A small library collection tells a story that changed the world

Sofia Fagiolo, Cataloguing Librarian
Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome

Special collections of medical books have strong research and educational potential as they provide opportunities for new insights into the medical profession through a historical, cultural, and social perspective. In this article, I want to highlight how even small collections can play a significant role. I will focus on a small collection preserved at the Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome (UCBM) Library.

UCBM is a small (approximately 1,800 students) medical university established in 1993 with undergraduate and post-graduate courses in medicine and surgery (offered also in English), engineering, and food science. The library at UCBM collects and provides access to several special collections with the aim of enhancing the educational experience of medical students. In particular, it preserves an outstanding historical collection consisting of over 3500 older print books. This collection includes several sixteenth-, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century imprints, especially on pharmacology, herbal medicine, surgery, and anatomy. Exploring history through rare books is certainly a nice experience for everyone; thus, rare books represent an important opportunity for students to learn about the past of their new profession. In this sense, special collections contribute to a better understanding of the cultural and historical basics of medicine.

However, special collections don’t need to contain many rare or valuable materials to fulfil this mission but rather they should have some particular attribute. This is the case of a small collection of old medical books pertaining to the field of radiology preserved at UCBM Library.

This collection was bequeathed in 2010 by the nursing home “Casa di Cura Dr. Marchetti”, located in Macerata (Marche). It consists mainly of conference proceedings, extracts from journals, and textbooks published between the first decade of 20th century and the early 1950s, including some works dating before World War I. As is well known, the discovery of X-rays was made by Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen in November 1895 and their application to medicine followed immediately, so the titles covered by the collection cover a time of great ferment and innovations in the field of radiology.

The collection is small; in fact, the total number of books is 32. However, since many of these titles were published in a pioneering era of radiology, the collection provides invaluable insights into the history of the discipline. Many books also contain a rich apparatus of photographic images of old X-ray plates, so these titles are valuable sources for reconstructing the developments of X-ray imaging. By leafing through these books, students can explore the fascinating history of radiology from the first pioneer’s approach on glass plates to the earlier x-ray films and screens.

The collection also covers some of the classic textbooks. There is, for instance, one of the first translations of Heinrich Ernst Albers-Schönberg’s main oeuvre (Die rontgentechik) – a milestone in the field of radiology – which describes radiographic techniques for physicians and students. This work appeared for the first time in 1906 and shortly after was translated into Italian and Russian, so the edition preserved at the UCBM Library (published in 1908) constitutes a source of great value. The collection also holds a rare 1909 Italian edition of one of the most important works of Robert Kienböck (Radiotherapie: Ihre biologischen Grundlagen, Anwendungsmethoden und Indikationen, 1907). These books, (and others present in the collection) were monumental efforts in their time and they accelerated the progress of the emerging discipline.

The collection also covers some contributions in radiological techniques published in the ‘50s. So, on the whole, it captures the evolution and development of X-rays technology from early clinical use and industrialization to its establishment as a mature specialty. For these reasons, this collection, although small in size, is of real interest for the student as well as the senior scholar. It offers a useful example of how small collections, even in a such a narrow and specialized field of medicine, can be a useful resource for teaching, learning, and research purposes.

In the future, it would be exciting to increase the visibility of this small but significant collection by digitizing the texts. In the meantime, I’m hoping that this content can give HLG newsletter readers some inspiration, encouraging them to share their experience of historical medical book collections.

HLG Newsletter
Winter 2021

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