Arcadia-funded digitized texts, including incunables, medieval and Renaissance medical and scientific manuscripts, Yale Medical School theses and early Arabic and Persian books and manuscripts, in this collection. Also, dive into another collection complementing our medical education materials, For the Health of the New Nation: Philadelphia as the Center of American Medical Education, 1746-1868, which provides free online access to 140,000 pages of lecture tickets, course schedules, theses, dissertations, student notes, faculty lectures notes, commencement addresses, opening addresses, and matriculation records.  

New online exhibition: “Materiality, Fragility, and Loss in the Medical Archive”

February 3, 2021 - 10:56am by Melissa Grafe

The Historical Library is pleased to announce a new online exhibition showing items you might never find in our physical exhibits!  https://onlineexhibits.library.yale.edu/s/materialfragility/page/home “Materiality, Fragility, and Loss in the Medical Archive” was curated by Anabelle Gambert-Jouan, a doctoral candidate in the Department of the History of Art, who was supported by a Graduate Professional Experience Fellowship from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She reflects on the exhibition in this blog post. Overcoming the Fragility of Objects with a Digital Exhibition by Anabelle Gambert-Jouan The idea for the exhibition “Materiality, Fragility, and Loss in the Medical Archive” emerged in a moment of widespread closure of museums and collections. What could be done to showcase the Medical Historical Library’s holdings when access to the display cases beneath the Cushing rotunda was restricted? Instead of a limitation, the switch to an entirely online exhibition became an opportunity to highlight photographs, books, and other medical artifacts that are either rarely seen by the public due to their fragile state or cannot be appreciated fully in traditional display cases because they have mechanistic components or hidden parts requiring tactile engagement. As curatorial fellow at the Medical Historical Library, I had the opportunity to explore the collection in-person, including the recently acquired Stanley B. Burns M.D. Historic Medical Photography Collection, to select the works that best expressed the exhibition’s themes. I wanted to illustrate, through the digital medium, that a daguerreotype needed to be held in a certain way for the image to become visible for an instant. I wanted to convey the strange sensation of peeling back the layers of the paper organs depicted in G. J. Witkowski’s Anatomie iconoclastique. To do this, I used photographs and videos created especially by the staff of the Medical Historical Library. The exhibition examines these fascinating historical objects, with an emphasis on the senses of sight and touch. The exhibition also catches the “behind-the-scenes” moments of the collection. Recent and ongoing work by conservators and scientists is highlighted in the final section of the exhibition, to explain how specialists are seeing through the damage and the material decay to learn more about objects. 

Newly acquired trove of historic photos captures evolution of medicine

December 2, 2020 - 3:06pm by Melissa Grafe

Written by Patricia Carey | First published on YaleNews In one image, a physician injects a Civil War veteran with morphine, a common practice that led to widespread addiction after the war. In another, a gold-framed daguerreotype from 1847, an unconscious patient sprawls on a white-draped table, surrounded by men in frockcoats and cravats, documenting one of the earliest uses of ether in operation. Then there’s the haunting postmortem photograph of a 22-year-old physician who died caring for patients in an 1849 cholera outbreak — a poignant reminder of the risks medical professionals are facing today. These are just some of the 15,400 photographs in a unique collection recently acquired by the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library at Yale that documents — in black-and-white and sometimes graphic detail — a history of medicine from 1839 to the 1970s. Among the library’s largest and most notable acquisitions to date, the collection both celebrates the evolution of medicine and bears witness to untold human pain and loss. The Stanley B. Burns M.D. Historic Medical Photography Collection includes images of physicians and medical scientists at work, operation rooms, hospital wards, laboratories, nurses and nursing, notable physicians, surgical specialties, and war medicine. There are also thousands of photos of patients and disease states. The collection is notable for its range of forms, including photo albums, framed photographs, publications, cartes de visite (small photos mounted on cardboard), cabinet cards, postcards, and personal collections assembled by noted physicians. Virtually every format is represented, including boxes of lantern slides and 253 unique daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes from the earliest years of photography. “The Burns Collection is one of the most compelling and comprehensive visual records of medical history ever assembled,” said Melissa Grafe, the John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History and head of the Medical Historical Library, the medical library’s special collections repository. “From early depictions of surgery to profoundly personal family images and photo albums, it shows how deeply medicine is interwoven in human lives.” The collection’s photographic albums, some assembled by physicians, bring alive important chapters of medical history, such as the conquest of yellow fever in Cuba in 1904, the international response to the pneumonic plague epidemic in China in 1911, and facial reconstruction at Walter Reed Army General Hospital documented by medical photographer Alice Becht in 1920. “Turning the pages of these albums, I am often struck by how visible the patient is, providing some window into past lives and, in some ways, human suffering,” Grafe said. “At other times the collection is a celebration of medicine, highlighting surgical moments and medical techniques that we may take for granted today.” The wide range of materials complements many of the library’s existing collections, including striking images of mental illness published in the “Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière”; thousands of photo-postcards and other images that make up the Robert Bogdan Disability Collection; and more than 100 iconic portraits of Civil War soldiers. Other materials in the Burns Collection document the development of medical education. Bound volumes of Dr. Howard Kelly’s “Stereo-clinic,” for example, contain thousands of photographs of landmark operations performed by noted surgeons between 1908 and 1918. When viewed through a stereoscope, the photographs provided step-by-step 3D views of the procedures and were used to teach other surgeons. “The Burns Collection is a major milestone in a decade-long strategic effort to expand the library’s holdings of highly visual materials,” said John Gallagher, the Medical Library’s director.  “We are so eager and excited to have researchers, both here at Yale and beyond, explore this truly unique and rich visual collection.” Ophthalmologist and medical professor Stanley B. Burns, the collection’s creator, began collecting medical photography in 1975, choosing to focus on an area that until then was largely ignored. Over four and half decades, he amassed more than a million images, filling his New York townhouse and a second home with binders, boxes, and bins with labels as broad as “Nursing” and as specific as “Railway accident wounded treatment.” As a foremost expert on medical historical photographs, Burns has published widely; curated and consulted on exhibitions; and advised hundreds of films, TV series, and documentaries. Among his engagements was providing photos to an art historian seeking to show that Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” was inspired by women with destructive facial syphilis. Along with the collection’s move to Yale, Burns has endowed a library fellowship to support research in the collection and related holdings of the Medical Historical Library — a gift that aims to ensure scholars will continue to make discoveries in the collection. “I have spent 45 years building an unequalled resource for understanding the origins and evolution of medical photography and exploring the history of the human relationship to disease and medicine,” he said. “I am thrilled that my collection will be preserved, appreciated, and studied for the long term at Yale.” The Burns Collection is being processed and evaluated for conservation and preservation needs; initial records are available in Orbis and Archives at Yale. As time and resources allow, portions of the collection will be digitized and made available online.

