Boston Medical Library bookplate





          At the beginning of the 19th century, Boston was on the verge of becoming one of the leading centers of medical education and research in the United States.  Although Harvard's medical school had been in existence in Cambridge since 1782, it would soon move across the Charles River to Boston.  The Massachusetts General Hospital would be incorporated in 1811, and other hospitals—the Boston Lying-In and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary—would soon join it. The New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery would begin publication in 1812 and soon merge with The Boston Medical Intelligencer (established in 1823) to form The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, one of the country's most influential and long-lasting medical periodicals.   The Massachusetts Medical Society, which was formed in 1781, would be joined by an array of professional organizations, including the Boston Medical Association, the Boston Society for Medical Improvement, and the Boylston Medical Society.  But some of the local developments in medicine are less well-known—and have proved less enduring.  One of these is the first Boston Medical Library. 


Photograph of John Collins Warren, c. 1855

          Formed by a small group of physicians in 1805, the library's collection grew quickly, and yet just twenty years later had all but disappeared.  This exhibit traces the few facts known about this library and the aims of its founders and attempts to reconstruct the collection's history from the surviving remnants which have found their way into the Countway Library of Medicine.


Formation of the Collection


          Two of the luminaries of Boston medicine and surgery—John Collins Warren (1778-1856) and James Jackson (1777-1867)—were both young men finishing their medical education and beginning to practice in the city at the beginning of the 19th century.  Both had studied in Europe, Jackson returning in 1800 and Warren the following year.   The latter recalled at the time "There were scarcely any young practitioners except Dr. Jackson.  Perceiving that we should often come into competition, we made an arrangement to inform each other of any causes of discontent, and thus we maintained an amicable association for more than forty years, working together and devising plans for improvement."  The two young physicians would soon hold professorships at Harvard Medical School, organize the Boston Medical Association to regulate medical fees in 1806, and would be instrumental in the publication of the Massachusetts Medical Society's Pharmacopoeia in 1808.


Photograph of James Jackson


          Around 1803, Drs. Jackson and Warren organized a medical club, meeting on Thursdays, to deliver papers and discuss subjects of mutual interest.  Very little is known about this shadowy group—referred to by Jackson's biographer as the Medical Improvement Society.   Other members included Drs. John Fleet, John Dixwell, John G. Coffin, Asa Bullard, George Cheyne Shattuck, and John C. Howard.  The group continued to meet for some six years, but its most interesting offshoot was, in 1805, the formation of a medical library for the physicians of the city—the Boston Medical Library.  

          No minutes or organizational records of the Trustees of that first Boston Medical Library survive.  Little else other than a series of its catalogs and a few tantalizing references exist, and so very little can be known for sure of its objects.  It is certain that the Library was founded on July 1, 1805, and a number of officers were then appointed.  John Collins Warren was the Treasurer, John G. Coffin the Secretary.  James Jackson and John C. Howard were the Trustees.  John Fleet, Harvard's first graduate in medicine, was appointed Librarian, and the collection, by December of that year, was kept at his home in Milk Street.  By 1807, the Library had moved to the shop of an apothecary, Amos Smith, at No. 39 Marlborough Street.  Smith took on the role of Sublibrarian and had responsibility for the circulation and return of books and acceptance of fines.          


          The Boston Medical Library was a subscription library—what was sometimes called a "social library."  The Proprietors—the individual members—purchased an annual share, allowing them access and borrowing privileges.  Each share was assessed at $10.00, and the revenue was used, presumably, to purchase more books and fund subscriptions to medical journals.  Boston's first social library—the Social Law Library—was established in 1803 and continues in operation even today.  The Boston Medical Library was then sometimes referred to as the Second Social Library.  


Growth of the Collection




          The intention of the Trustees of the Boston Medical Library appears to have been the assembly of a collection of current medical literature—both books and periodicals, domestic and foreign—for the use of the practitioners of the city.  In a brief description of the Library printed in The New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery in 1816, it is stated that "The Boston library is composed of modern English and French books, published or re-published within the last twelve years. The statutes of this library restricting its purchases to new publications."  Donations of earlier works, though, were encouraged, and John Collins Warren, reporting on behalf of the Trustees in 1808, stated "An accumulation of approved old works, would add much to its value, and form a solid foundation for this handsome structure.  This might easily be effected by donations from the Proprietors, of some of the books in their libraries, which they have already perused.  By this plan each would acquire the use of the combined contributions of his brethren.… Should this take place, we might soon behold a collection of all the medical works, most important for study and for consultation; the acquisition of learning would be rendered easy, medical literature promoted, the present generation improved, and their successors inspired with emulation and gratitude." 

