Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Photographs
from the Collections of the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine


Magical Stones and Imperial Bones highlights just a few of the extraordinary resources available here in the Countway Library of Medicine. Touching on aspects of medicine’s history and impact on public health, from ancient medications to smallpox vaccinations and the development of modern antibiotics, from medical education to Arctic exploration, this selection of books, manuscripts, prints, photographs, and artifacts from the Boston Medical Library and the Harvard Medical Library represents just a fraction of the holdings here in the Rare Books and Special Collections department. Ranging from the thirteenth century to the twentieth, from the Winter Palace of the Czars of Russia to the assassination of President Garfield, Magical Stones and Imperial Bones celebrates six centuries of significant developments in the history of medicine as documented through the rich and varied collections here at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.

Marbode, Bishop of Rennes (1035-1123)
De Lapidibus : manuscript, early 13th century

De lapidibus

Bishop Marbode of Rennes was a poet, teacher, and scholar of the late eleventh century. His best-known work, De Lapidibus ["On Gemstones"], is a verse treatise describing the medicinal, therapeutic, and magical properties of sixty different jewels. These two leaves describe the properties of chalcedony, emerald [smaragdus], sardonyx, onyx, sard, chrysolite, beryl, and topaz. De Lapidibus was one of the most popular works of scientific and medical lore in the Middle Ages. Translations into French, Spanish, Irish, Hebrew, and English are known, while over 125 Latin manuscripts have survived. This is one of only three manuscripts of De Lapidibus in the United States.

Purchased for the Solomon M. Hyams Collection of the Boston Medical Library, 1932

Macer Floridus (12th century)
De Viribus Herbarum:
De Viribus Herbarum (Geneva: Louis Cruse, circa 1495)

De viribus herbarum (manuscript)

De viribus herbarum

Macer’s De Viribus Herbarum ["On the powers of herbs"] is one of the earliest surviving natural history texts from the Middle Ages. Nothing certain is known of "Macer Floridus" but the name is believed to be a pseudonym of a 12th century French physician, Odo of Meung. The De Viribus is a hexameter poem of over 2,200 lines, delineating the medicinal virtues of common plants and herbs. It illustrates the knowledge of both botany and therapeutics current in the medieval period. The De Viribus was a standard text in some of Europe’s earliest medical schools, such as Montpellier and Salerno. The edition printed in Naples in 1477 is one of the first printed books.

The Countway Library’s collection of medieval and Renaissance books and manuscripts is so extensive that it is possible, in this instance, to compare a handwritten Latin manuscript of the De Viribus (on the left) with one of its earliest printed versions (right). These leaves contain the opening lines of the poem and concern the uses of artemisia [mugwort or wormwood].

Bequest of Dr. William Norton Bullard to the Boston Medical Library, 1931

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564)
De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem
(Basileae : ex officina Ioannis Oporini, 1543)

De humani corporis fabrica

One of the most renowned and beautiful of all medical books, Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica ["On the artistry of the human body"] revolutionized the teaching of anatomy. Andreas Vesalius, a Flemish anatomist, believed that the body could only properly be examined through dissection and promoted the study of human anatomy in a series of layers—from the bones of the skeleton, through the muscles, blood vessels, and nervous system, to the organs and, finally, the brain. This series of layers is examined systematically in the text of the seven books of the Fabrica. This first edition of the Fabrica is one of four copies held by the Countway Library. Prominent neurologist and historian Henry Rouse Viets (1890-1969) credited his first sight of this particular copy—opened by Dr. Harvey Cushing "as gently as an obstetrician with a new-born babe"—with inspiring his interest in the history of medicine.


Gift of Sir William Osler to the Boston Medical Library, 1904

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