“Not an inch of wasted space”

Take a close look at line 20.  Anything look off to you?  While reading semi-gothic cursive script (and in Latin, at that) is not always easy, the last half of line 20 is seemingly completely illegible.  That’s because it’s not words at all – the pen-work here is simply to fill in the rest of the line for aesthetic reasons.  You’ll also see this kind of pen-work when the scribe tested the flow of ink from the quill.


f. 8v, Anonymous, De cura sterilitatis mulierum and De infirmitatis occulorum, mid-14th century, 10a 135

“Thankful for the puffs of air in my eyes at the ophthalmologist’s office…”

f. 11v, Anonymous, De cura sterilitatis mulierum and De infirmitatis occulorum, mid-14th century, 10a 135


Accompanying the second text, Cure infirmitatum oculorum, in manuscript 10a 135, are diagrams of 18 instruments used to deal with disorders of the eye, organized into six groups.  The instruments for cataracts resemble hollow needles.  Still used today in cataract surgeries, hollow needles were first utilized for the suction of soft cataracts by physician Ammar Ibn Ali Al-Mosuli (flourished 1010). Read more

“The binder ate my homework!”

This manuscript may be the earliest surviving copy of the works included. The works were previously attributed to Arnald of Villanova (and others), but now is thought to have been composed by unnamed people, likely in the area surrounding the University of Montpellier during the early 14th century. The first text relates how to care for (and perhaps cure?) a woman’s infertility, while the second and third texts discuss how to cure diseases of the eye. The texts are written on paper, rather than parchment.

The pages of the manuscript were trimmed at some point. On some pages, the text and not just the margins have been sliced off. Trimming manuscripts was not uncommon, especially if they were rebound in later centuries into ‘more fashionable’ bindings.

Folio 6 verso shows a later reader’s notes – or the original scribe’s demarcations – with the first bits of the phrases cut off.


f. 6v, Anonymous, De cura sterilitatis mulierum and De infirmitatis occulorum, mid-14th century, 10a 135

I Love the Flu

– by Emily T.H. Redman*


I love the flu.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t love the fever and chills, the runny nose, the sore throat, or the all-encompassing ache that seems to span from deep in the bones all the way to one’s hair follicles. I don’t love the complications—the respiratory infections, the myocarditis. In particular, I really don’t love the potential for death. What I love the flu for is divorced from these horrors, and lies in the pedagogical value afforded by teaching students about the history of influenza epidemics. Influenza epidemics are fascinating on a micro level, an evolving and mutating virus hitting the body with a slightly different impact every year. But flu season hits us on another level; as we collectively respond to epidemics it shapes our cultures, ideas, and traditions.

It was for additional information about the flu, among other examples from medical history, that I came to the collections of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in January 2014. I was planning a new seminar on the history of medicine, and sought primary source materials for both lectures and for supplemental independent student research projects. I also used my visit to look for materials useful to my other courses, which span various topics in the history of science, technology, and medicine from my home department as an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Nearly every fall semester, I (shamelessly) use my position at the front of the classroom to proselytize getting a flu shot. As a historian of science, I use examples from history to make the argument that it is imperative that most healthy individuals should protect themselves from the flu, for their own health as well as the health of the collective public. With the opportunity afforded by a new seminar in the history of medicine, I came to the archives to strengthen these arguments.

One of the aspects of the 1918-1919 influenza outbreak that makes for such compelling classroom fodder is the fact that this particular strain disproportionately impacted healthy young adults. This flu was fast acting, with a shockingly high rate of mortality. It was a flu that would have ravaged, say, a community of college-aged students living in close proximity in dorms and small apartments. This morbid drama offers the perfect opportunity for teaching about epidemiology and the cultural impact of disease on populations.

The materials I collected during my time researching at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia provided me with a rich assortment of primary source materials to explicate the devastation wrought by the flu. These primary sources are crucial, as I have found a major obstacle to teaching about the influenza outbreak (and indeed, convincing students of the need for a yearly flu shot) is debunking the myth that the common flu is at worst a mere annoyance. Many students come to the classroom assuming the flu is nothing more than a more severe cold. One student—not alone in her query—asked why people no longer die from the flu. There are many misconceptions about the disease, and a historical approach can help us address them.

Using materials collected during my research, I developed a lesson beginning with the origins of the influenza outbreak. This history offers a complex view of epidemiology, as the flu spread with rapidity not just by sneezes and coughs, but also by the opportunity afforded by the waning years of WWI, when soldiers congregated in close quarters and civilians joined in large celebrations to mark the end of combat. These gatherings provided the perfect storm of disease propagation.

Unfortunately, this perfect storm was met with a flu unlike most others. This was a flu with an extremely high mortality rate. The chart below dramatically depicts the devastation wrought, with the high peak at the right side of the graph signifying the sharp uptick of deaths related to the flu as compared to earlier years’ epidemics.


London Ministry of Health. Reports on Public Health and Medical Subjects No. 4: Report on the Pandemic of Influenza 1918-1919. (London, 1920): 17.