Bookplate of the Boylston Medical Library


          The only sizeable medical library in the area at the time of the formation of the Boston Medical Library was not in the city environs at all—but in Cambridge, on the Harvard campus.  The Boylston Medical Library, donated to the University in 1802 by Ward Nicholas Boylston, was "rich in ancient Greek, Latin, and Arabian authors.  It contains many standard works; and is particularly valuable for a very fine collection of anatomical engravings, among which are those of Albinus, Eustachius, Cheselden, Cowper, Haller, Nichols, Fyfe, Baillie, Astley Cooper, and Loder."  The Boylston collection remained in Cambridge when the Medical School removed to Boston in 1810 and would have been far from convenient for the faculty and the city's practitioners.  But the Boston Medical Library, at Amos Smith's shop, was just a few doors away from Harvard Medical School, at that time housed in White's Buildings at No. 49 Marlborough Street.


          The only other substantial medical library of the period belonged to the Massachusetts Medical Society.  Founded in 1782, this collection appears to have been small and grown only slowly—it was, in fact, housed at John Fleet's home at the time of the formation of the Boston Medical Library, and Dr. Fleet served as its Librarian as well.  From catalogs and reports, the library of the Medical Society had only about 300 titles in 1824, while the Boylston Medical Library had some 500 volumes.  The Boston Medical Library would dwarf them both.

          The surviving printed catalogs of the Boston Medical Library are evidence not only of the nature and scope of its collection but also the swift and dramatic increase in its size.  During the course of the Library's brief history, catalogs were printed in 1806, 1807, 1808, 1810, 1816, and 1823.  The size of the collection increased from 150 to over 850 titles, and the Trustees used frequent printings of the catalogs to maintain and provide the Proprietors with up-to-date information on the holdings.  Monographs and journals both were purchased.  While medicine and surgery were the major subjects collected, texts in dentistry, botany, chemistry, mineralogy, and zoology were also actively acquired.   Works by some of the major figures of medicine and surgery at the time—John Bell, Xavier Bichat, Astley Cooper, Robert Willan, Philippe Pinel, Benjamin Rush, Antonio Scarpa, Benjamin Waterhouse—were all available for consultation.  Since the statutes of the Library limited its purchases to recent or modern works, roughly four-fifths of the holdings represented in the 1823 catalog had been printed since 1800, and a large proportion of the remainder had been published in the 1790s.   The classics in medicine were also not ignored.  Texts of Herman Boerhaave, Hippocrates, Bernhard Albinus, Celsus, Fabricius, Wilhelm Fabricius Hildanus, and William Harvey—many of these gifts from some of the Proprietors—all found their way into the Boston Medical Library, making the collection a treasure house of both current and historical medical knowledge and literature.


Report of the library, 1808

          Probably the most interesting document of the Library's history is a statement to the Proprietors from the Trustees, issued on May 30, 1808, and printed in an early edition of the catalog.  This report surveys the first three years of the Library's existence, stating "The Trustees cannot refrain from congratulating the Proprietors, that this establishment has progressed so rapidly, from a diminutive commencement, to its present importance and usefulness.  Through its channels, the Physicians of this town are now contant[l]y able to obtain the recent and valuable improvements, made by the more advanced science of Europe …. Whether this collection, placed in a convenient situation, accessible at all hours, has improved the state of medical knowledge among us, and increased the love of medical reading, the trustees cannot undertake to say.  They can say, that since the library has been opened, nearly seven hundred applications have been made for books, most of which would not have been seen in Boston, probably, had not this library existed."



          Despite the scope of the holdings and apparent size of the circulation of the Boston Medical Library, there were very few Proprietors.  The only complete list of these individuals—just 31 in number—comes from 1826, but this represents nearly half of the practicing physicians and surgeons in the city of Boston at the time.  The Massachusetts Register for 1826 lists 66 practitioners; over half of these were members of the Massachusetts Medical Society and would have had access to its library collection, and fifteen were at one time Trustees of the Boston Medical Library. 



