The Collections of the Countway Library

Virtually all of the great works in the history of medicine can be found in the Countway’s Rare Books and Special Collections department. There are particular strengths in medical incunabula—over 800 books printed before 1501—European books printed from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century, and English publications before 1800. The Countway also holds a comprehensive collection of American, particularly New England, medical imprints of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A number of significant special collections have been acquired, notably the libraries of physicians Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Collins Warren and his family, the anatomical library of Friedrich Tiedemann, the Solomon M. Hyams Collection of Hebraic Medical Literature, and the William Norton Bullard Collection of medical incunabula. The Countway’s collections are particularly rich in the diverse subject areas of anatomy, gynecology and obstetrics, radiology, medical jurisprudence, surgery, psychology, phrenology, medical botany, pharmacy and pharmacology, and internal medicine.

The Countway also collects manuscripts and personal papers of physicians from the medieval and Renaissance periods through the twentieth century, including the professional papers of many renowned Harvard faculty members as well as physicians and scientists from New England and around the country, notably Walter Bradford Cannon, Jacob Bigelow, Clarence J. Gamble, Henry Pickering Bowditch, John Collins Warren, Stanley Cobb, James Jackson Putnam, and Benjamin Waterhouse.

In addition to the manuscript collections, the Countway preserves and maintains the archives—the official minutes, correspondence, reports, publications, and other records—of the Harvard Medical School, School of Dental Medicine, and School of Public Health. The Countway also serves as a repository for the archives and official historical documents of many other medical institutions and organizations, including the Massachusetts Medical Society, the New England Röntgen Ray Society, and the Dorchester Medical Club, and houses the collections which form the National Archives of Plastic Surgery.

The Rare Books and Special Collections department holds a print and photographic collection of some 100,000 items, along with other works of fine art, such as the painting First Operation under Ether by Robert C. Hinckley, portraits by Gilbert Stuart and Rembrandt Peale, the Manfred Kraemer Collection of Medical Prints and Satires, and the Horatio R. Storer Collection of Medical Medals.

Portrait of John Clark

Portrait of John Clark, circa 1664

Born and educated in England, John Clark (1598?-1664) then emigrated to Newbury, Massachusetts, where he was known for his work in lithotomy and said to be the first educated physician to reside in New England. He settled in Boston in 1650 and supposedly was the first physician in this country to perform the operation of trepanning the skull.

This work by an unknown artist is one of the earliest American portraits and the only one known of a New England physician of the 17th century.

Gift of Sarah W. Pickering and Hepsie S. Howard to the Boston Medical Library, 1901

The Boston Medical Library

The first attempt to organize a free-standing library of medical literature in Boston was made by Doctors John Collins Warren and James Jackson in 1805, but the independence of this Boston Medical Library was short-lived. Although catalogs of its books and journals were published, the collections were absorbed by the Boston Athenaeum in 1826.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, as the move toward scientific medicine promoted an explosive growth of medical literature, physicians perceived a need for a separate library to serve the Boston community. In 1875, Dr. James Read Chadwick formally organized the Boston Medical Library Association—later the Boston Medical Library—to collect books, pamphlets, and medical periodicals and make this material accessible to the practicing physician. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes served as the Library’s first president and was one of its foremost advocates. It quickly became one of the largest medical library collections in the United States. Today, the Boston Medical Library is a physicians’ non-profit organization incorporated "to establish and maintain a Library of Medicine and the Allied Sciences and the promotion and advancement of medical science and education." It serves as a resource for the medical school faculties and students of Harvard Medical School, Boston University Medical School, Tufts University School of Medicine and the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In 1982, the Boston Medical Library also became the library for the Massachusetts Medical Society.



Incunabula and Early Manuscripts

Incunabula or incunables are the very first examples of books, pamphlets, and broadsides printed with moveable type in Western Europe. The Countway Library of Medicine, with over 800 specimens, holds the largest collection of medical incunabula in this country and one of the finest collections of this type in the world.

