Medicine, Mortality and the Book Trade. Edited by Robin Myers and Michael Harris. (St Paul’s Bibliographies.) Oak Knoll Press. 1998 xii, 158pp. Hard cover. ISBN 1-873040-50-4 (UK) or ISBN 1-884718-81-7 (USA).
We have here a delightful volume. There is no question of that. Rather, the reviewer’s difficulty revolves around how he should classify the book, because it contains seven disparate essays or papers. They deal with most interesting and refreshingly new aspects of the borderland between the practice of medicine and the practice of book collecting. To be appreciatively savoured by bibliophiles, by medical historians, by medical humanists, it may also be read by any intelligent man or woman to his or her great enjoyment. The approach is unhackneyed. One can only marvel at the originality of the thinking used by the authors.
The papers are the fruits of a conference at the Society of Antiquaries of London in early 1998. The list of those who attended is both instructive and interesting, not only for the curious, but suggests some valuable contacts for those researching in the field. The editors are Robin Myers and Michael Harris. No information is offered about the former but the latter is co-editor of Media History who is researching the use and abuse of serial print. He is co-founder of the book trade conferences and is senior lecturer in London History at Birkbeck College. The editors have amply fulfilled their promise to bring clearly into view the relationship of science as well as medicine to the culture of print.
The last chapter by Roy Porter is erudite, amusing and somewhat trivial. Entitled “Reading: A Health Warning” it mentions In Praise of Folly of Erasmus. Porter is Professor of the Social His-tory of Medicine at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, a prolific and normally serious writer. I may be missing the joke, but this lightweight effort in an otherwise sober book suggests that too much book learning and writing may indeed be prejudicial. But it is good fun, modest intellectual entertainment, and there are some nice quotes.
The first chapter “Printers’ Diseases: The Human Cost of a Mechanical Process” is an eye-opener. It reveals the thoroughly unpleasant working conditions in the printing trade and outlines the medical costs of not least pulmonary tuberculosis and lead poisoning. We are looking at more than a century ago.
Were you aware of the close links between publishing and the distribution and sale of quack remedies? The author, Professor Emeritus Peter Isaac, held the chair of Civil and Health Engineering at Newcastle upon Tyne. He has also been President of the Bibliographic Society and is an expert on the history of the book trade, so he is well placed. Newspapers began to advertise patent medicines, soon moved to be agents for these medications and selling them became a lucrative part of their business. Home medical advisers were popular publications. For a time most the treasured book in a home after the Holy Bible was William Buchanan’s Domestic Medicine. Later, the pharmaceutical industry developed and shouldered the printers out of their business. Did you know that the first medical patent ever granted (in England) was in 1695 to Dr Nehemia Grew and it was for Epsom Salts? There are nice examples of the style of advertisements containing unsubstantiated assertions but we need not be too smug. To-day, Australians spend many millions on unproven herbal remedies.
Vanessa Harding who also teaches History of Medicine at Birkbeck College, University of London has made herself a real find. Richard Smyth (1590-1675), son of a clergyman was a Londoner, a lawyer, an antiquary and a book-collector. He took it into his head to keep records of the deaths of people in his circle of friends, of his family, of people in London and he called this his Obituary. There were entries for more than 1900 persons, including his children and his wife. Many of the people he knew came from the legal profession and the printing and bookselling trade.
He included names of very well known people who died during the time over which he recorded his notes. There were time gaps in his collection, so in no way can his Obituary be taken as a good sample of London life nor can it be considered an accurate cross section of a defined society, yet having made those reservations, a valuable picture emerges of a time and place and the city inhabited by one man. I like the concept because when you come to reflect, every one of us inhabit and/or use a different Sydney or part thereof. But that does not diminish the fact that we have a wonderful city. So how much more is this true of London?
The next chapter illuminates the subject of medical incunabula. It gives an overview of where they were printed and in response to which perceived medical problem they were published. I return here to the difficulty of giving this book a global description. If you are interested in medical incunabula this chapter is absolute gold. Perhaps my duty mainly is to inform the gentle reader that this marvellous essay exists and thank Lotte Hellinga for it. She is Dutch but has been working for many years for the British Library. Her genius was to start the ISTC database for incunabula and a full-text microfiche Incunabula.
Another chapter entitled “Between the Market and the Academy; Robert S. Whipple (1871-1953) as a Collector of Science Books” tells of the former manager of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company and his inspired (and happily funded) collection of instruments and books. In it Silvia de Renzi (who graduated from Bologna, taught in the Wellcome Institute and now belongs to the department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge) describes the birth of Whipple’s collection, which was later given to Cambridge and became the seed (a very large seed) which produced the renowned collection. There is a valuable account of the rise of the book trade in science books and in addition, much detailed information on how the books were acquired and whence.
In somewhat similar vein is a chapter on Sir Henry Wellcome, one of the founders of Burroughs Wellcome, who built up a pharmaceutical giant which eventually became a public trust. The Wellcome Institute in London is an absolute boon to medical scholarship. The trust has many benefactions to its credit; the University of Melbourne is a well recognized beneficiary. Sir Henry spread very wide the net of what topics and books came into the general area of medicine and health. He was as much an anthropologist as a medical person.
It is in the same chapter that a nice distinction is made between two different types of collectors, those who use a net and those who use a rod and line.
Then there is that last chapter by Roy Porter to which reference has already been made. Imitating Porter’s light hearted approach, I close this review with the following profound assessment: “For people who like this sort of book, it is the sort of book they will like immensely.”