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Highlights of the University Archives & Special Collections

You Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover. (But sometimes you can!)

Each year in April we celebrate World Book Day. In recognition, here are some ‘Extreme’ selections from the University Archives Rare Books and Special Collections.

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The oldest book in the Archives dates from around 1484 and is commonly titled, Formicarius (The Ant Hill) or Incipit prologus formicarii juxta edico[?] neque fratris Johannis Nider sacre theologie pfessoris eximii qui vitam tempore concilii constanciensis basiliensisque duxit in humanis feliciter.

It was written in 1437 by Dominican friar Johannes Nider (1380-1438), a theologian and reformer who taught at the University of Vienna. His writings are significant for their themes of reform, focusing on: heresy, lay spirituality, witchcraft, and even the relationship between commerce and religious life. Formicarius is an authority on the occult and methods of persecuting witches, an appropriately mediaeval and superstitious subject for one of the earliest books to have been printed in Europe.

Our two other “incunables” (printed books made before 1501) are a medical treatise by Hippocrates (printed 1485) and a religious work by fourth century Christian author, Lactantius (printed 1493).

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Leopoldo Caldani’s atlas of anatomy (Icones anatomicae; quotquot sunt celebriores ex optimis neotericorum operibus summa diligentia depromtae et collectae. Tabulas selegerunt et nonnullas ex cadaveribus ad vivum delineatas addere curarunt Leopoldus Marcus Antonius et Florianus Caldani).

This illustrated set was published between 1801 and 1814 and measures 27 inches tall (bigger than the standard atlas folio but not as big as the double elephant folio at 50” tall!). Volume two weighs in at a hefty 24 lbs.

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Our smallest book is Aphorisms (full title: Hippocratis coi Aphorismi Graec`e, & Latin`e; un`a cum Prognosticis, Prorrheticis, Coacis, & aliis decem ejusdem opusculis, pleraque ex interpretatione Johannis Heurnii Ultrajectini) by Hippocrates, published 1607. It contains 715 pages of text in a format about the size of a cell phone; page size is 3.5” x 2.25”, referred by bibliophiles as 64mo.

The runner up in this category is a group of small pocketbooks (5”x3”, 32mo) designed for portability and cheaply made throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

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Wittiest Book Cover

The Compendium of the theory and practice of midwifery..., by Samuel Bard, published in New York in 1812, is not a very important book, but the covers are just that -- bed covers (or bed ticking fabric). When it was rebound, this mattress fabric turned the cover into a comment on the contents of “instruction for ... women ... in labour, and child-bed ...”

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Most Beautiful

The most beautiful, celebrated, and important book in our collection is De humani corporis fabrica libri septem ... by the great Belgian physician, Andrea Vesalius, 1514-1564. Our copies include a first edition (1543) and last edition (1934) before the woodcuts were destroyed in WWII.

In a letter dated March 9, 1909, Sir William Osler, MD, assessed the value of Vesalius and his book to the world of medicine:

This work of Vesalius is the first modern treatise on anatomy based upon dissections of the human body. To appreciate the extraordinary character of the descriptions and of the plates they must be compared with contemporary works. Vesalius really described the body as we know it, for the first time fully, and for the first time accurately. It is difficult to say whether in text or figure the departure from the anatomy of the day is the more striking. There are grave mistakes of omission and of commission, but they appear insignificant in a volume full of such important contributions. To the middle of the sixteenth century anatomy was taught from the writings of Galen, not from what was seen in the occasional public dissections.

From what the great Master had written there was no appeal, and the veneration with which his works were regarded was as for a gospel, like the feeling men have towards the sacred Scriptures. Imagine the surprise and consternation of the easy-going old professors who held the chairs of anatomy to have a huge volume thrust into their hands filled from cover to cover with descriptions and figures with which they were unfamiliar. And written by a young man of 28! Headed by his old teacher Sylvius a storm of opposition soon raged, and a vindication of Galen was attempted, but it was soon found that the old anatomy, correct enough in places, was largely that of swine, dogs and monkeys, while the `Fabrica' contained descriptions and figures from human dissections. To understand the phenomenon, almost unique in the history of science, of a revolution of this character effected by so young a man, we must remember this character effected by so young a man, we must remember that from boyhood Vesalius had had a perfect passion for dissecting. After devoting his energies to the anatomy of the domestic animals, he robbed graveyards and the gallows for human skeletons, while as early as 1534-36, as prosector to Sylvius and Guinterius in Paris, he had opportunities to dissect the human body. His reputation must have been remarkable, as at the age of 23 he was appointed Professor at Padua, one of the leading schools of Europe. The ‘Fabrica’ remains a monument of human effort, one of the greatest in the history of our profession.

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Earliest Book Authored by a Jefferson Graduate

A system of dental surgery in three parts was first published by Samuel Sheldon Fitch, MD, in 1829. Fitch received his medical degree from JMC in 1828 and defined himself as a “surgeon dentist.”

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Earliest Book Authored by a Jefferson Faculty Member

An epitome of electricity and galvanism. Published in Philadelphia by Jacob Green in 1809, when the author was barely nineteen. Green was Professor of Chemistry at JMC from 1824 until his death in 1841. He received his medical degree from Yale in 1827.

Other Book Covers

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Hypnotism, de Cormelles, F. (1891). Prince Little Boy, Mitchell, S.W. (1888).
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Le Monde avant la Creation l’homme, Flammarion, C. (1886). Anatomia, Vesalius, A. (1604). Rebound in manuscript of church music (on sheepskin) from an earlier period.

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