The Earliest Works in Medicine
Incunabula or incunables are the very first examples of books, pamphlets, and broadsides printed with moveable type in Western Europe. The Countway Library of Medicine, with over 800 specimens, holds the largest collection of medical incunabula in this country and one of the finest collections of this type in the world.
When the Boston Medical Library and Harvard Medical Library allied to form the Countway Library of Medicine in 1965, the rare books of both collections were brought together in one building to form an extraordinary treasure house of medical history. The holdings of the Harvard Medical Library include some ten incunables in its Warren Library collection, and a few additional volumes have been acquired for the Countway by purchase and gift since its opening. But nearly all of the incunables here belong to the Boston Medical Library, and these volumes represent an unusual effort to build a library that never was—a working medical collection of a Renaissance scholar in the United States. The annual report of the Boston Medical Library for 1930 outlined the intention behind its acquisition of incunabula in this way: "It is to be noted that every book added to the collection is in conformity with a definite plan formulated for the building up of a replica of an independent medical library of the late 15th century." So numerous were the acquisitions and so varied were the holdings that, by 1944, it was asserted that at least one edition of virtually every book of medical interest produced before 1501 could be found in the Boston Medical Library’s collection.
The famous names and the earliest editions of the great works in medicine, from Greek antiquity through the late medieval and Renaissance period, including Hippocrates, Celsus, Galen, Ugo Benzi, Bernard of Gordon, Hieronymus Brunschwig, Guy de Chauliac, Marsilio Ficino, and Michele Savonarola are all well represented in the collection. Sir William Osler, in his Incunabula Medica (1923), identifies the De Sermonum Proprietate (Strassburg, circa 1467) of Rabanus Maurus as the first printed book containing a chapter devoted to medicine, and the Boston Medical Library holds a copy of even this rare item.
Complementing the incunables is a collection of seventy-eight medieval and Renaissance medical manuscripts, including works of Aristotle, Albertus Magnus, Avicenna, Bernard of Gordon, Isaac Israeli, Rhazes, and Johannes Trithemius. Written in Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic, with the oldest dating from the early 13th century, the manuscripts concern such diverse subjects as fever treatments, poisons, astrology, phlebotomy, demonology, and the therapeutic powers of gemstones.