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Blood, bones, smallpox, herbs, cadavers at the Huntington Library

November 17, 2008 | 12:55 pm


If you like old, old books and you're curious about the history of medicine, check out a permanent  exhibition recently opened at the Huntington Library in San Marino. Stroll through the rose garden, maybe sip a nice cup of tea, then pop into the Dibner Hall of the History of Science where you'll see:

-- prints of elegantly posed human bodies peeling back their own skins;

-- 16th century herbal books filled with illustrations of plants and their medical uses;


-- a little ivory figure of a pregnant woman that was used to teach students in the 1500s -- you can take the front of the abdomen off and see the baby underneath;

-- a book by the "first microbiologist," Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, who was the first to view single-celled organisms (he called them "animalcules") including some from matter between his own teeth;

-- the oldest illustrated printed medical textbook, from the 15th century, by Johannes de Ketham, opened at an image of a dissection;

-- so-called overlay drawings by Andreas Vesalius that allowed one to peel back layers of a human body and see the anatomical structures that lie underneath, with a replica for the museum-visitor to play with;

-- a book by Edward Jenner, discoverer of vaccination. It's open at the page at which he tries his cowpox vaccine against smallpox on an 8-year-old boy and an illustration of the resulting pustule and red radiation on the boy's arm; 

-- a 1610 reprint (you know, modern) of the works of the Greek physician Hippocrates in which he declared, among other things, that "blood ... through the mouth is bad, but through the bowels, less bad." (Is that true?)

Roll up, roll up for books on blood flow, books on head anatomy and a richly illustrated text on how to treat battle injuries that really shouldn't be looked at too soon after having that nice tea. And of course there's more in this display than medicine: A section on natural history features lots of Darwin and lots of plants; a display on light carries a cool collection of Edison light bulbs; and a section on astronomy comes with works by such notables as Aristotle, Copernicus, Galileo.

Some of the art in these old science and medicine books is so gorgeous that I seriously coveted posters to take away with me. There weren't any -- disappointing. I did, however, snag a shopping bag decorated by Robert Hooke's famous flea (below).


-- Rosie Mestel


Twins. From George Spratt, Obstetric Tables, London, 1841. Photo credit: Huntington Library

Aloe from an early herbal, a book describing plants and their uses. From Hieronymus Bock, Neu Kreuterbuch (New Plant Book), Strasburg, 1551. Photo credit: Huntington Library

Flea under magnification. From Robert Hooke, Micrographia, London, 1665. Photo credit: Huntington Library