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William Osler, W. J. Calvert, and MU’s Vesalius

This post is by Amanda Sprochi, Health Sciences Cataloger at the J. Otto Lottes Health Sciences Library.

Often called “the Father of Modern Medicine,” William Osler was a Canadian physician, pathologist, and internist who established the programs of clinical clerkship and medical residency still in use in medical schools today. One of the four founders of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, he continued his career as the Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University and later was conferred a baronetcy and knighted.

Osler was from an early age a lover of books, and as his career advanced (and his salary along with it) he became a collector of rare medical volumes, such as the De Humani Corporis Fabrica he donated to the University of Missouri Medical School. He was known to buy works for libraries whose collections were lacking particular volumes, or to encourage other philanthropists to donate them. His own library eventually numbered 8,000 volumes, which he detailed in an extensive bibliography called the Bibliotheca Osleriana. Osler’s collection was donated to McGill University upon his death where it forms the core of the Osler Library of the History of Medicine.

Sir William Osler donated a copy of Vesalius’ seminal work, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, to the University of Missouri Medical School Library in 1909. In his entry on Vesalius in the Bibliotheca Osleriana, he mentions donating a copy to the University of Missouri “to my old student and friend Calvert, at that time Professor of Anatomy.” He indicates in the Bibliotheca that at the time, copies of the Fabrica were “numerous and very often appear in sale catalogues at prices ranging from 10 to 20 varying with the condition.” It is safe to say that the days of buying a first edition of Vesalius’ work for $30-$40 are long over.

There is a bit of mystery involved with the MU Fabrica. In his original letter to the Medical Faculty, Osler mentions that he is sending a first edition, published 1543. In fact, the volume he sent was a second edition, published in 1555, as evidenced by the frontispiece and the number of lines per page. The 1543 edition has 57 lines per page; the 1555 has 49. There are also differences in the frontispiece between the first and second editions, the most notable being the staff held by the skeleton in the center of the image, which changes from a pole to a scythe, as well as content differences between the two editions. The MU Fabrica was rebound sometime in the 18th or 19th century, however, and the spine was stamped 1543 in Roman numerals. Whether this was a mistake or was done to fool unwary buyers is unknown.

Osler purchased a number of Fabricas in his lifetime, and was a well-known and expert collector of rare medical texts. It is unlikely that he would not have known the difference between the 1543 and 1555 editions of the book. It is equally unlikely that he would have deliberately sent one volume masquerading as the other. Perhaps he simply grabbed and sent the wrong one. At any rate, the gift was a priceless one in honor of a much-favored student and friend, and is a wonderful addition to the MU Library collection.

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Dr. Osler’s letter of donation to the University of Missouri Medical School, pasted onto the front board of the book’s nineteenth-century binding.

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The binding in which the MU Libraries received the copy of the Fabrica from Dr. Osler.

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The volume in its current conservation binding by Jim Downey at Legacy Bookbindery.

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Posted in Rare Book Collection

Vesalius at 500 exhibit opens today at Ellis Library

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December 31, 2014, will mark the five hundredth birthday of Andreas Vesalius, one of the most important anatomists in the history of medicine. The MU Libraries will commemorate this historic occasion with an exhibition entitled Vesalius at 500: Student, Scholar, and Surgeon, on view November 5-30 in the Ellis Library Colonnade.

Andreas Vesalius is frequently called the father of modern human anatomy. Born in 1514 in modern-day Belgium, he studied at the Universities of Louvain, Paris, and Padua before becoming a professor of anatomy and surgery at the University of Padua. His primary contribution to the history of medicine was his emphasis on dissection and firsthand observation. Vesalius differed from his colleagues because he used his observations to challenge ancient and often inaccurate Greek and Roman medical writings, which formed the basis of all medical knowledge for over a thousand years.

presentation-flyerVesalius at 500 showcases materials from the Libraries’ collections that helped to shape Vesalius’ career, including medieval manuscripts and early printed books on medicine. The centerpiece of the exhibition is Vesalius’ most famous work, De Humani Corporis Fabrica. The Libraries hold two copies of this important book, a second edition printed in 1555, and a later edition from 1568. Recognizing MU’s strength in human and animal medical research, the exhibition considers Vesalius’ effect on the history of veterinary medicine with several early illustrated works on animal anatomy. Works of Renaissance science are also included in order to situate Vesalius within the world of sixteenth-century scientific thought.

In conjunction with the exhibition, Dr. Gheorghe M. Constantinescu, a professor of veterinary anatomy in the College of Veterinary Medicine at MU, will present “Andreas Vesalius: On the 500th Anniversary of His Birth” on November 12 at 12:00 pm. Dr. Constantinescu is a medical illustrator and author investigating the gross anatomy of domestic and laboratory animals. His presentation will be held in room 4f51a in Ellis Library.

Vesalius at 500: Student, Scholar, and Surgeon is curated by a team of rare book librarians from the J. Otto Lottes Health Sciences Library, the Zalk Veterinary Medical Library, and Ellis Library’s Special Collections and Rare Books department. The exhibition draws on MU Libraries’ special collections of more than 100,000 original artworks, manuscripts, rare books, and historic documents. The collections, exhibition, and lecture are all free and open to the public.

The gallery below contains a selection of images from De Humani Corporis Fabrica, and we will share more materials from the exhibition over the course of November.

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Johannes de Sacrobosco and the sphere of the universe

Contrary to what you may have learned in school, people in the Middle Ages knew quite well that the world was round.  Johannes de Sacrobosco made sure of that fact.

Sacrobosco was one of the leading astronomers, educators, and science communicators of the Middle Ages.  We don’t know very much about his life: he wrote during the early thirteenth century, might have been English, and likely spent his career at the University of Paris.  Even with this lack of personal information, Sacrobosco was a household name among scholars.  Everybody who studied astronomy from the thirteenth century through the seventeenth century started out by reading his books.  You might think of him as the medieval equivalent of Carl Sagan – but with much more staying power.

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Using compelling visuals and simple language, Sphaera was a beginning astronomy textbook that taught generations of people to think about the basic math and science that underlay their experience of the natural world.  The text was so popular that it still exists in hundreds of medieval manuscript copies, and it may have been the very first astronomical work to be printed.  Between 1472 and 1673, over two hundred printed editions were published, keeping it continuously in print for two centuries, a record unmatched by any other text on astronomy.  Even after it was superseded by newer knowledge, publishers issued the book with commentaries to keep it up-to-date.

Sphaera has four chapters dealing with spherical nature of the universe, spheres in the heavens, the heavens as observed from various geographic points on Earth (which illustrates that the Earth itself is a sphere), and an explanation of Ptolemy’s theory of planetary motion and eclipses.   Printed editions of Sphaera included numerous images: geometric diagrams, naturalistic images, pictures of armillary spheres and other instruments.  One common diagram illustrates a ship and a tower to demonstrate the idea that the earth is spherical; the curvature of the ocean obstructs the view of the tower for the observer on the deck of the ship, while the observer on the mast is able to see it above the bulge of the water.

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In a recent article in the journal Isis, Kathleen Crowther and Peter Barker argued that the images in Sphaera are meant to train the inner eye and help the reader develop his own mental model of the cosmos.  Some editions had volvelles that could be turned with the fingers, but in most printings of Sphaera, the reader was expected to manipulate the images mentally.  We decided to help ourselves (and you all) by turning some of the diagrams from the 1569 edition into gifs that move on their own. Watch the universe spin!

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Spinning gifs aside, Sacrobosco’s work was an important introduction to Ptolemaic astronomy, and the diagrams and other illustrations were important because they helped readers visualize his ideas.  Sacrobosco’s text provided a basis for later work by Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler.  In some sense, our own understanding of the cosmos adds to or corrects the mental models he started building over seven centuries ago.

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We have two editions of Sphaera in Special Collections: one published in Paris in 1572, and another published in Venice in 1569 (that’s the one we’re showing here). Both were edited and augmented by the French mathematician and historian Elie Vinet. The 1569 Venice edition was reprinted from the Paris edition of the same year (the note “Ex postrema impressione Lutetiae” means “From the final Paris impression”). While many editions of Sphaera can be found in rare book libraries throughout the United States and Europe, the 1569 Venice edition seems to be a bit scarcer than most. A quick check of WorldCat reveals only three copies in research libraries in the United States; the bibliography and census of Sacrobosco editions maintained Roberto de Andrade Martins at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, reveals two additional copies, for a total of five.

Want to know more about Sacrobosco?  Check out these resources.

  • Roberto de Andrade Martins. Johannes de Sacrobosco: Editions of the Tractatus de Sphaera. University of São Paulo, Brazil, n.d.
  • Kathleen M. Crowther and Peter Barker. “Training the Intelligent Eye: Understanding Illustrations in Early Modern Astronomy Texts.” Isis 104 (September 2013), pp. 429-470. doi:10.1086/673269
  • Adam Mosley, Johannes de Sacrobosco, University of Cambridge, 1999.
  • Olaf Pedersen, “In Quest of Sacrobosco.” Journal for the History of Astronomy 16 (1985), pp. 175-221.
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