Medicine’s History, Illustrated

September 3, 2015

In the history of medicine, a small number of rare volumes from past centuries are renowned, important as much for their striking illustrations as their content. A few of these important texts were recently digitized by CUMC’s Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library, making them electronically available to all.

Bernhard Siegfried Albinus’ monumental anatomical atlas of 1749, "Tabulae Sceleti et Musculorum Corporis Humani" [Plates of the Skeleton and Muscles of the Human Body], is one of the best-known works in the history of anatomy. It features striking engravings of human skeletons standing before tombs, cherubs, and even the first living rhinoceros to reach Europe.

Plate IV from Joseph Pancoast’s "Treatise on Operative Surgery"

Plate IV from Joseph Pancoast’s "Treatise on Operative Surgery"(Philadelphia, 1844). The illustration shows an arteriotomy, or opening of an artery.

Another volume includes two works by Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty: "Anatomie de la Tête" (1748) [Anatomy of the Head] and "Myologie Complette en Couleur" (1746) [Complete Myology in Color].  Gautier-D’Agoty was an artist and engraver, not an anatomist, and his works, while scientifically unimportant, are noted for their bold use of color and sometimes weird and fantastic images of the human body.

Joseph Pancoast’s "Treatise on Operative Surgery" (Philadelphia, 1844) is a landmark of 19th century American surgical writing. It is particularly noted for its excellent chapters on plastic surgery, but it also contains significant sections on neurological and ophthalmic operations. The 486 illustrations on 80 plates are outstanding for their accuracy and detail and made this work an American medical best-seller with about 4,000 copies sold over nine years.

Myologie Complette en Couleur

Image from the recently digitized Myologie Complette en Couleur (1746) by Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty.

The digitization of these works is a collaborative effort among the University Libraries’ departments and is part of a conservation project to restore and repair rare books held by the Health Sciences Library’s Archives & Special Collections. The volumes are first treated by professional conservators at Columbia University Libraries’ Conservation Laboratory. They are then digitized by the Imaging Laboratory, part of the Libraries’ Preservation & Digital Conversion Division.

The volumes can be found via CLIO, the Columbia University Libraries Online Public Access Catalog. They also have been added to the Medical Heritage Library, a digital curation collaborative among some of the world’s leading medical libraries, of which Columbia is a founding member. There it joins almost 100,000 digital titles in the history of the health sciences contributed by libraries from across the United States and Great Britain.

The Health Sciences Library’s conservation project is funded by the Jerome P. Webster Endowment, bequeathed to the library by Dr. Webster, Columbia’s first professor of plastic surgery, who was also a prominent historian of medicine and bibliophile.