Digital Highlights: Detectives of Europe and America

With the successful “reboot” of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s transatlantically successful Sherlock (2010), a particular volume from the MHL’s collection seems appropriate for the digital highlight this week: Detectives of Europe and America, or, Life in the Secret Service.

Detectives of Europe and America

Title page of Detectives of Europe and America.

Published in 1878, the preface says it all:

Many partial friends of mine have thought I might do some good…to the cause of human happiness…by the detail of certain wily “offenses against the law and good order of society,” while demonstrating therein how sure of final discovery and punishment are the criminally vicious,…in these days, when the art of police detection has become almost an exact science.

The “author” is one Officer George S. McWatters, described on the flyleaf as “late member of the American Secret Service.” The volume itself is a selection of Officer McWatters’s more interesting cases — as collated and edited by a “well-known public writer,” admits the Publisher’s Introduction, due to the modesty and forebearance of McWatters who apparently didn’t want to blow his own trumpet enough to suit the Publishers.  The table of contents includes stories titled, “Twenty-one Years of Illegal Imprisonment Suffered by a Beautiful Young Lady of the Polish Nobility,” “The Gambler’s Wax Finger,” and, simply, “The Skeleton.

The stories have a certain Conan Doyle-ish flair to them, too, with passages such as:

“This, gentlemen,” thus I ended my story, “is all I have to tell; further particulars you may hear from the victim herself, who is now in the lunatic asylum, and from the witnesses who are all here.”

The tales center around midnight abductions, mysterious financial transactions, Eastern potentates, and innocent young heiresses and their traducers. Officer McWatters never fails to work his way through the intricacies of the case, working to establish the powers of justice, law, and order to their rightful place with the skillful use of 19th century forensic science.

You could define this as a 19th century version of Bones with Officer McWatters using his technical skill and scientific ability to dazzle lesser law officers and, potentially, his reading audience. Perhaps, too, Officer McWatters had a similar effect on actual forensic scientists as his television and movie counterparts do today. Nevertheless, the volume demonstrates that the scientific side of detective fiction is not a modern-day development in the genre.

Despite the possibility of making the reading public expect miracles from its police force by way of deduction, the adventures of Officer McWatters make for highly entertaining reading as well as a fascinating look at the continuing appeal of detective fiction in all its various guises.

For more from the Medical Heritage Library, please visit our full collection!

Digital Connections: The Otis Historical Archives

You may be familiar with the photo hosting site Flickr for hosting or browsing travel, work, or personal photographs, but many archives and special collections repositories are using the service to draw attention to their collections.

In the field of medical history, for example, the Otis Historical Archives, part of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology’s National Museum of Health and Medicine, has put up hundreds of photographs, postcards, and cartoons.

The material includes photographs from the Civil War, World War IWorld War II, and bodies such as United States Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. Also found here are topical collections such as Mirrors which collects 61 images of wounded patients posing to display their scars or injuries; in each case, a mirror is being used to point to some aspect of the wound that might not otherwise be noticed or readily seen by the viewer of the photograph. (For some interesting observations on the Mirrors set, check out this post from The Sterile Eye, a blog dedicated to medical photography.)

Highlights include of the Otis Archives material on Flickr:

General Pershing's dentures

World War II mess kit cleanliness poster

General Henry Barnum, gunshot wound

Colonel Frank Townsend examines the bullet that killed Lincoln and the probe used to examine the President

Thanks to Assistant Archivist Laura E. Cutter for sharing the great work of her repository with us!

Digital Highlights: Interdisciplinary Possibilities

Title page of "The Closing Years of Dean Swift's Life"

Title page of The Closing Years of Dean Swift's Life

One of the fascinating things about a collection like the Medical Heritage Library is how many interdisciplinary opportunities it offers.

The history of medicine is an incredibly diverse field in and of itself — a quick glance down the list of subjects in the Library illustrates that. What may not be so immediately obvious is how many cross-disciplinary opportunities for investigation the collection affords.

