This month we will be looking at 10a 189, Baptista Massa de Argenta’s De fructibus vescendis. De fructibus is a 15th-century Italian treatise on fruits, their properties, and their medicinal uses. The Library’s copy also contains a short treatise on how to make barley water.
We know, thanks to our scribe Christoforus B., that 10a 159 was completed in July 1493. But where did go from there? We don’t know who the first owners may have been, but book stamps, inscriptions, and sale catalogues can tell us about later owners.
In early November 2014 I spent a stimulating morning looking at the medieval manuscripts belonging to the Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. One that particularly caught my interest is a small volume of 80 leaves, each about 155×115mm (6”×4½”), whose main content is a treatise in 27 chapters on edible fruits, from figs and grapes to pumpkins and capers. It was an appropriate acquisition for the College because it discusses each fruit under various headings, giving their general medical and other properties, and their effect on various parts of the body.
by Robert D. Hicks, Ph.D., Director, Mütter Museum,
Historical Medical Library, and Wood Institute for the History of Medicine*
Historians of the book anatomize books for their bindings, printers, paper, illustrators, and consider past readers and cultural contexts. Jorge Luis Borges wrote that a book is “an axis of innumerable relationships.”[i] A current research project has led to an inadvertent discovery and a hypothesis about relationships.
The inadvertent discovery began with my noticing ownership signatures in Civil War-related works and College bookplate data (signifying how books came into the collection). The digital catalogue of the Historical Medical Library does not include information on bookplates or inscriptions written by authors or past owners. I hypothesize that the ownership evidence in the books can re-create the social world of wartime physicians. Three-fourths of approximately 140 Fellows of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia engaged with war work at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.
My discovery was a book owned by Silas Weir Mitchell, MD (1829-1914), one of the most colorful, ambitious, famous, and polymathic American physicians of the 19th century and an influential Fellow of the College. Overlooked by scholars among the College’s vast Mitchell holdings is a war memoir by a former army surgeon, John Gardner Perry’s Letters from a Surgeon of the Civil War (compiled by his wife, Martha Derby Perry), published by Little, Brown of Boston in 1906.[ii] The inside front cover bears Mitchell’s bookplate (his name printed as “Weir Mitchell”) with an armorial device and the motto, “sapiens qui assiduous” (roughly, “the wise man is assiduous”) and a library date stamp of February 3, 1913. On the page opposite, the owner signed his name, “Weir Mitchell.”