The Harvard Medical Library

The origins of the Harvard Medical Library can be traced back to the formation of the Medical School itself in 1782 when the Harvard Corporation hoped to enrich the University by the acquisition of "a collection of the most approved authors in anatomy, surgery, physic, chemistry, etc.— a collection more perfect than any in America." In 1800, Ward Nicholas Boylston presented Harvard with some 1,100 volumes and anatomical plates and preparations, forming the nucleus of the Boylston Medical Library, which was held by the University in Cambridge after the removal of the Medical School to Boston in 1810. The true Harvard Medical Library was founded in 1819 with a donation of volumes from the personal libraries of members of the faculty, including Doctors James Jackson and John Collins Warren, and was principally designed to serve the needs of the students. In 1884, the Medical School encouraged the individual academic departments of Anatomy, Physiology, Chemistry, Pathological Anatomy, Surgery, and General Medicine to form their own working libraries, and it was not for another thirty years that a central library was formed, amalgamating many of these disparate collections into one facility for the use of the entire medical community. Over time, the resources of several separate subject collections, such as the George Burgess Magrath Library of Legal Medicine and the Bowditch Library of Physiology and Biochemistry, along with the collection of the Harvard School of Public Health, were also added to the central library.


The Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine

In 1958, Miss Sanda Countway provided a substantial gift to the Harvard Medical School for the construction of a new library in memory of her brother, Francis A. Countway, the former president of Lever Brothers, Inc. The Harvard Medical Library then entered into a formal agreement with the Boston Medical Library to combine their staffs, services, and collections into one modern biomedical library facility. The Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine opened in 1965 and ranks as one of the largest medical libraries in the world. It serves as a resource in clinical medicine, the biomedical sciences, dentistry, and public health, providing historical and modern information to students and faculty of the Harvard Medical, Dental, and Public Health schools, affiliated institutions, members and fellows of the Boston Medical Library and Massachusetts Medical Society, and the scholarly community around the world.


Early Medical Education at Harvard

Harvard Medical School holds the distinction of being one of the very few American medical institutions formed in the eighteenth century and still in existence today. Created in 1782, according to a plan devised by surgeon John Warren (1753-1815), the Medical School has a rich history in both education and research. Its documentary legacy contains a wealth of material for the historian of medicine, and the Archives of Harvard Medical School form another significant historical resource and subject strength of the Countway Library's collections.

The Archives, in conjunction with a Records Management Program, preserves and provides access to the institutional records of the Harvard Medical School, School of Dental Medicine, and School of Public Health. Holdings in the Archives date from the late 18th century through the present day and include executive and departmental correspondence, course records, catalogs and publications, photographs and audiovisual records, and student dissertations.

Some of the earliest records of the school, including the first medical lectures, oldest surviving diploma and thesis, and an account of the student days of one of the first graduates, are displayed in this exhibit, along with John Warren's own copy of John Morgan's A Discourse upon the Institution of Medical Schools in America (1765), the basis for the Harvard Medical School plan.



John Morgan (1735-1789)
A Discourse upon the Institution of Medical Schools in America
(Philadelphia : Printed and sold by William Bradford, 1765)

The first book to be published on medical education in America was written by Dr. John Morgan, who founded the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania, the nation’s first medical school, in 1765.

This particular copy is notable for its fly-leaf presentation inscription from Morgan himself to Dr. John Warren (1753-1815) in 1783. In the previous autumn, Warren was appointed Harvard’s professor of anatomy and surgery and charged by the Corporation of Harvard College with the formation of a plan for medical instruction. Dr. Warren delivered his first course of lectures during the winter of 1783-1784. This was the beginning of Harvard Medical School.

Gift of Joseph Warren to the Harvard Medical Library, 1932

John Warren's lectures

John Warren (1753-1815)
Lectures upon Anatomy : manuscript, 1783-1785

Partially in the handwriting of Dr. John Warren, this volume of lecture notes, beginning on December 10, 1783, contains the earliest surviving record of teaching at Harvard Medical School. The lectures were delivered in Harvard Yard, probably in Holden Chapel.