Take, for example, The Closing Years of Dean Swift’s Life, by William R. Wilde. The volume was first published in 1849 in Dublin, at a time when Ireland was experiencing country-wide hardship as a result of catastrophic harvest failures in 1845 and 1847.

Dean Jonathan Swift, of course, is probably best known as the author of A Modest Proposal, an economic satire which proposed the Irish sell their infant children as provisions for the English. During his youth, Swift was secretary to Sir William Temple, an English diplomat who became well-known for the correspondence between himself and his wife which reveals details of life during the end of the seventeenth century in England. Swift himself was a polarizing figure during his life-time and continues to attract the attention of scholars in many fields.

William Wilde was a well-known Irish physician specializing in the eye and ear. He was a prolific author, writing not only about medicine but also about anthropology and Irish folklore. Wilde’s wife, Jane, published as a poet under the name “Speranza” and was well-known for the fiery nationalism of her work. Wilde is now better known as the father of Oscar Wilde, author of The Importance of Being Earnest and The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

One volume, then, connects to three separate individuals in widely diverse fields alone — and that’s simply on an examination of the title page! Who knows what more volumes could reveal?

For more from the Medical Heritage Library, please visit our full collection!

Internet Archive Introduces New BookReader

Books digitized by the Medical Heritage Library can be viewed in the new BookReader.  A number of features have been added, including:

  • Navigation bar that helps show your location in the book and navigate through it. Search results and chapter markers (if available) show up on the navigation bar.
  • New Read Aloud feature reads the book as audio in most browsers.  No special software is needed.
  • Vastly improved full-text search.  Search results are shown on the navigation bar and include a snippet of text near the matched search term.

For more information, see:

For more from the Medical Heritage Library, please visit our full collection!

Digital Highlights: Who is Francesco Durante or, What Can We Learn from Download Statistics?

Francesco Durante (1844-1934); frontispiece from vol. 1 of "Per il XXV Anno Dell'Insegnamento Chirurgico di Francesco Durante"

Internet Archive, where the Medical Heritage Library’s content now resides, has a neat feature that allows you to see what has been downloaded most often.  With almost 8,500 volumes digitized by February 1, 2011, I thought it would be interesting to see what content in MHL was being most heavily used.

The results are surprising.  Among the top ten most downloaded volumes are three Columbia University catalogues (numbers 2, 5, and 10); three anatomical works: John McGrath’s Surgical Anatomy and Operative Surgery (1902) in the number 3 spot; the 1913 US edition of Henry Gray’s classic Anatomy, Descriptive and Applied (number 6); and Florence Fenwick Miller’s colorful An Atlas of Anatomy or Pictures of the Human Body (1879) in the number 8 position.

But the number one most downloaded volume in the Medical Heritage Library — a whopping 420 times —  is a comparative rarity: volume 2 of Per il XXV Anno Dell’Insegnamento Chirurgico di Francesco Durante nell’Università di Roma. 28 Febbraio 1898, edited by Roberto Alessandri. The second most downloaded item — the aforementioned Columbia University catalogue — can only boast 274 downloads.

No doubt you’re thinking Who? History of medicine mavens — at least those in the US — don’t need to be abashed if they have never heard of Durante.  While he is little known outside neurosurgery circles in this country, Durante (1844-1934) was a pioneering surgeon, esteemed teacher, and leading political figure in his native Italy.

The child of parents of modest means (his father helped build the first road to their isolated Sicilian village), Durante received his medical degree from Naples, studied with Virchow in Berlin, Billroth in Vienna, and Lister in London before being called to teach at the University of Rome in 1872. Twelve years later, in June 1884, he was the first surgeon to successfully remove a cranial base meningioma, an operation that caused an international sensation.

His 25th anniversary as a teacher at the University of Rome in 1897 was commemorated by the publication of the hefty 3 volume festschrift recently digitized by the MHL.  It contains contributions from several dozen surgeons on a wide variety of surgical topics.  While most of the authors were Italian, Durante’s fame was enough to elicit contributions from Philadelphia surgeon W.W. Keen and the French neurosurgeon Auguste Broca.