When the Boston Medical Library and Harvard Medical Library allied to form the Countway Library of Medicine in 1965, the rare books of both collections were brought together in one building to form an extraordinary treasure house of medical history. The holdings of the Harvard Medical Library include some ten incunables in its Warren Library collection, and a few additional volumes have been acquired for the Countway by purchase and gift since its opening. But nearly all of the incunables here belong to the Boston Medical Library, and these volumes represent an unusual effort to build a library that never was—a working medical collection of a Renaissance scholar in the United States. The annual report of the Boston Medical Library for 1930 outlined the intention behind its acquisition of incunabula in this way: "It is to be noted that every book added to the collection is in conformity with a definite plan formulated for the building up of a replica of an independent medical library of the late 15th century." So numerous were the acquisitions and so varied were the holdings that, by 1944, it was asserted that at least one edition of virtually every book of medical interest produced before 1501 could be found in the Boston Medical Library’s collection.

The famous names and the earliest editions of the great works in medicine, from Greek antiquity through the late medieval and Renaissance period, including Hippocrates, Celsus, Galen, Ugo Benzi, Bernard of Gordon, Hieronymus Brunschwig, Guy de Chauliac, Marsilio Ficino, and Michele Savonarola are all well represented in the collection. Sir William Osler, in his Incunabula Medica (1923), identifies the De Sermonum Proprietate (Strassburg, circa 1467) of Rabanus Maurus as the first printed book containing a chapter devoted to medicine, and the Boston Medical Library holds a copy of even this rare item.

Complementing the incunables is a collection of seventy-eight medieval and Renaissance medical manuscripts, including works of Aristotle, Albertus Magnus, Avicenna, Bernard of Gordon, Isaac Israeli, Rhazes, and Johannes Trithemius. Written in Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic, with the oldest dating from the early 13th century, the manuscripts concern such diverse subjects as fever treatments, poisons, astrology, phlebotomy, demonology, and the therapeutic powers of gemstones.

Saint RochPestblatt

(Augsburg, circa 1473)

This broadside sheet was printed during an epidemic of plague in the German city of Augsburg in the early 1470s. The woodcut depicts Saints Sebastian and Roch (accompanied by an angel) comforting those struck down by the plague. Prayers to the two saints are printed below. The aid of Saint Sebastian, a third century martyr, was frequently invoked in cases of plague, and the intercession of Saint Roch (d. 1327) was said to be responsible for the end of an outbreak of plague in the city of Constance in 1414.

Purchased for the Boston Medical Library, circa 1932

Physicians in consultationHortus Sanitatis
(Mainz : Jacob Meydenbach, 23 June 1491)

The Hortus Sanitatis ["Garden of Health"] was a common compendium of plant and herb lore during the Middle Ages. This is the first edition, and the existence of twenty others printed in Latin before 1547 attests to the work’s popularity. In addition to botanical information, the Hortus Sanitatis contains tracts on fish, birds, and other animals; mining and gemstones; and this work on the analysis of urine. The woodcut shows a consultation between physicians in a sick room.

Purchased for the Boston Medical Library, 1934

Joannes de Ketham (15th century)
Fasciculus Medicinae
(Venice : Johannes et Gregorius de Gregoriis, 26 July 1491)

Although notable as one of the first incunables acquired by the Boston Medical Library, this first edition of the Fasciculus Medicinae is also a cornerstone in the history of medicine, as it contains the first detailed anatomical illustrations ever printed. There are six woodcuts in the Fasciculus: a circle of urine glasses; a diagram of the veins for phlebotomy; a pregnant woman; a chart of wounds and one of diseases; and this second phlebotomy diagram, associating the parts of the body with the signs of the Zodiac.

One of Librarian James Francis Ballard’s earliest recollections of his 63-year employment at the Boston Medical Library was a meeting with Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes—a nearly unlikely event given that Ballard only began work as an office boy in 1892 and Dr. Holmes died in 1894. Dr. Holmes had come to the library to compare its recently acquired copy of the Fasciculus Medicinae with his own.

Gift of Dr. John Homans to the Boston Medical Library, 1893

Eclipse of the Moon

Jacobus Honiger
Almanach ad Annum 1494
(Nuremberg : Caspar Hochfeder, circa 1493)

Almanacs were used to record the most propitious days and times for purging, bloodletting, and pharmaceutical manufacture according to astrological and astronomical events. This specimen for the city of Erfurt in 1494 includes woodcuts depicting solar and lunar eclipses.

Purchased for the Boston Medical Library, 1933



De Lapidibus, 13th century

Marbode, Bishop of Rennes (1035-1123)
De Lapidibus : manuscript, early 13th century

Bishop Marbode of Rennes was a poet, teacher, and scholar of the late eleventh century. His most well-known work, De Lapidibus ["On Gemstones"], is a treatise describing the medicinal, therapeutic, and magical properties of sixty different jewels. These two leaves describe the properties of chalcedony, emerald [smaragdus], sardonyx, onyx, sard, chrysolite, beryl, and topaz.