The “Great Risk” of “Opium Eating”: How Civil War-Era Doctors Reacted to Prescription Opioid Addiction

December 1, 2020 - 10:50am by Melissa Grafe

Written by Jonathan S. Jones The U.S. Civil War (1861-65) sparked a massive epidemic of opioid addiction among those who fought and survived the bloody conflict. The war mobilized millions of soldiers, hospital workers, and freedom-seekers, bringing people into contact with unfamiliar microbes, insects, and animals. This mass movement of bodies and pathogens resulted in extreme outbreaks of measles, smallpox, typhoid fever, and other deadly, terrifying diseases. Brutal technological innovations like the Minié ball caused ghastly, agonizing wounds, and men who survived often spent the rest of their lives in chronic pain. Military surgeons tasked with patching up wounded soldiers and treating the sick had their jobs cut out for them. Often-times army doctors were simply civilians pressed into service by circumstance, and they fell back on fundamental therapies to mitigate sickness and suffering. Opiates, the most common medicines in antebellum America, thus became defensive weapons in Civil War’s medical arsenal, “important to the surgeon as gunpower to the ordinance,” according to one military medical handbook. Opium pills, morphine injections, and laudanum (a blend of opium and alcohol) were some of the Civil War’s most widely used medicines. Opiates were marvelous painkillers—morphine and synthetic opioids are still standard palliatives today—and the medicines were also surprisingly useful for suppressing symptoms like diarrhea and coughing. Civil War armies could not have functioned without opiates, which surgeons doled out widely during and after the war to ailing soldiers. Opiates are addictive, however, and doctors’ prescriptions all-too-predicably led to addiction for Civil War veterans. Not only was opiate addiction dangerous and unhealthy, resulting in thousands of overdose deaths between the 1860s and the early twentieth century, but the condition was also deeply stigmatized in Civil War America. Most Americans considered addiction to be an unmanly and immoral vice. Addicted veterans deserved punishment, not sympathy, according to contemporary observers. Consequently, addicted veterans faced terrible outcomes, a theme I explore in a recent journal article investigating the experience of opiate addiction for veterans. Naturally, many addicted veterans blamed the doctors who first introduced them to opiates. But how did doctors react to veterans’ blame? Did they reject charges of culpability, or admit that prescriptions lay at the root of Civil War America’s opioid crisis? Did the crisis affect how doctors practiced medicine, and if so, what did any changes mean for the course of American medicine? These are questions I address in my book manuscript, “Opium Slavery: Veterans and Addiction in Civil War America,” which is based on my dissertation (Binghamton University, 2020). In 2020-21, as a postdoctoral fellow at Penn State’s Richards Civil War Center, I am revising my book for publication. My research for this project benefited immensely from a Ferenc Gyorgyey Research Grant awarded by the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library in 2018-19. The library’s inimitable collection of nineteenth-century American medical records provided a major component of my evidentiary base, allowing me to investigate how the Civil War veterans’ opiate addiction epidemic refracted into medical practices and thought in the late-nineteenth century U.S. In particular, the Medical Historical Library holds incredibly rare clinical records that provide insights into how the Civil War-era opioid crisis altered the fundamentals of medicine, like prescribing patterns. As I argue in my book, American physicians were deeply troubled by prescription opium and morphine addiction among veterans. Doctors were widely blamed for causing the post-Civil War opiate addiction epidemic by overprescribing opiates, and this blame was dangerous for physicians, who had a perilous position in the extraordinary competitive Gilded Age medical marketplace. The nineteenth-century American medical marketplace was remarkably democratic, and sick people