After summarizing the history of his subject, Dr. Warren then justifies dissection as an essential component to anatomical study: "At the first view of dissections, the stomach is apt to turn, but custom wears off such impressions. It is anatomy that directs the knife in the hand of a skilful surgeon, & shews him where he may perform any necessary operation with safety to the patient. It is this which enables the physician to form an accurate knowledge of diseases & open dead bodies with grace, to discover the cause or seat of the disease, & the alteration it may have made in the several parts."

Bequest of Dr. John Warren to the Harvard Medical Library, 1928

Admission Ticket for Ichabod Tucker to the Lectures of Aaron Dexter
at Harvard Medical School
, October 14, 1790


1790 lecture admission ticket


The use of admission tickets for each course of a medical student’s education was common until the late 19th century. Students paid the lecturer or professor directly and were then issued these passes for an academic session. This particular item is the earliest admission ticket known for a Harvard Medical School course. Aaron Dexter (1750-1829) was the professor of chemistry and materia medica and the third member, along with John Warren and Benjamin Waterhouse, of Harvard’s original medical faculty.

Gift of Francis H. Lee to the Harvard College Library and transferred to the Harvard Medical Library, 1917


Pierre Laterriere's thesisPierre de Sales Laterrière (1747-1815)
Mémoires de la P. de Sales Laterrière et de Ses Traverses
(Quebec City : L'Imprimerie de l'Evenement, 1873)

Pierre Laterrière, who first studied medicine under M. de la Rochambeau in France, came to Harvard and received the degree of Bachelor of Medicine in 1789. He went on to practice medicine in Canada. Laterrière’s Mémoires, although written at the end of his life and not published until 1873, contains the earliest account of a student’s experiences at Harvard Medical School and remains a seminal historical document of the institution during its first years.

Purchased for the Harvard Medical Library, 1941

A Dissertation on the Puerperal Fever
(Boston : Samuel Hall, 1789)

Dr. Laterrière’s thesis was first presented orally at the Harvard commencement ceremony in 1789. He dedicated the printed version to Drs. Warren, Waterhouse, and Dexter as "Gentlemen not more distinguished by their literary accomplishments, and their professional abilities, than respected for their attention to students, and their talents for instruction."

This copy of the Dissertation was given to Dr. John Collins Warren by Laterrière.

Gift of Elisha Copeland to the Boston Public Library, 1857,
and deposited with the Harvard Medical Library, 1941




Diploma of the Degree of Bachelor of Medicine conferred on Lyman Spalding by Harvard Medical School, July 19, 1797

During the first years of the Harvard Medical School, students were granted an M.B. degree, the Bachelor of Medicine, upon completion of the course of study and an M.D., or Doctor of Medicine, only after a successful examination seven years later. In 1811, the M.D. was conferred on all medical graduates of that year and all alumni who had not otherwise received it.

This M.B. diploma with its wax seal was conferred in 1797 on New Hampshire physician Lyman Spalding (1775-1821), who was later granted the M.D. as well. It is not only one of the earliest surviving diplomas from the Medical School, but also one of the very few examples of the Bachelor of Medicine degree.

Gift of Mrs. Laurence Sprague Stewart to the Harvard Medical Library, 1964




Robert Tanner FreemanGeorge Franklin Grant

Robert Tanner Freeman and George Franklin Grant :
albumen prints, 1869 and 1870

Part of a set of photographs of members of the first graduating class of Harvard Dental School, this image of Robert Tanner Freeman (d. 1873) is particularly interesting. Dr. Freeman was born in Washington, D.C., and was the son of former slaves from North Carolina. After attending classes in the Harvard Medical School, he became, in 1869, the first African-American to graduate from the Harvard Dental School and is believed to be the first to be awarded a dental degree in the United States.

Gift of Dr. Thomas Fillebrown to the Harvard Dental School, 1894

Dr. George Franklin Grant (1847-1910) of Oswego, New York, received a degree from the Harvard Dental School in 1870 and then joined the faculty as an authority on mechanical dentistry. He was the first African-American faculty member at the university and remembered today for his invention and patenting of the golf tee.

