It was 1925, with the Great Depression looming, but that didn’t stop Dr. George Washington Corner from building a library at the University of Rochester’s new School of Medicine and Dentistry. With the help of several prominent Rochester residents, the accomplished scholar traveled the globe to make it happen.
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"A lot of scholars feel you can’t be a complete physician unless you understand the history of your profession,” says Christopher Hoolihan, M.L.S., head of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Edward G. Miner Library. “You can’t understand where you’ve arrived unless you know how you arrived there, who went before you, what they thought, the mistakes they made, the good things they came up with.”
George Washington Corner was among the scholars who shared this sentiment. Corner was the first chair of Anatomy when the University of Rochester opened the School of Medicine and Dentistry in 1925. Corner was also tasked with building the school’s library from scratch. He began buying from booksellers in the United States and across Europe.
An accomplished scientist who was the first to isolate the hormone progesterone, Corner was also a respected historian with a great passion for the past. He convinced a leading local surgeon, Edward Wright Mulligan, to donate a considerable amount of money to create a history of medicine collection in the library. Mulligan, who was Kodak founder George Eastman’s friend and personal physician, donated $15,000.
“It was decided over many dinners, and many drinks probably,” laughs Hoolihan.
In 1929, the Depression hit. Because of the Mulligan fund, Corner was still able to buy books. Europe had been in a depression since the end of the first World War, so book prices were historically low. This allowed him to quickly grow the rare books collection, and he amassed thousands of volumes in several languages.
“He tried to buy as much material in English as he could, because he wanted this collection to be used by medical students who may not have Latin or Greek or even German, though German was a requirement to get into medical school in 1925,” says Hoolihan.
One of the focuses of the rare book collection was anatomical atlases printed before 1800. Corner found a first edition of De Humani Corporis Fabrica by Andreas Vesalius and many other major early atlases. Today, Miner boasts one of the best early anatomy collections in the country. Among the other specialties in rare books are the yellow fever and cholera collections.
“In fact, the yellow fever collection is so good that I find it very difficult to buy for the collection. We already have everything. Can’t say that too often,” says Hoolihan with a smile.
These collections were started after corner reached out to another friend – Edward G. Miner. A member of the university’s Board of Trustees, Miner was head of the Pfaudler Company, the world’s largest manufacturer of glass-lined steel containers. Miner did a lot of traveling in South America, where yellow fever was still rampant. In addition, cholera had never really been diminished in his lifetime. So he became interested in those two diseases and collected books and pamphlets.
In 1927, Miner donated 41 books on yellow fever to the medical school library – the first of many contributions that would span more than a quarter of a century. In 1952, on Miner’s 89th birthday, university officials renamed the library in his honor.