could turn to a bewildering array of medical practitioners for health care. Throughout the Civil War era, physicians struggled to outcompete sectarian practitioners, patent medicine sellers, and so-called “quack” doctors. Something had to be done about prescription drug addiction, many physicians worried, because the problem threatened the profession’s reputation and commercial standing. Consequently, I argue, during the 1870s and 1880s, ex-military surgeons—men like Jacob Mendes Da Costa of Philadelphia’s Jefferson Medical College—urged their colleagues to prescribe opiates sparingly, thus creating fewer cases of opiate addiction. Not to be overlooked, this shift away from opiate medicines was a radical reversal of nineteenth-century American therapeutic practices, which relied heavily on opiates to treat all manner of ailments. Da Costa was a former Union army surgeon famous in his day for conducting research on cardiac distress among Union army soldiers and veterans. In an influential 1871 medical journal article, Da Costa urged his colleagues to refrain from prescribing opiates to men suffering from chronic pain, warning that there was “great risk of making the patient an opium eater”—a dual risk for patients' health and physicians’ reputations.  I suspected that Da Costa, for his part, practiced what he preached. That’s what brought me to Yale’s Medical Historical Library. Considering his firsthand knowledge of addiction, I wanted to investigate how Da Costa’s prescribing patterns might have differed from his peers in reaction to witnessing addiction among soldiers. After the Civil War, Da Costa set up shop in Philadelphia, where he taught clinical medicine at Jefferson Medical College. At Yale during the spring of 2019, I quantified Da Costa’s patient records from the Jefferson Medical College’s public teaching clinic in Philadelphia. They document the medical histories of thousands of individuals suffering from a wide variety of painful conditions. The records include detailed prescriptions, and a sample of 1,945 cases dating from October 1870 to October 1875 indicate that Da Costa and his trainees prescribed opiates to just 371 patients, or 19%. By comparison, Yale historian John Harley Warner has found that about 42% of prescriptions from a comparable public hospital in Boston during the 1870s contained opiates—more than double the rate of Da Costa’s Philadelphia clinic. In other words, Da Costa and his medical trainees relied much less heavily on addictive opiate medicines than their contemporaries. Considering Da Costa’s vocal warnings about prescription opiate addiction—knowledge he gleaned by observing addicted Civil War soldiers and veterans—the Jefferson Medical Clinic records reveal that the Civil War veterans’ opiate addiction epidemic had important ripple effects on American medical practices. Opiate medicines, long-time staples in the doctor’s black bag, soon declined precipitously in American medicine. As I argue in my book, ex-army doctors like Da Costa, who were alarmed by veterans’ prescription opiate addiction, led the movement away from opiates. The research that led to these surprising findings would have been impossible without a Ferenc Gyorgyey Research Grant from Yale’s Medical Historical Library. By facilitating access to Da Costa’s rare clinical records, the grant played an essential role in my dissertation research and ongoing book project. About Jonathan S. Jones Jonathan S. Jones is the inaugural Postdoctoral Scholar in Civil War History at Penn State’s George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center in 2020-21, where he is currently preparing a book manuscript on opiate addiction in the Civil War era for publication. The project is derived from his dissertation on the same topic, defended at Binghamton University in June 2020. Jonathan’s recent publications include an article in The Journal of the Civil War Era’s June 2020 issue titled “Opium Slavery: Civil War Veterans and Opiate Addiction.” After Penn State, Jonathan will be joining the Department of History at Virginia Military Institute (VMI) as an Assistant Professor starting in August 2021. Connect with Jonathan on Twitter at @_jonathansjones or at jonathansjones.net. 