De Lapidibus was one of the most popular works of scientific and medical lore current in the Middle Ages. Translations into French, Spanish, Irish, Hebrew, and English are known, while over 125 Latin manuscripts have survived. This is one of only three manuscripts of De Lapidibus in the United States.

Purchased for the Solomon M. Hyams Collection of the Boston Medical Library, 1932

The Solomon M. Hyams Collection of Hebraic Medical Literature

In 1930, the Godfrey M. Hyams Trust presented the Boston Medical Library with $25,000 to build and maintain a collection of rare books and manuscript materials on Jewish medicine and science. Early manuscripts and a 1491 edition of the Canon Medicinae of Avicenna—the only medical work to be printed in Hebrew during the 15th century—form the cornerstone of the Hyams Collection. A 1593 manuscript outlining the privileges granted to Jews in Pisa and Livorno by Ferdinand III, Grand Duke of Tuscany, includes the right to practice medicine. Other rare items include first editions of the Aphorismi Secundum Doctrinam Galeni (1489), De Astrologia (1555) and De Regimine Sanitatis (circa 1481) of Maimonides, the Liber Elhavi (1486) of Rhazes, early works on circumcision, and Garcia de Orta’s Coloquios dos Simples, e Drogas he Cousas Mediçinais da India—the third book to be published in India. Another jewel of the Hyams Collection is the Hand-apparat, a 4,000-item pamphlet collection of August von Wassermann (1866-1925), the German bacteriologist who worked with Robert Koch and devised a test for syphilis.




Isaac IsraeliIsaac Israeli (circa 832-932)
De Febribus : manuscript, circa 1250

This manuscript tract on the treatment of fever was written in Montpellier, France, in the middle of the thirteenth century. The initial illustration is probably intended to depict the tenth century physician and philosopher, Isaac Israeli, teaching or lecturing. The manuscript is one of the oldest in the Countway Library and also the first item acquired for the Hyams Collection.

Purchased for the Solomon M. Hyams Collection of the Boston Medical Library, 1930

Tobias ben Moses Cohn (1652-1729)
Ma’aseh Tobiyyah

(Venice : nella Stamparia Bragadini, 1707-1708)

Polish physician Tobias ben Moses Cohn knew nine languages and was court physician to five sultans in Adrianople. The Ma’aseh Tobiyyah ["Works of Tobias"] is an encyclopedia of theology, botany, astronomy, and medicine. The illustration here compares the organs of the human body to the rooms and functions of a house.

Purchased for the Solomon M. Hyams Collection of the Boston Medical Library, 1934


Avicenna (980-1037)
Canon Medicinae

(Naples : Azriel ben Joseph de Gunzenhausen, 9 November 1491)

The Canon medicinae, a compendium of medical knowledge and a guide to clinical teaching, was derived from Galenic writings and infused by Avicenna with Arabic medical lore. The first three books were printed in Latin in 1472, and a complete edition appeared the following year. The text itself was read in the medical schools at Montpellier and Louvain as late as 1650, and Arnold C. Klebs described it as "one of the most significant intellectual phenomena of all times." Avicenna’s Canon was translated into Hebrew in 1279. The edition displayed here is the first appearance of the Canon in print as well as the first printing of a medical treatise in Hebrew—and the only one produced during the fifteenth century.

Purchased for the Solomon M. Hyams Collection of the Boston Medical Library, 1931

Canon Medicinae : manuscript, 1463

The manuscript copy, written by Mordechai bar Elia in a rabbinical hand, was formerly in the library of Prince Dietrichstein of Nikolsburg.

Purchased for the Solomon M. Hyams Collection of the Boston Medical Library, 1933


Robert KochRobert Koch (1843-1910)
Ueber Schwarzwasserfieber (Hämoglobinurie)

from the Zeitschrift für Hygiene und Infectionskrankheiten, 1899

The Hyams Collection includes the Hand-apparat, an extensive working pamphlet collection of August von Wassermann (1866-1925), a German bacteriologist who worked with Robert Koch and discovered the Wassermann test for syphilis. This item on blackwater fever, a form of malaria, is a presentation copy from Koch to Wassermann.

Purchased for the Solomon M. Hyams Collection of the Boston Medical Library, 1933

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