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Gerstein Science Information Centre

History of Science and Medicine: A Source Guide

This guide includes a selection of resources, both print and electronic, covering both the history of science and of medicine. It attempts to create an awareness of sources of information both traditional and beyond.

Special Collections

Many important library collections have private collectors to thank.  Here is a list of a number of these as taken from: Collecting Rare Medical Books: A Dealer’s Perspective Jeremy M. Norman, originally published in Medical Heritage, July, September, November, 1985.

The modern penchant for collecting first and early editions of the classics of medical history began with Sir William Osler (1849-1919), a confirmed bibliophile and collector, whose spectacular 7600-volume library was bequeathed to McGill University.

Notable historical medical libraries were assembled and donated to universities by Harvey Cushing (1869-1939, Yale), John F. Fulton (1899-1960, Yale)

Erik Waller (1875-1955, University of Upsala, Sweden)

Lawrence Reynolds (1889-1961, University of Alabama, Birmingham)

John A. Benjamin (University of California, Los Angeles)

John Martin (University of Iowa). With the exception of Fulton’s, these libraries have all been described in bibliographical catalogs.

Several smaller collections emphasizing medicine but also containing classics in other sciences were assembled by Herbert M. Evans (1882-1971, discoverer of vitamin E, and the growth hormone of the anterior pituitary) and sold to institutional libraries.

On a grander scale, Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), founder of Burroughs, Wellcome & Co., collected artifacts, books, and manuscripts documenting the history of medicine throughout the world. In 1913 he created the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum and in 1924, the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in London. This is the most important research center and museum of the history of medicine in Europe.

Another library created by a pharmaceutical magnate is the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, founded by Josiah Kirby Lilly. The Lilly Library is a comprehensive rare book and manuscript library with important holdings in many fields. It contains a choice collection of landmarks in medical history, some of which have been described and illustrated in an entertaining but scholarly volume by W. R. LeFanu entitled Notable Medical Books (1976).

Among the most important of the American libraries is the Boston Medical Library in the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard. The historical richness of this fabulous hoard of books, manuscripts, and art works is the result of the amalgamation of numerous important private collections donated over the centuries, together with the active collecting of institutional librarians and curators.

Equally important are the vast holdings of the National Library of Medicine at Bethesda, Maryland, which have been built more through expert government acquisition than through donation.

A library that deserves a published catalog is the Owen H. Wangensteen Library of the History of Biology and Medicine at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Emphasizing the history of surgery, this collection was developed through the efforts of Wangensteen and an exceptionally able curator.

A more specialized but exhaustive collection of rare books, manuscripts, artworks, and scientific instruments documenting the history of electrophysiology and electrotherapy was amassed by Earl A. Bakken, founder of Medtronic, Inc., and donated to the Bakken Library of Electricity in Life, also established in Minneapolis in 1976.

The late Truman G. Blocker, Jr., President of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, created in that institution the most important library of the history of medicine in the Southwest.

The holdings of the University of California at San Francisco, important for both Eastern and Western medicine, were built largely through the efforts of J. B. de C. M. Saunders when he was Chancellor of the medical school.


Osler Library of the History of Medicine

"The Osler Library of the History of Medicine opened in 1929 to house the collection of rare medical and other books donated by Sir William Osler, the renowned physician and McGill graduate and professor. Initially comprising 8000 titles listed in the Bibliotheca Osleriana, the collection - the finest of its kind in Canada - has grown to around 100 000 works including older, rare materials as well as current books and periodicals about the history of the health sciences and related areas."

The Wellcome Library

wellcome library

Wellcome Library, History of Medicine Collection

"With its international scope and comprehensive coverage, the collection provides a rich research resource that reflects a broad understanding of the history of medicine, and the course of medical thought and practice from the earliest times and in different social and cultural settings. Materials held in this collection facilitate historical study of all aspects of medicine, both its theory and practice, from anatomy, physiology, surgery, public health, specific diseases, etc. to medical discoveries and procedures, medical education, medical professions, services and organisations, health care and many more. They also include a vast range of biographical and autobiographical works and patient experiences of illness, as well as works on the history of science and other related subjects such as alchemy and chemistry, physics, botany, zoology and other areas of natural history, cookery, pharmacy, etc. There are also numerous works on general and social history, philosophy, religion, art and literature, bibliographies and other reference works such as encyclopaedias and dictionaries."

National Library of Medicine, History of Medicine Division

Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology

"The Dibner Library is the Smithsonian’s collection of rare books and manuscripts relating to the history of science and technology. Contained in this world-class collection of 35,000 rare books and 2,000 manuscript groups are many of the most important works dating from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries in the history of science and technology including engineering, transportation, chemistry, mathematics, physics, electricity, and astronomy."

Heralds of Science, Smithsonian

Medical Heritage Library

"The MHL has over 48,000 items in the Internet Archive and is adding new titles almost
daily. The MHL is predominantly textual materials, including monographs, journals,
pamphlets, and ephemera, but also includes audio-visual material such as the History
of Modern Biomedicine Research Group “Wellcome Witness” series of interviews with
neuroscientists and the University of California San Francisco Legacy Tobacco
Documents Library.
The materials in the MHL cover centuries, starting with the oldest book (the Liber
Hysagoge Joannici ) from 1502 and going through the Wellcome Witnesses series from
the 2000s.
“History of medicine” has been broadly defined in the MHL collection and subjects
include health sciences (nursing, dentistry, audiology, physiology, psychology,
psychiatry, biological science), surgery, public health, infectious diseases, gynecology,
anatomy, neuroscience, tobacco use,, and titles on spas, weather, veterinary medicine,
gardening, physical culture, and alternative medicine.
The MHL includes materials in a variety of languages including English, French,
Spanish, German, Latin, Portuguese, and Dutch."

                                                                                    MHL (promotional slides)

Linda Hall Library, History of Science Collection

"The Linda Hall Library is a guardian of the collective intellectual heritage with regard to science, technology, and engineering disciplines; a destination for advanced research and scholarship, and a center for public education in the sciences."

Directory of History of Medicine Collections

University of St. Andrews Scotland, History of Mathematics

Needham Institute, East Asian History of Science Library

Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science

Horace E. Scudder, A History of the United States of America (New York: Sheldon and Company, 1897)

The Wagner Free Institute of Science of Philadelphia

The Huntington

As noted on its web site:  "The Huntington is an independent research center with holdings in British and American history, literature, art history, and the history of science and medicine.  The Library collections range chronologically from the eleventh century to the present and include seven million manuscripts, 413,000 rare books, 275,000 reference works, and 1.3 million photographs, prints, and ephemera.  The Burndy Library consists of some 67,000 rare books and reference volumes in the history of science and technology, as well as an important collection of scientific instruments.  Within the general fields listed above there are many areas of special strength, including: Middle Ages, Renaissance, 19th- and 20th-century literature, British drama, Colonial America, American Civil War, Western America, and California.  The Art Collections contain notable British and American paintings, fine prints, photographs, and an art reference library.  In the library of the Botanical Gardens is a broad collection of reference works in botany, horticulture, and gardening."