Finding Fulton in the Historical Library

September 14, 2020 - 3:41pm by Melissa Grafe

While Harvey Cushing was the impetus behind the formation of Yale’s Medical Library, you can find materials on the other founders, John Fulton and Arnold Klebs, within the Historical Library’s main reading room.   John Fulton, the youngest of the three founders of the Historical Library, trained in medicine and physiology at Harvard and Oxford, and came to Yale in 1930 as professor of physiology. He was already deep into collecting books when he served as a resident and disciple of Harvey Cushing at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. The two men shared a close friendship based on both scientific and historical interests. Like Cushing, Fulton became a bibliophile, bibliographer, and historian. His special collecting interest was physiological works from the 16th to 18th century. In addition to his major texts in physiology, Fulton authored or coauthored biographies of Harvey Cushing, Benjamin Silliman, and Michael Servetus, and bibliographies of Fracastoro’s poem Syphilis, Luigi Galvani and his nephew Aldini, Richard Lower and John Mayow, Joseph Priestley, Robert Boyle, and early works on anesthesia. Fulton became the first chairman of the Department of History of Medicine at Yale in 1951 with offices across the hall from the Historical Library offices. In 1956, Fulton wrote in his diary that his wife Lucia “had been at me to have a portrait done, and since Deane Keller [who had done Harvey Cushing’s portrait] thinks I am hopeless as a sitter and has refused to persevere with the several he started some years ago, I felt free to go to Sir Gerald.”  So began a summer of sittings for the portrait of John Fulton sitting on the left side of the fire place in the Medical Historical Library.  Sir Gerald Festus Kelly, who had painted portraits of the royal family including Queen Elizabeth, met with John Fulton for 40 sittings in the summer of 1956.  The first sitting, from 2:30-6:45, involved Fulton stepping up on his platform and sitting in a “rather stiff Victorian armchairs with sundry pillows on the seat since my arm seem to be shorter than those of most of his subjects.”  Over the course of the sitting, Fulton heard stories about Kelly’s interactions with artists such as Renoir.  Fulton was “completely fascinated by the man,” and the time passed pleasantly until a series of photographs of Fulton were taken at the end of the session. “A series of loud and devastating expletives coming out from under the hood; his private photographer would have to take his vacation at this wrong time!”  However, a secretary came in, grabbed the negatives, and stated she would develop and print them for Kelly.  Fulton went home feeling that he had had “a cosmic experience.” Ensuing diary entries capture the details of sitting for the portrait, and more on Gerald Kelly, who had a variety of humorous and interesting anecdotes about various artists and prominent figures of the 20th century.  Fulton wrote that in the final portrait, he is sitting at his desk in the Historical Library, although Kelly had never seen his desk, and used photographs to fill in details.  Behind Fulton, there are representations of his books and diaries, which he wrote in from 1915-1960.  The portrait currently hangs in the back of the Medical Historical, to the left side of the fireplace.  

The DIY Historical Herbarium

June 1, 2020 - 11:03am by Melissa Grafe

Written by Alicia Petersen, PhD student, History of Science and Medicine Program (HSHM) Herbaria, collections of dried plant specimens that were (usually) adhered to sheets of paper, were very popular in 18th-century Europe. From professional botanists exploring the Americas to amateur scientists roaming the fields near their homes, many used herbaria to store preserved plants for later study. In order to better understand how early moderns “did” science, I decided to create my own herbarium (see the page below) following the guidelines for plant collection and preservation detailed in 18th-century British manuals. The simple act of following directions ended up being a bit more challenging than I had anticipated! Sitting on my bedroom floor, surrounded by an assortment of plant cuttings, I read and re-read 18th-century botanist William Withering’s instructions for plant preservation. Withering’s famous works contain directives like the following: “… specimens may be dried tolerably well between the leaves of a large folio book, laying other books upon it to give the necessary pressure: but in all cases too much pressure must be avoided.” (A botanical arrangement of British plants…, pg. xlvi) I couldn’t help thinking: that’s it? Withering fails to give his readers any indication of how much pressure is too much, a seemingly important detail. Other ambiguities led to a variety of errors on my part, including the burnt fern specimen pictured below. What’s more, when it came time to identify the specimens I’d collected, I found myself even more perplexed. Unable to rely on photographs or iPhone apps, it quickly became that 18th-century botany was like a foreign language. I needed to be fluent, but unfortunately, I only understood about every fourth word. This made for quite the adventure. The Medical Historical Library’s collections served as an important resource as I went tromping through the past. For this project, one object was particularly stunning: an actual 18th-century herbarium, complete with plant specimens that are over 250 years old. The herbarium dates back to the 1760’s and has been attributed to Frenchman Jean Seris, who is thought to have been a student at Paris’ Académie Royal de Chirurgie. While I relied on manuals like Withering’s to guide my collecting practices, I followed Seris’ example for format and layout. Perhaps my biggest takeaway from this project was the immense amount of knowledge required to engage in 18th-century natural history. Interacting with Seris’ herbarium, an object that represents knowledge in practice, provided even greater insight. By reading this “book of nature,” I was able to see 18th-century plants both through Seris’ eyes and my own. Below: Pages from Jean Seris’s Herbarium with dried specimens, 1761
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