Why volume 2 of this title should have been downloaded so frequently will remain a mystery, but surely its rarity outside Italy — OCLC locates only four copies of the set in North America and another in Paris — played a factor.  It shows that there is a need for electronic access to even the most seemingly esoteric publications.

For more of the Durante festschrift click here:

For all the holdings in the Medical Heritage Library click here:

Forests, trees, and digitization

American medical botany being a collection of the native medicinal plants of the United States, containing their botanical history and chemical analysis, and properties and uses in medicine, diet and the arts, with coloured engravings ... (1817) From the collections of the Columbia University Libraries digitized for the Medical Heritage Library.

As the medical profession continues to wrestle with the ethics, logistics, and implications of randomized controlled trials, I’ve become happily involved with an informal international collaborative group, led by Iain Chalmers (editor of the James Lind Library), in examining the history of controlled trials before the famous 1948 British Medical Research Council study of streptomycin for tuberculosis.

At the most basic level of full-text searching, digitization enables scholarship that simply could not be performed otherwise. With the British Medical Journal, Lancet, JAMA, and the NEJM fully digitized, our group can now perform full-text searches for such terms as “alternate patient(s)” or “alternate case(s)” to trace the deeper history of both the development and resistance to such methodologies. Such forest-revealing tools of course still require tree-level contextualization (or pick another metaphor; or, if interested in the history of particular medical metaphors, feel free to trace them as well over time!), but the possibilities for answering novel questions are seemingly endless, and limited chiefly by the texts that have been digitized, the metadata applied to them, and the accessibility of the resources to scholars.

Imagine the scholarship that could be conducted if all the other venerable collections of medical history across the country and world were digitized.  But how? And where to start?

The Center for the History of Medicine has been a proud founding contributor to the Medical Heritage Library, a digital curation collaborative among some of the world’s leading medical libraries, with the intention to digitize and make freely available over 30,000 volumes over the next 18 months. We intend for this to serve as a nucleus for more comprehensive and collaborative long-term digitization of medical sources of all kinds, and to develop a platform through which digital scholarship in the history of medicine can itself evolve.

Indeed, as we develop our open-access Medical Heritage Library, it’s our hope that scholars will go beyond full-text searching to devise novel queries and approaches to what will be an expanding universe of available materials. Please join us in creating this new world. Visit the MHL page on the Internet Archive website, formulate your own searches, see what turns up, and let us know what we can do further to facilitate your research.

Scott H. Podolsky
Director, Center for the History of Medicine
Countway Library

Internet Archive to Change Derivatives

The Internet Archive has been studying the usage stats of the DjVU and Black/White PDFs. The demand and activity with these file formats is very low, so the Internet Archive will halt the derivation of these two file formats.  In addition to the ‘Read online’ option, the Internet Archive will continue to offer:

PDF (color)
Full Text

If users are concerned about this change, please  contact us at

Topics selected for digitization in 2010-2011

The Medical Heritage Library partners worked together during June and July 2009 to identify collection strengths and complementary subject areas for digitization.  Works selected for scanning include such topics such as anesthesia, popular medicine and homeopathy, medical jurisprudence and general public health, with a core focus on the intersection of medicine and society.  In the past year some 7,498 items have been uploaded to the Internet Archive, and in the upcoming year readers may expect to enjoy newly digitized public-domain titles in the following subject areas:

  • Anatomy
  • Anesthesia
  • Biography (Physician travels)
  • Cholera
  • Climatology, Geography of Disease
  • Cookbooks
  • Dentistry
  • Directories
  • Early Americana (1607 – 1820)
  • Epilepsies
  • General Public Health
  • Health Resorts
  • Homeopathy
  • Hydrotherapy
  • Immunology
  • Later Americana (1821 – 1860)
  • Medical Jurisprudence
  • Military Medicine
  • New England (esp. Connecticut)
  • Nursing
  • Obstetrics
  • Pamphlets (mixed topics)
  • Parasitology
  • Pathology
  • Pharmacology, Pharmacy, Materia Medica
  • Physiology
  • Plastic Surgery
  • Popular Medicine
  • Psychiatry
  • Radiology
  • Schools & Colleges
  • Serial Government Documents (U.S.)
  • Serial Reports of Hospitals
  • Smallpox (Vaccination, Inoculation)
  • Special Systems (General)
  • Surgery
  • Therapeutics (General)
  • Tobacco
  • Tuberculosis

For more from the Medical Heritage Library, please visit our full collection!