Gift of Dr. Charles Wilson to the Harvard Dental School, 1894


The Warren Library

In 1928, the Harvard Medical Library received a magnificent bequest of 2,000 medical books, pamphlets, and manuscripts, assembled by five generations of the Warren family of Boston. Ranging from the earliest days of printing up to the opening of the 20th century, the Warren Library contains some of the rarest and most significant works in the history of medicine and surgery, including titles by Andreas Vesalius, William Harvey, William Hunter, Joannes de Ketham, John Hunter, Ambroise Paré, and Celsus. Many of the oldest items in the collection were among the last to be added to it. There are ten incunables—books printed before 1501—in the Warren Library. Most of these were purchased and added by Dr. John Warren just before his death in 1928. Book-collecting was his great personal pleasure, and he acquired many notable early anatomical and surgical works.

Both a working medical library and a leisure-time resource, the Warren collection reflects the tastes, occupations, and preoccupations of its owners. Dr. John Collins Warren contributed a significant collection of pamphlets related to the development and use of ether as an anesthetic—hardly surprising given his role as the surgeon in the groundbreaking first public operation at the Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846. The published writings of the Warrens themselves—from Dr. John Warren’s A View of the Mercurial Practice in Febrile Diseases (1813) to editions of his great-great-grandson’s textbook, An Outline of Practical Anatomy (1924)—are all represented in the collection. A copy of John Morgan’s A Discourse upon the Institution of Medical Schools in America (1765) is inscribed by its author to Dr. John Warren in 1783—just as Dr. Warren was beginning to deliver the first lectures at Harvard Medical School. This volume is complemented by John Warren’s manuscript notes for the earliest surviving medical lectures at Harvard.

A number of other Warren Library books bear presentation inscriptions from their authors to members of the family. A small handful even have a succession of family signatures on their title-pages or flyleaves, as the books passed from one generation to the next, over the course of a century and a half. Many of the volumes carry versions of the distinctive Warren bookplate with the family’s coat of arms depicting a rearing lion on a shield. This became the basis for the seal of Harvard Medical School.

The Royal College of Physicians of London
Pharmacopoeia Collegii Regalis Londini

(London : impensis Tho. Newcomb, Tho. Basset, Joh. Wright, & Ric. Chiswel, 1677)

The Royal College of Physicians first began to publish an authoritative list of pharmaceutical compounds and directions for their use in 1618. The title-page of this third edition of the Pharmacopoeia is notable for the succession of signatures of its owners in the Warren family.

Before coming into the possession of John Warren, the volume belonged to Zabdiel Boylston (1679-1766), the physician who first inoculated the citizens of Boston against smallpox during the epidemic of 1721. Dr. Boylston signed his name at the end of the Pharmacopoeia, along with the Latin tag against book theft, "Hic nomen pono quia librum perdere nolo. Si quis furatur, per collum pendatur" [Here I place my name as I do not wish to lose my book. If anyone should steal it, let him hang by the neck.]

Bequest of Dr. John Warren to the Harvard Medical Library, 1928


First rhinoplasty in the United States


J. Mason Warren (1811-1867)
Surgical Casebook : manuscript, 1832-1843

After his graduation from Harvard Medical School in 1832, Dr. Jonathan Mason Warren, like many American medical students, went to Europe and continued his clinical education in the Hôtel-Dieu, La Pitié, and other hospitals of Paris. There he studied the surgical work of Guillaume Dupuytren and Philibert-Joseph Roux and attended lectures of Gabriel Andral. J. Mason Warren returned to Boston in 1835 and assumed his father’s medical practice, specializing in plastic surgery.

This volume contains observations of cases Dr. Warren observed in the wards of Paris, but also contains records of his own first patients—including this notable 1836 case of the first rhinoplasty performed in the United States.

Gift of Dr. Richard Warren to the Harvard Medical Library, 1984

John Warren's rattleRattle, 1874

Designed to resemble a ceremonial gavel, this silver baby's rattle was given to John Warren at his birth in 1874. Dr. Benjamin Eddy Cotting, a family friend, commissioned it from Crosby, Morse and Foss of Boston. Dr. Cotting was, at the time, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society. The engraving reads "B.E.C. to J.W., the present to the future president, Mass. Med. Soc., Sixth Sept. A.D. 1874." Although all five Warrens were members of the society, only John Warren (1753-1815) and John Collins Warren (1778-1856) held the office of president.

Gift of Dr. Richard Warren to the Boston Medical Library, 1979





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