Skip to content Skip to navigation

Scope of the Collections

Manuscripts and Archives

The Center for the History of Medicine's collection of archives and manuscripts, numbering between 15-20 million items, is the largest collection of its kind in the United States. The Center's active records management and acquisitions program ensures that the collection continues to grow, documenting the recent past and present for the benefit of current and future researchers.

The manuscripts collection includes the personal and professional records of physicians from the medieval and Renaissance periods through the twentieth century, including the professional papers of many renowned Harvard faculty members as well as physicians and scientists from New England and around the country. The collections comprising the Archives for Women in Medicine are contained in the Center's manuscript holdings. Notable collections include those of Benjamin Waterhouse, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Stanley Cobb, James Jackson Putnam, Grete Bibring, Maxwell Finland, Henry Beecher, Walter Bradford Cannon, Leona Baumgartner, Clarence J. Gamble, John Rock, Joseph Murray, Mary Ellen Avery, Bernard Lown, Eva Neer, David Hubel, and Judah Folkman. The collections include records of professional associations and organizations, such as the Massachusetts Medical Society, the New England Röntgen Ray Society, and the Dorchester Medical Club, and records of health care institutions, including those of the Brigham and Women's Hospital. 

The Center also preserves and maintains the archives—the official records—of the Harvard Medical School (founded in 1782), School of Dental Medicine (1867), School of Public Health (1922), and the Boston Medical Library. The Archives feature planning and policy records of the Deans' Offices, minutes of faculty committees, accreditation records, curricular materials, and departmental records of academic and adminstrative offices from the late 19th century to the present day. Boston Medical Library records include committee records, correspondence, and collection development records.

Online guides to approximately 200 of the larger and more frequently used collections can be viewed here, under Collection Guides. Guides have also been deposited in the U.S. National Library of Medicine's Finding Aids Consortium and Harvard University's OASIS database, and are accessible via web search engines; all of these options give the user the ability to do key-word searching. 

More than 75% of manuscript collections and archival series are cataloged in HOLLIS, the University Library's union catalog. HOLLIS provides a number of filters, including the repository name and material type. Some collections predating the 20th century are indexed (some at the item level) in manual card catalogs of the Center's reading room, Holmes Hall.


Rare Books and Journals

The Center's collection benefits from the combined strengths of the Boston Medical Library and Harvard Medical Library. The joint collection is particularly rich in the diverse subject areas of anatomy, gynecology and obstetrics, radiology, medical jurisprudence, neurology, surgery, psychology, phrenology, physicians' travel narratives, medical botany, pharmacy and pharmacology, and internal medicine. There is particular depth in medical incunabula with over 800 books printed before 1501; European books printed from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century; and English publications before 1800; and a comprehensive collection of American, particularly New England, medical imprints of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Through funds endowed by the BML and HML and the generosity of donors, the collection continues to expand; recent additions include mid-twentieth century Chinese texts on traditional medicine and rare 18th and 19th century South American publications on infectious disease. More than 9,000 volumes from the Center's collections have been digitized and are available through the Medical Heritage Library.

Particularly significant special collections libraries included in the broader Center holdings are those physicians Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Collins Warren and his family; the anatomical library of Friedrich Tiedemann; Edward A. Holyoke Library; the collection of Mendicant Literature; and the Hyams Collection of Medical Judaica. Also worth noting is the Boston Public Library Deposit Collection which, in 1906, shifted professional medical literature to the Boston Medical Library.

Download a list of special collections libraries.


Boston Public Library Deposit Collection

In 1906, the Trustees of the Boston Public Library designated the Boston Medical Library "a deposit station, and have sanctioned the ultimate removal for deposit there of such medical works now in the Central Library as in the judgment both of the Trustees and of the Boston Medical Library can wisely be thus deposited.  No control of the books is relinquished, and they are to be kept open to the use of the same persons who would be entitled to use them if they remained at the Central Library, the object of establishing this deposit being to avoid the duplication of medical works, especially books of a class which are not in popular demand, thus securing the advantage that those who desire to consult works of this character will find the largest collection under one roof.  The books and periodicals of which the transfer has been authorized are chiefly those of an especially scientific character, which are not often consulted except by professional readers."  BPL holdings continued to be transferred to the Boston Medical Library over the following decade.  The deposit collection is now with the Countway Library of Medicine, and the staff provides access to its holdings in conjunction with the rare book collection at the Center for the History of Medicine.  Researchers continue to benefit from the collection, and we remain grateful to the Boston Public Library for entrusting its holdings to the Countway.