Digital Highlights: Cure of a true cancer of the female breast with mesmerism

John Elliotson (1791-1868) studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and Jesus College, Cambridge. A strong interest in phrenology and mesmerism, which traditional practitioners were reluctant to accept as valid medical or scientific disciplines, led him to resign his post as physician to London’s University College Hospital in 1838.

Thomas Wakley, the founder of The Lancet, at the time a new addition to the medical community, initially supported Elliotson but changed his mind. In 1838, The Lancet’s coverage of a series of trials of Elliotson’s mesmeric experiments at Wakley’s London home helped to discredit Elliotson.

His Numerous cases of surgical operations in the mesmeric state without pain, published in 1843, describes the use of hypnosis to induce sleep and prevent the awareness of pain during surgical procedures including amputations and dental extractions. Cure of a true cancer of the female breast with mesmerism takes this concept a step further by suggesting that hypnosis has therapeutic capability.

Cure of a true cancer of the female breast was digitized for the Medical Heritage Library from the holdings of the Countway Library’s Center for the History of Medicine and is available at

Browse the Medical Heritage Library, at: You can also search “medicalheritagelibrary” from the main Internet Archive page at:

For more information about the Medical Heritage Library, see:

Directories and their varied uses

The participants in the Medical Heritage Library have been particularly eager to include  runs of their local physicians’ directories.  Holdings of these tend to be very “site-specific,” — Columbia University is unlikely to have extensive runs of directories from New England while Harvard, on the other hand, would.

The Columbia University Health Sciences Library’s set of New York area directories, however, is almost complete dating back to 1887, including both The Medical Directory of the City of New York and its successor, The Medical Directory of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.  Besides their obvious biographical, genealogical, and local history importance, the directories have an abundance of fascinating advertisements for medical equipment, patent medicines, and sanitaria.

I find these last particularly interesting since I suspect that in many cases the directories contain the only visual documentation of many of these rest homes, private psychiatric clinics, and health resorts that once dotted the metropolitan New York area.

For instance, this ad from the 1909 edition for “The Idylease Inn” in still-rural Newfoundland, N.J. proclaims itself “a Modern Health Resort” with “Out-Door Exercises, Beautiful Scenery and Delightful Walks and Drives…” However, be warned: “NO TUBERCULAR NOR OBJECTIONABLE CASES.”

Idylease InnAnd who would ever have thought that Astoria, Queens, was once the place to go for “Alcoholic and Narcotic Habitues” looking to dry out (from the 1907 edition):

River Crest Sanitarium

And, of course, the great advantage of having them digitized means that you, dear viewer, can use them in the comfort of your home or office.  This has been a great help to my colleague, Arlene Shaner, Assistant Curator and Reference Librarian in the New York Academy of Medicine’s Historical Collections, as she recently emailed me:

Since January of 2010, a large part of the Academy’s 19th and early 20th century collections has been in off-site storage because of a stack renovation project.  Access to digital surrogates through portals like the Medical Heritage Library has made a world of difference to me as a public services librarian.  Many of the questions I answer require the ability to check multiple years of medical directories and having these available online has enabled me to continue to answer those kinds of questions even though our hard copies are temporarily off-site.  The digital surrogates also allow me to send the link to the text to my patrons, providing them with direct access to the materials themselves.  Since many of my patrons are located very far away and may never be able to come and consult the NYAM collections in person, I am delighted to be able to offer them enhanced service thanks to the materials available through MHL.

Each of the participating institutions in the Medical Heritage Library has a wealth of such local texts that are rarely found outside of their region.   One of the goals of the MHL is to make these less common texts available to anyone with access to  a computer.

The Medical Heritage Library site on Internet Archive: