Rare Book Collections

Harvey Cushing is well known as the founder of modern neurosurgery. Much of his energy and time was also devoted to his passion of collecting books and manuscripts. The Cushing Collection, which was bequeathed to Yale along with the collections of John F. Fulton and Arnold Klebs, formed the beginning of the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library collections. The Cushing Collection includes over 15,000 volumes and represents one of the greatest collections in the fields of science and medicine ever brought together by a private person.

Cushing was primarily interested in collecting works in the history of anatomy but also collected more broadly acquiring history of surgery, medicine, astronomy, alchemy, herbals, geology, manuscripts and incunabula. Collecting over decades he acquired a vast bibliographic knowledge and compiled a collection that includes the most important and unique books in medicine and science.

Harvey Cushing collected widely in medicine and science, including a surprising number of works pertaining to alchemy and natural magic. The books currently on display highlight parts of the alchemical collection residing in the Medical Historical Library.

Explore the exhibition in the Cushing Center following these descriptions, beginning with the first case at the bottom of the ramp on your left, and wrapping around towards the emergency exit door.


Hermes Trismegistus.

Corpus Hermeticum. Latin & Greek.

Parisiis, Apud Adr. Turnebum ..., 1554.

The earliest surviving alchemical texts contain recipes for transforming lead and copper into silver and gold. These texts are generally traced back to Hermes Trismegistus, a synthesis of two mediator gods: Hermes, a messenger, and Thoth, god of writing. Hermes Trismegistus transcribed his secrets on an emerald tablet.


Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (Agrippa).

Of the vanitie and vncertaintie of artes and sciences.

Imprinted at London, By Henry Wykes ... , anno 1569.

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa was a low German noble and Renaissance man whose financial woes and search for a patron led him to write and study widely, often including the occult. After his initial explorations, Agrippa attempted to return to pure Christianity for the pursuit of knowledge, but three years later published his On the Occult Philosophy.

Agrippa described the use of “natural magic” to harness the latent powers in the universe. Here, the natural in “natural magic” signified a moral legitimacy as compared to an illegitimate, unacceptable unnatural magic.


Saint Albertus Magnus.

Ein Newer Albertus Magnus. Von Weibern vnd Geburten der Kinder.

[Franckfurdt, H. Gülfferich] 1549.

Albertus Magnus was a thinker who believed that alchemy could be useful in understanding Aristotle, and advocated for its inclusion in university curricula. Albertus wanted a clearer, philosophical mode of alchemy free from the hidden meanings that might complicate good Christian practice, a separation not successfully popularized until the seventeenth century’s new experimental science.


Marsilio Ficino.

Les trois livres de la vie.

Paris, Pour Abel l'Angelier, Libraire Iuré, 1582.

Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) strove to sanitize natural magic to make it acceptable in the Christian tradition. As a Catholic priest, Ficino’s embrace of the religious and ritual aspects of alchemy got him into trouble with the Inquisition.  Fortunately, Ficino had friends in high places who were able to smooth things over.



Aurora thesaurusque philosophorum.

Basileae, [Thomas Guarinus], 1577.

Paracelsus (1493-1541), less commonly known as Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus Von Hohenheim, was an individualist, a renegade, and a heretic. Whereas many 16th century intellectuals favored book learning and theorization, Paracelsus did not merely want to study ancient texts; he believed that that theory needed practice.

Paracelsus used alchemical techniques to uncover hidden properties in nature. For example, he saw usual 16th century medical treatments, like diet, purgatives, and bloodletting, as primitive methods as likely to kill a patient as to cure them, and employed tools like distillation to uncover the hidden medicinal properties of plants and minerals. For Paracelsus, alchemy was the only way to open natural bodies to find the reality underlying their surface appearance.


Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.

Ionnis Pici Mirandulae omnia opera.

Paris, Jean Petit, 1517.

At the age of 23, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, son of a minor prince, published 900 theses that made theological and Cabalistic conclusions. Pope Innocent VIII declared 13 of these theses heretical, and when Pico refused to retract them and instead defended his orthodoxy, the rest were similarly condemned. Pico’s text claimed that all philosophical and religious traditions represented the same fundamental truth, and that a good philosopher could excavate their common teachings using complex modes of interpreting scripture and philosophy. Pico understood the universe to be constructed in a way that is very much in conversation with alchemical practice.


Roger Bacon.

The cure of old age, and preservation of youth.

London, Printed for Tho. Flesher and Edward Evets, 1683.


De l’admirable pouvoir et puissance de l’art, & nature.

À Lyon, Par Macé Bonhomme, 1557.

Roger Bacon was a 13th century philosopher and Franciscan friar who advocated the use of observation and experimentation in studying the natural world. During Bacon’s lifetime, the Christian church was threatened by the way alchemical teachings challenged the authority of revelation. From this perspective, if alchemy could transcend nature and harness cosmic forces, humans might think that they can know things like a god.


John French.

The art of distillation.

London, Printed by R. Cotes, and are to be sold by T. Williams, 1651.

Distilled alcohol has a long alchemical history as aqua vitae (water of life) and aqua ardens (burning water). The act of distillation not only concentrated the alcohol, but enhanced its spiritual properties as well. Alcohol miraculously embodied the properties of all four elements: wet, but rapidly drying; cold, but flammable. Moreover, alcohol preserved organic material, promising great medicinal applications and longevity.

John French, an English physician and noted translator of Agrippa, produced this definitive early text on distillation. The Cushing Center currently has 4 editions of French’s work on display.


Nicholas Flamel.

His exposition of the hieroglyphicall figures.

London, Imprinted by T. S[nodham] for T. Walkley, 1624.

Nicolas Flamel (1340-1418) was a wealthy Parisian scribe and benefactor. Reports of his alchemical activities emerged more than two centuries after his death, and there is no evidence that Flamel actually practiced alchemy or that his long life was preternaturally enhanced.


Francis Bacon.

Sylva sylvarvm, or A naturall history in ten centuries.

London, Printed for W. Lee, 1631.

Francis Bacon’s new methodology of science eliminated the uncritical interpretation of ancient sources and valued reason over imagination. However, while Bacon rejected the symbolic interpretations that were an important part of alchemical practice, he had a respect for values associated with alchemy, such as the importance of experience and the power of technology to expand reality, hold nature in subjugation, and reveal or create what is nowhere present.

In his New Atlantis, Bacon used a fictional story to illustrate these experimental ideals. He discusses the faraway land Bensalem, where technological marvels are rooted in occult traditions. This society is so advanced that, to the humble sailors who arrive there, Bensalem’s technologies look like magic. 


John Dee.

Parallaticae commentationis praxeosque nucleus quidam.

Londini, apud J. Dayum, 1573.


[A true & faithful] relation of what passed for many yeers between Sr. John Dee ... and some spirits.

London, Printed by D. Maxwell for T. Garthwait, 1659.

By the time John Dee (1527-1609) was studying math, astronomy, and alchemy, science and magic were starting to be treated as separate disciplines. For Dee, however, his occult and scientific works were part of a holistic worldview. Drawing from the work of Plato and Pythagorus, Dee believed that the world was composed of numbers, and that humans could access divine powers and occult properties through the proper use of these foundational numbers.


George Starkey.

Natures explication and Helmont's vindication.

London, Printed by E. Cotes for Thomas Alsop, 1657.


George Starkey.

A brief examination and censure of several medicines, of late years extol'd for universal remedies...

London, Printed for the author, 1664.

George Starkey (1628-1655) was one of the most read American scientists prior to Benjamin Franklin and had a wide-reaching influence, including upon notable alchemist Isaac Newton. A successful doctor in New England, Starkey travelled across the Atlantic in search of better alchemical equipment in London, where he connected with Robert Boyle.


Isaac Newton.

Handwritten pages from Index chemicus.

[London? ; ca. 1700].

Popular Enlightenment narratives brush aside the relevance of Isaac Newton’s alchemical practice within his body of work. However, far from an eccentric hobby, alchemy was central to Newton’s search for a unified theory of matter and energy.

Like many alchemists, Newton understood science as a project of rediscovery, and saw himself as an adept who could reconstruct lost wisdom. Newton was not convinced that the interactions of particles were purely mechanical (i.e. the clockwork universe) and instead turned to alchemy to explain action at a distance. He believed that matter contained a vital essence, a subtle spirit that brought life to matter and could be distilled out.