The collection is described in HOLLIS, the University's online library catalog. Users can search within the collection by consulting HOLLIS and searching on the phrase "deposited by B.P.L."

Users can also download an Excel file listing the entire collection arranged alphabetically by author's name. 


Warren Anatomical Museum

The present Warren Anatomical Museum collection includes approximately 3200 anatomical and osteological preparations, 750 wet tissue preparations, over a 1000 watercolors, drawings, photographs, and lantern slides, an estimated 1000 anatomical models and casts, 500 human and non-human calculi, and roughly 8500 medical, dental, and public health instruments and devices. The collection’s strengths are in anatomy, pathology, and medical education, and it draws from the Harvard and Harvard affiliate health services community. Collections of note in the Museum include the skull, life cast, and tamping iron of Phineas Gage, the Boston Phrenological Society collection, the Boston Society for Medical Improvement collection, Dickinson-Belskie obstetrical model collection, the Bigelow-Wallis and Warren-Kaula watercolor collections, and the pelvis and proximal femurs of Charles Lowell. More on the scope of the Warren Anatomical Museum can be found on the Warren Collection Scope page.


Harvard Student Theses

As part of the institutional archives, the Center for the History of Medicine houses student theses from the Harvard Medical School, School of Dental Medicine and School of Public Health. Theses from 1983 to the present are found in the HOLLIS catalog and are searchable by author's name and keyword in title, and are also browseable by call number and year. Theses predating 1983 are also part of the collection; consult with public services at or 617-432-2170 for further information on holdings and availability. Most student theses are stored off-site at the Harvard Depository. 

In 2015, the Longwood Schools will be providing theses and dissertation submission through DASH, the University's open access repository for student and faculty scholarship. While the Center will continue to preserve paper copies, the most efficient access is offered through HOLLIS or the DASH site.


Prints and Photographs

The prints and photograph collections of the Center for the History of Medicine are estimated to contain 30,000 items; this number is misleading since manuscripts and archives collections contain images that may not be individually enumerated in collection guides. There are several distinct collections of photographs, such as those created by school communications offices.  The collections include portraits of physicians, images of medical and teaching facilities (exteriors and interiors), departmental faculty and staff, student activities, operations, and instruments. An extensive collection of prints includes caricatures and satires.

Users may also wish to browse the growing number of images (including image files for scanned documents) contained in the Center's online OnView site.

Additionally, selected images from the Center's archival collections have been embedded in a number of Collection Guides; download a list of linked guides here. A representative sample of these images can be found in VIA, Harvard's union catalog of visual resources at Harvard. Use the " Limit repository to:" option and pick "Countway Library of Medicine."

Download a list of collection guides containing digital images.


Art and Artifacts

The Center for the History of Medicine has curatorial responsibility for the Boston Medical Library and the Harvard Medical School art collections, which includes a print and photographic collection of some 100,000 items, along with other works of fine art, such as the painting First Operation under Ether by Robert C. Hinckley and portraits of eminent Massachusetts physicians by Gilbert Stuart, Rembrandt Peale, and John Singleton Copley.  The Manfred Kraemer Collection of Medical Prints and Satires is also housed in the Center for the History of Medicine. The Center for the History of Medicine also houses a small artifact collection consisting of instruments, machines, plaques, and medals. The Horatio Storer Collection of Medical Medals, containing 6,000 items, is considered to be one of the world's largest medical numismatic collections.

A representative sample of works in the Center's collections can be found in VIA, Harvard's union catalog of visual resources. Use the " Limit repository to:" option and pick "Countway Library of Medicine."   Some works of art are cataloged and available through the Harvard Art Museums online resources.