Union with Harvard


                  Meanwhile, Harvard Medical School—at the instigation of faculty members John Collins Warren and James Jackson—formed a medical library of its own in 1816, when there was no longer ready access to the resources of the Boylston collection.  The Harvard library was assembled by donations from the faculty members and intended principally for the use of the students.  The New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery reported "The importance of a Medical Library in an institution of this sort, has caused active measures to be taken for an early and respectable foundation of this kind.  To this end about five hundred volumes have already been contributed, and suitable provision made for the regular increase of the collection.  Attention has been paid particularly to supply such books, as will be most useful to students during their attendance on the lectures; and with this view a considerable number of copies of each of the most approved elementary and standard works on the several departments of medical science, have been furnished."  This library, and indeed the Medical School itself, were housed in the new Massachusetts Medical College building on Mason Street, near the Boston Common. 


 Harvard Medical School building on Mason Street

          By July 1816, the Boston Medical Library—after just over a decade in existence—had reached a point of crisis.  The collection held over 500 titles and was some 2,000 volumes in size.  It continued to grow, but for reasons which remain obscure, as The New England Journal succinctly records, "The proprietors of the medical library … having met with considerable difficulty in maintaining their library, have lately made a proposition for uniting the use of it with that of the College."  Inadequate funding for the Library was probably the root of the matter, although the size of the collection may have grown beyond the ability of the Sublibrarian to care for it, or for it to be housed adequately in Amos Smith's apothecary shop.  The Trustees and officers, moreover, were busy practitioners and might not have been able to provide any regular oversight of the collection and its development.  Harvard's new building on Mason Street had room for a library of 3,000 volumes, and the Boston Medical Library's substantial collection had need of a building.  Union of the two seemed like an ideal arrangement.  An agreement to administer the two libraries in concert was formalized in 1819.  Ironically, 150 years later, a second Boston Medical Library would also join forces with Harvard's medical library—this time to form the largest academic biomedical library in the country.


Portrait of Walter Channing, Librarian and Trustee          In a letter to the President of Harvard, Drs. James Jackson, John Collins Warren, John Gorham, Walter Channing, and Jacob Bigelow—all Proprietors of the Boston Medical Library, incidentally—describe the recent formation of the Medical School's library and go on to state the principles behind the unification: "With a view to increase the number of books, to which the pupils of the university may have access, the subscribers have entered into an agreement with the Proprietors of the Boston Medical Library, in consequence of which the two libraries are united and will continue to be so, as long as it may be agreeable to both parties.  By this agreement, the Boston Medical Library is kept in the Massachusetts Medical College & is under the care of the same Librarian who is appointed by the subscribers to take charge of the library of that College, & the books of each library are common for the use of those, who have legal access to the other."  Although housed together at Mason Street, the two collections were kept distinct, and the officers and Trustees of the Boston Medical Library continued in their roles, although the duties of the Sublibrarian were assumed by a medical student.  Harvard's students could now have access to the collections, just as the Proprietors did. 

          But this alliance of the first Boston Medical Library with Harvard did not last.  There are no clear reasons behind the division, though finances again may have played a part.  As early as December, 1820, the minutes of the Medical Faculty at Harvard record that the Dean, Walter Channing, was instructed to "inform the Trustees of the Boston Medical Library, that after the year 1821 the faculty will not be able to increase their library annually to the amount they have heretofore done."  More to the point, perhaps, is that Boston Medical Library found another partner—the Boston Athenaeum. 



Union with the Athenaeum



 Photograph of George Hayward

          Founded in 1807, the Boston Athenaeum began to position itself as a major research facility for the city "combining the advantages of a public library [and] containing the great works of learning and science in all languages."  Libraries from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Massachusetts Agricultural Society, the Massachusetts Scientific Library Association, King's Chapel, and the Theological Library were all consolidated with the Athenaeum's holdings to increase the scope of its collections.  The library held over 15,000 volumes by January, 1826.  On May 3, 1826, the Trustees of the Boston Medical Library entered into an agreement to add their holdings to the Athenaeum's.  Each Proprietor of the Boston Medical Library would be granted all the rights and privileges of a Life Member of the Athenaeum, or could become a Proprietor of the Athenaeum for $150.00.  A new catalog of the Athenaeum, incorporating the medical books, would be printed.  At the signing of the agreement, there were 31 Proprietors of the Medical Library, and all but one, Blowers Danforth, chose to become Life Members.  The Athenaeum Trustees appointed George Hayward "agent of the Athenaeum to keep charge of the books and circulate them to the late Proprietors of the Medical Library as heretofore … and that they have appointed Enoch Hale, M.D., agent of the Athenaeum to collect the notes & funds of the late Medical Library & account to us for the same in books, in the binding of books, or in cash."  All the holdings of the Boston Medical Library—"books, plates, maps, with the cases and other furniture and all other property whatsoever"—were transferred from the Medical School to the Athenaeum building on Pearl Street later that year.


