Medicine – Some Aspects of American Medical Bibliography Part 1

IN conferring upon me the presidency of this Association, I I felt that you wished to pay a compliment to a man who had been much helped by libraries and who knew their value, and I hoped that it was, perhaps, in recognition of the fact that a practical and busy physician may be at the same time a book lover, even a book worm.

You are familiar, of course, with the objects of this Association, but as there are present with us also those who are not members, this is an occasion in which a little missionary work is timely, and I may briefly refer to some of them. An association of the medical libraries of the country, our membership includes both the great libraries, with 50,000-100,000 volumes, and the small collections just started of a few hundred books. The former gain nothing directly from an affiliation with us—they give more than they get, but the blessing that goes with this attitude is not to be despised, and from their representatives we look for guidance and advice. Please understand that in this address I am not talking to the men in charge of them who are familiar with what I shall say, and who are experts where I am only a dabbler; but I wish to catch the inexperienced, those in charge of the small but growing libraries, upon whom I wish to impress some wider aspects of the work. In the recent history of the profession there is nothing more encouraging than the increase in the number of medical libraries. The organization of a library means effort, it means union, it means progress. It does good to men who start it, who help with money, with time and with the gifts of books. It does good to the young men, with whom our hopes rest, and a library gradually and insensibly moulds the profession of a town to a better and higher status.

We trust that this Association may be a medium through which men interested in the promotion of the welfare of the profession may do much good in a quiet way. We have to thank some twenty physicians who have kindly joined us in this work and whose subscriptions help to pay the expenses of our exchange; but their names on our list do more—it is an encouragement to know that they are with us, and as they get nothing in return (except the BULLETIN) they should know how much we appreciate their fellowship. We have to thank, in particular, many editors who send us their journals for distribution, and the editors of many Transactions. The liberality with which the work of our Exchange has been aided by the large libraries is beyond all praise. Time and again the Library of the Surgeon-General’s Office, the Academy of Medicine of New York, the Boston Medical Library Association, and the College of Physicians’ Library of Philadelphia have filled long lists of wants for smaller libraries. The profession is deeply indebted to Drs. Merrill, Chadwick, and Brigham, to Mr. Browne and to Mr. C. P. Fisher for their disinterested labours. In some details our machinery could be better adjusted, but we have had to work with very little money, which means slight clerical help where much is needed, but with an increasing membership we can look forward confidently to a much more complete organization and to a wider field of usefulness.

But this Association may have other ambitions and hopes. We desire to foster among our members and in the profession at large a proper love of books. For its own sake and for the sake of what it brings, medical bibliography is worthy of a closer study than it has received heretofore in this country. The subject presents three aspects, the book itself, the book as a literary record, i.e., its contents, and the book in relation to the author. Strictly speaking, bibliography means the science of everything relating to the book itself, and has nothing to do with its contents. In the words of a recent writer, the bibliographer “has to do with editions and their peculiarities, with places, printers, and dates, with types and illustrations, with sizes and collations, with bindings and owners, with classifications, collections, and catalogues. It is the book as a material object in the world that is his care, not the instruction of which it may be, or may fail to be, the vehicle. Bibliography is the science or the art, or both, of book description.”

But there is a larger sense of the word, and I shall discuss some aspects of American medical bibliography in the three-fold relationship to which I have referred.

The typographical considerations may be passed over with a few words. We have no Aldus or Froben or Stephanus or Elzevir, whose books are sought and prized for themselves, irrespective of their contents. With few exceptions the medical works published here at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries were poor specimens of the printer’s art. Compare a Sydenham first edition of 1682 with Caldwell’s Cullen, issued in Philadelphia more than 100 years later, and the comparison is in favour of the former; and yet there is much of bibliographical interest in early American publications. It would make an instructive exhibit to take a series of surgical books issued in this country from Jones’ Manual in 1776 to Kelly’s Operative Gynecology; it would illustrate the progress in the art of book making, and while there would be nothing striking or original, such volumes as Dorsey’s Elements of Surgery (1813), particularly in the matter of illustrations, would show that there were good book makers at that date. At one of the meetings of the American Medical Association a selection of the works issued during the 117 years of the existence of the house of Lea Brothers would form an instructive exhibition. There are few medical works in this country the genealogy of which requires any long search. Other than the “Code of Ethics” of the American Medical Association and the “American Pharmacopeia,” both of which, by the way, have histories worth tracking, and the “Dispensatory” of Wood and Bache, I know of no works fifty years old which continue to be reprinted. Compared with the text-books, etc., the journals of the early days were more presentable, and the general appearance of such publications as the Medical Repository, of New York, the Medical Museum, of Philadelphia, and later the Medical and Physical Journal, the North American Medical and Surgical Journal and the Medical Recorder, not only contrasts favourably with that of European journals of the period, but one gets an impression of capable and scholarly editorial control and a high grade of original contribution. The Medical and Physical Journal, founded in 1820, has a special interest and should be put on the shelves just before the American Journal of the Medical Sciences, into which it merged, one of the few great journals of the world, and the one from which one can almost write the progress of American medicine during the past century.

While there is not in American medicine much of pure typographical interest, compensation is offered in one of the most stupendous bibliographical works ever undertaken. The Index-Catalogue of the Library of the Surgeon-General’s Office atones for all shortcomings, as in it is furnished to the world a universal medical bibliography from the earliest times. It will ever remain a monument to the Army Medical Department, to the enterprise, energy and care of Dr. Billings, and to the scholarship of his associate, Dr. Robert Fletcher. Ambitious men before Dr. Billings had dreamt of a comprehensive medical bibliography. Conrad Gesner, the learned Swiss naturalist and physician, published his Bibliotheca Universalis as early as 1545 and followed it in 1548-9 by a supplement entitled Pandectarum live Partitionum universalium Conradi Gesneri, libri xxi. Book xx, which was to represent the quintessence of the labours of his life and which was to include the medical bibliography, never appeared, owing to his untimely yet happy death—felix mors Gesneri, as Caius says, in the touching tribute to his friend. Merklin, von Haller, Ploucquet, Haeser, Young, Forbes, Atkinson and others have dipped into the vast subject, but their efforts are Lilliputian beside the Gargantuan undertaking of the Surgeon-General’s Office. One work I cannot pass without a regret and a reference—the unfinished medical bibliography of James Atkinson, London, 1834. If not on your shelves, keep your eyes on the London catalogues for it. It only includes the letters A and B, but it is a unique work by a Thelemite, a true disciple of Rabelais. I need not refer in this audience to the use of the Index-Catalogue in library work; it is also of incalculable value to any one interested in books. Let me give an everyday illustration. From the library of my friend, the late Dr. Rush Huidekoper, was sent to me a set of very choice old tomes, among which was a handsome folio of the works of Du Laurens, a sixteenth century anatomist and physician. I had never heard of him, but was very much interested in some of his medical dissertations. In a few moments from the Index-Catalogue the whole bibliography of the man was before me, the dates of his birth and death, the source of his biography, and where to look for his portrait. It is impossible to overestimate the boon which this work is to book lovers. One other point—the Index is not used enough by students. Take under the subject of diseases of the heart. Only the other day I referred to a journal article which had a very full bibliography, and I turned to Volume V in the old series, and to the just issued Volume VI of the new series, and there was the literature in full on this subject and in it many articles which the author had overlooked. The entire bibliography might have been omitted with advantage from the paper and simply a reference made to the Index-Catalogue. It would be well in future if writers would bear in mind that on many subjects, particularly those covered by the second series of the Catalogue, the bibliography is very complete, and only supplementary references should be made to the articles which have appeared since the volume of the new series dealing with the subject was printed.