A collection of medical works and artifacts from late antiquity through the 20th century
For scholars and students alike, there is no replacement for the ability to study rare and historic medical texts and artifacts directly.
The U-M Library’s History of Medicine Collection traces the evolution of medical knowledge and beliefs from the Greek fathers of medicine, through the the medieval and Renaissance periods, to the modern era.
The collection is not only a valuable resource for identifying changes in the understanding of the human body, but also includes rare examples of early printing techniques and binding methods, along with exquisite artwork and illustrations, and texts that shed light on shifting cultural conceptions of health and healthy living. As a result, these holdings attract attention from a wide variety of academic disciplines.
“The collection has been used by those studying not just medicine per se, but those interested in books as artifacts, the history of art, even architecture — in antiquity, and again in the Renaissance, a perfect figure of the human body became the main source of proportion for the classical orders of architecture,” says curator Pablo Alvarez. “The collection also reveals aspects of social history and can help us understand how ideas about medicine were disseminated, and the impact that increasingly accessible medical knowledge and images of the human body had on culture.”
Spanning some 8,500 works, the collection is noteworthy for:
- incunabula — books printed before 1501
- early editions of medical classics and anatomy texts
- one of the most complete collections on the history and development of homeopathy, much of which has been digitized
- medical “fugitive sheets” — the Renaissance version of a pop-up book that allowed for the study of different layers of the body
- a collection of magical amulets dating from 100-500 C.E.
- Among the notable works is, for example, Andreas Vesalius’s first edition of De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem, published in 1543. Vesalius, who is considered the father of modern anatomy, made sure that his exhaustive knowledge of anatomy was presented in a luxurious book format. Indeed, profusely illustrated with detailed woodcuts by Jan Stephan van Calcar, an artist of Titian’s school, this work represents the shift toward the study of anatomy by means of the dissection and direct observation of the human body.
Recently, Alvarez introduced undergraduate students enrolled in an art history course to some of the collection materials. Together they explored connections between art and medicine on display in anatomical treatises from the 15th and 16th centuries.
“This is one of our most interdisciplinary collections,” says Alvarez. “And as the collection continues to grow, we will be reinforcing and encouraging links with other areas of study.”