Imperfecta: Fear, wonder, and science

On March 9, 2017, Imperfecta opens in the Mütter Museum, an exhibit curated by the staff of the Historical Medical Library, which will examine in text, image, and specimen how fear, wonder, and science shaped the understanding of abnormal human development.

One facet of this story is how people, laymen and scientists, reacted to new information in a time of discovery and upheaval.  Steve Desch, an astrophysicist from the University of Arizona, said, “Humans have a strong instinct to ignore scientific findings, until those discoveries challenge the stories we tell each other about ourselves.”  This tendency to ignore earth-shattering discoveries that fundamentally change how humans see themselves is a behavior that is as old as human existence itself.  Read more

They don’t make pen-work like this anymore!

Puzzle letter, f. 1r, Constantinus Africanus, Viaticum, ca. 1220-1244, Z10 76


Pen-flourished initials (Latin littera florissae) like this one marked the beginning of a work, chapter, or other section.  The most common colors used for these initials were red and blue.  While this particular initial is not as elaborate as some, the red line-drawings inside almost resemble a seashell or something similar to my eyes.

“This WILL be on the test!”

Manicule, f. 68r, Constantinus Africanus, Viaticum, ca. 1220-1244, Z10 76


Welcome to #MedievalMonday!  Every Monday, Chrissie Perella, Archivist, will be showing off one of the Library’s medieval manuscripts.

For the first installment of #MedievalMonday, meet Constantinus Africanus.  Dated somewhere between 1220 and 1244, Constantinus was the oldest manuscript in our collection until several weeks ago (more on that in upcoming posts).  The first text in this manuscript, Constantinus’ Viaticum, is one of the earliest examples of an Arabic medical text translated into Latin.

Constantinus Africanus was likely born in Carthage, and entered the monastery of Montecassino in southern Italy somewhere around 1060.  His Viaticum is an important work in the history of medicine.  He translated the Kitab Zad al-musafir wa-qut al-hadir (Provisions for the Traveler and the Nourishment of the Settled), written by the 10th-century Arabic physician known as Ibn al-Jazzar, sometime during the 11th century.  It represents one of the earliest Western translations of an Arabic medical work, and demonstrates the beginnings of the flow of knowledge from the East to the West.

This codex illustrates many interesting aspects of medieval manuscripts.  One of my personal favorite features is this manicule (f. 68r).  Manicules were used as markers to denote parts of the text readers found important.  This one is especially interesting as it has fingernails and a sleeve cuff.

Making the Medieval Digital

“If [medieval] culture is regarded as a response to the environment then the elements in that environment to which it responded most vigorously were manuscripts.”

– C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature

Composite Medical Miscellany I. England, 15th century. Call number 10a 215.

The Historical Medical Library, as part of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL), is participating in a CLIR grant to digitize Western medieval and early modern manuscripts held by libraries in the greater Philadelphia area.  The Library is lending thirteen medical manuscripts dating from c. 1220 to 1600 to this project, called Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis (BiblioPhilly).  Our manuscripts will be digitized at the University of Pennsylvania’s Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Images (SCETI) and the digital images hosted through the University of Pennyslvania’s OPenn manuscript portal and dark-archived at Lehigh University.

Read more

On The Island of Dr. Morrow

– by Wood Institute travel grantee Madeline Hodgman*


I came to the Historical Medical Library at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in July 2016 to research the American Social Hygiene Association for my senior honors thesis at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. My thesis explores the development of sex education in American society throughout the 20th century, comparing and contrasting both comprehensive and abstinence-only curricula. I learned through my work at the Library that “social hygiene” rhetoric not only referred to the public health epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, but was also used as coded language to mask a eugenics agenda. This presented an interesting contradiction to my research — not only was the social hygiene movement one of the first comprehensive sex education campaigns for public health, but it was also actively encouraging abstinence in terms of eugenic “fitness” for procreation.

Read more