Rochester Medicine

Tradition: A Rare Repository of Medical Knowledge

Jan. 31, 2014

Chris Hoolihan with rare bookLibrarian Christopher Hoolihan, M.L.S., thought the young undergraduate’s face looked, well, kind of odd. She was leaving the Miner Library rare books section after spending the entire day poring over texts from the 1800s. She had been doing research for her paper on hysteria in 19th century women. The literature described all sorts of symptoms, including vertigo, a creeping feeling under the skin, agitation, hot flashes, and a weakness in the knees.

About 10 minutes later, Hoolihan heard a call on the loudspeaker directing an emergency response team to the library’s restroom. The responders found the young woman in her own state of “hysteria,” exhibiting many of the afflictions she had been reading about. They whisked her over to the emergency room, where doctors quickly settled her down.

While this is an extreme case, it’s not uncommon for visitors to lose themselves in Miner’s rare books collection. It is the kind of place where people come with a singular purpose, and leave with so much more. The person might be a surgeon, intent on drafting a speech about the history of his specialty. She might be a historical novelist seeking nautical medicine expertise for her 18th-century seafaring characters. She might be a resident tracking down an early description of a disorder to use during Grand Rounds, or a researcher probing for a citation that describes the first application of a drug.

“When they get that pile of books in front of them, they are easily diverted and usually wish they had more time,” says Hoolihan, who has been at Miner for nearly three decades. “It’s hard for many of them to get up and walk away.”

Rare Book CollectionThe oldest book in the collection is a Latin treatise on stopping the spread of plague. Written sometime around 1485, the small manuscript offers this preventive advice for readers: Leave Rome. The Herbal, published in London in 1633, has a prescription to cure “green sickness” in young maidens. The girls are advised to boil chopped watercress in “broth of flesh,” and then eat it morning, noon and night for 30 days. This, of course, will return “lively color” to their cheeks. Another book, Mosquito or Man?, is an early exploration into the transmission of yellow fever. The library’s outstanding array of pre-1800 anatomical atlases includes a first edition of Andreas Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica.

“I think what surprises readers the most is how much people knew 500 years ago. Students are amazed to see how perfectly accurate gross anatomy was,” says Hoolihan, turning the linen pages of Fabrica to show hundreds of meticulously drawn dissections.

The book is rare, yes, but it’s also available to the masses through the National Library of Medicine’s online archive. With the click of a mouse, you can flip virtual pages. As you hover over pictures or sections of text, boxes pop up and provide additional insight into the material. You can launch the magnifying tool to study the prints closely. This technology is undoubtedly why fewer people are using the rare books housed at Miner.

But Hoolihan believes something is truly lost in the electronic translation.

“When you are handling 17th- and 18th-century volumes, you feel continuity with the past, with the person whose book you are holding. When you look at a screen, it’s just an image. It is entirely different.”

To see an interactive, online version of Andreas Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica, click here.