A similar chart underscores the relative devastation among communities, particular in cities, by the flu. The figure below charts the total deaths in Philadelphia. Though the reproduction is of poor quality, the chart shows a spike in deaths in the mid fall of 1918. Two lines draw this spike: the outermost indicates the total deaths from all causes in the city, while the inner, nesting spike indicates the total number of deaths from influenza alone. This chart is chilling. The dramatic increase of deaths in Fall 1918 is clearly due almost exclusively to the outbreak of the flu.


United States Department of Commerce. Special Tables of Mortality from Influenza and Pneumonia in Indiana, Kansas, and Philadelphia, PA September 1 to December 31, 1918.


Such images certainly lay the groundwork for teaching about the impact of the epidemic, yet numbers and line graphs only go so far in driving home historical reality. To make the winter of 1918-1919 come alive for students, I employ a seemingly benign table of figures to create a hands-on activity that packs a punch.

The table below lists the number of cases of influenza (and related pneumonia) among U.S. troops in camps and barracks. I use this example to mimic, somewhat, the close proximity with which our students live (though presumably they do so in a bit more luxury than that afforded by military barracks). In class, I annotate the image, replacing the numbers with figures reflecting the size of the class. I then ask students to take index cards corresponding to the first week, then the second, and so on. Over the course of our simulated autumnal flu season, we see how many students survive into January. This never fails to hit home.


London Ministry of Health. Reports on Public Health and Medical Subjects No. 4: Report on the Pandemic of Influenza 1918-1919. (London, 1920): 293.


Undoubtedly morbid, this exercise is nevertheless highly effective if implemented with care. Students gripping slips of paper can look around the classroom and begin to internalize what it might have been like, in those days before flu shots, to experience such a dramatic loss of life in their community, to live in fear of succumbing to this pervasive death themselves. This exercise brings the historical reality of the epidemic from mere charts and tables, and underscores its human aspect.

This is why I love history. Collecting source material from the past—even the seemingly dull charts and graphs full of raw data—helps us understand the social, cultural, and political impact of events of the past. As students more fully comprehend the historical import of this moment in time, I allow them to explore a rich variety of sources related to the flu. One of the most valuable resources I obtained from my visit to the archives came in the form of a thick portfolio of clippings from local Philadelphia newspapers, magazines, posters, and other ephemera produced during and after the peak of the epidemic in 1918 and 1919. The bound collection is full of examples ranging from gruesome images of mass graves within city limits, to published reminders to citizens of hygiene recommendations like handwashing, drinking water, and, improbably, rinsing fruit.


Scrapbook of newspaper clippings (September 14, 1918 to March 1, 1919) concerning the influenza epidemic in Philadelphia, 1918-1919. Philadelphia, PA, 1919.


These documents enrich students understanding of the history of medicine in ways my lecturing along cannot convey. They allow students to read and experience it as if among the historical actors they are studying. The documents provide important opportunity for critical thinking and historical analysis, placing each within a multifaceted context. The documents, the materials I collected while conducting research at the College of the Physicians of Philadelphia, are crucial tools in my attempts to teach the history of medicine.

Of course, the collections I examined contain far more than only materials on the flu epidemic of nearly a hundred years ago. I feverishly photographed text and images from myriad sources in the collection, helping develop lectures on Progressive Era mental health policies and how these were related to themes of nationalism, tied to the emergence of psychology as a scientific profession. I transcribed documents related to the Northampton Lunatic Hospital, which was once situated just miles from the classroom where I teach. I collected countless ephemera – advertisements, promotional materials, product labels, and essays by medical professionals – on various (and often appallingly humorous in their dated sexism) aspects of women’s health.

My time in the reading room was not just professionally productive, but highly enjoyable, punctuated by laughter over old texts that did not quite stand the test of time, by jaw dropping moments, and by sober reflections on the impact of disease. I left the archives armed with hundreds of photographs and dozens of pages of notes, as well as new friendships forged with staff at the Historical Medical Library and Mütter Museum. I have since directed students to the collections, with one spending time in the archives and others using digital collections for various research projects.

Perhaps you should take it with a grain of salt, as I’m a self-proclaimed fan of the flu, but I cannot recommend more highly the collections or the experience of working at the archives of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.



*Emily T.H. Redman is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst where she teaches history of science.

“Praise be to Christ [that] this is the end of the work!”

Laus Christos, f. 105r, Constantinus Africanus, Viaticum, ca. 1220-1244, Z10 76


Medieval scribes were likely just as glad as we are when a large piece of work is completed.  These four lines celebrate the scribe’s completion of a volume containing Constantinus Africanus’ Viaticum and Nicolaus Salernitanus’ Antidotarium, followed by two short texts regarding doses and synonyms for antidotes, which is comprised of 105 folia (pages).  Even today, writing out 105 pages (front and back) in legible, uniform script seems a daunting task.

The Antidotarium Nicolai was written in the 12th century by Nicolaus Salernitanus.  It is a collection of pharmacopoeial remedies in alphabetical order, the first pharmacopoeia written.  It is likely that Nicolaus, a medical school teacher, derived his material from a collective oral tradition which had been put together in Salerno between 1160 and 1200.  The medical school at Salerno was founded in the 9th century and was one of the earliest of its kind in Western Europe.

To learn more about Constantinus and his Viaticum, check out our first #MedievalMonday post here.