Engraving of Enoch Hale


          Josiah Quincy, in The History of the Boston Athenaeum (1856) states, of the acquisition, that "The Medical Library contained more than two thousand volumes of well-selected modern works on Medicine, Surgery, and Chemistry, purchased within ten years, at an expense of more than four thousand five hundred dollars."   Although the collection filled some seventy shelves in the Pearl Street building, once consolidation with the Athenaeum was realized, the Boston Medical Library could maintain its identity in only a very modest way.  Each volume was given the book stamp of the Athenaeum on its title-page, and Athenaeum bookplates with circulation rules were inserted—in many instances these rules covered or obscured the original ornate Boston Medical Library bookplate.  Financial records of the Athenaeum indicate additional funds were contributed and books and journals purchased sporadically and bound out of the Medical Library's account until 1843.  At that point, the existence of the Boston Medical Library had come to an end—but the history of its collection had not.


The Second Boston Medical Library




Engraving of John Gorman

          In 1876, at the first annual meeting of the new Boston Medical Library Association, the Librarian, Dr. James Reed Chadwick, discussed the medical libraries of the past.  Of the 1805 Boston Medical Library, he said "It is gratifying at the outset to learn that our association has adopted the name of almost the first extensive collection of medical books that was made in the city.  It would be doubly pleasing could we spread a paternal wing over the books themselves."  Dr. Chadwick was prescient, as he did, in fact, see this come to pass. 


          Over the years, the Boston Medical Library of 1875 spread its "paternal wing" over many libraries, both private and institutional, taking in the holdings of the Boston Society for Medical Observation, the Boston Society for Medical Improvement, the Boston Gynecological Society, William Read's obstetrical library, Friedrich Tiedemann anatomical collection, Oliver Wendell Holmes' personal collection, and the medical books of the Boston Public Library and Harvard College, among many others.  In 1896, the Trustees of the Boston Athenaeum decided to discontinue their medical department and entered into an agreement to deposit these books with the Boston Medical Library.  Initially, the acquisition was estimated at some 500 volumes; in fact, the Athenaeum proceeded to transfer caches of its medical books—in excess of 1,500 volumes—to the Boston Medical Library over the next twenty years.  Among these were the surviving books of the first Boston Medical Library. When the second Boston Medical Library and Harvard's medical library moved into the Countway building in 1964, the remnants of that earliest collection came along, and they can still be traced today.Photograph of John Ware

          How much of the original collection remains?  In the early years of the 20th century, probably around 1902, the Boston Medical Library developed and implemented a new classification scheme for all its books.  It was then recognized that some 40 titles from the 1805 collection could be identified; these were given a distinctive call number and shelved together.  What was not clear at that time was that other volumes—indeed, many other volumes—from the first Boston Medical Library were also still extant, but scattered throughout the collection and more difficult to identify.  Using the existing catalogs and examining the physical evidence of bookplates, inscriptions, and shelf marks, over 200 titles—roughly one-quarter of the Boston Medical Library collection at the time of its consolidation with the Athenaeum—have now been identified with certainty, and there are several other likely but unconfirmed candidates.  Most of the books used for this exhibit were drawn from the collection of the 1805 Boston Medical Library. 


          Although long gone and nearly forgotten, the first Boston Medical Library provides a snapshot of the knowledge of medicine and surgery current at the time, and, in conjunction with the foundation of hospitals and establishment of medical societies in the early 19th century, its story testifies to the developing sense of benevolence, education, and social service of the city's physician-population.  In the final analysis, the Library did not have the resources to survive on its own and so failed of its object, but the collection built by its Trustees still, in part, survives, and 200 years later inspires "emulation and gratitude" from the successors to those early practitioners and casts light on this obscure chapter of Boston's rich medical history.


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