A peek at the New York Academy of Medicine’s Rare Book Collection

Marco Romani
Sep 12 · 11 min read
One of the many inscriptions gracing the New York Academy of Medicine’s Latin-rich facade. (Wally Gobetz; edited from this source)

If you ever worried about a Latin mistake you made in a writing assignment, don’t despair: whatever your lapsus calami was, it is very unlikely to be set in stone for posterity — which is what happened to a Latin inscription on the iconic façade of the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM), at the corner of 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

I arrived to the NYAM building on a sunny Saturday morning, and stopped in front of the west-facing façade to read the inscription. It says: ACADEMIA MEDICINAE NOVA EBORACENSIS, which unfortunately means… “York’s New Academy of Medicine”! (Academia Medicinae Noveboracensis or Neoeboracensis would be correct).

In a 1939 letter, the Academy trustee Dr. Lewis Frissell remarked that, while the blunder had long been known to the NYAM community, “we trusted that the inexpertness of the average New Yorker in Latin might cover up the deplorable ignorance of the inscription. How to remedy it architecturally has been the crux of the matter, let alone the expense.” (The letter is quoted, along with further details on the inscription’s history, in Matthew McGowan’s essay “In Ancient and Permanent Language,” recently published in Classical New York.)

Whether or not we agree with Dr. Frissell on “average” New Yorkers and their familiarity with Latin, it is doubtless that his and others’ parsimony ultimately led to the Academy’s decision to leave the inscription unchanged.

The façade of the New York Academy of Medicine. (All photos by author unless otherwise noted.)

The current seat of the Academy was built in 1926 (almost eighty years after the Academy’s founding in 1847), thanks to seven-figure grants from the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations. Today, its combination of neo-Romanesque architecture and Classical reminiscences still bears witness to the taste of the NYAM’s founders — particularly so by displaying over a dozen Latin inscriptions and housing an astonishing collection of early medical books.

As I approached the northern side of the building, my attention was struck by a Latin version of Hippocrates’ first Aphorism, which seems to remind all lovers and practitioners of the healing art that becoming a doctor is no easy task: VITA BREVIS — ARS LONGA — EXPERIENTIA FALLAX — IUDICIUM DIFFICILE (“Life is short, art is long; experience is deceitful, and decision difficult,” which is an abridged adaptation of the original Greek).

Nevertheless, the reward for the arduous labor of the physician is exceptionally high, as is underscored by a Ciceronian quotation on the same side of the building: HOMINES AD DEOS NULLA RE PROPIUS ACCEDUNT QUAM SALUTEM HOMINIBUS DANDO (“In nothing do humans more nearly approach the gods than in giving health to other humans”, from Pro Ligario 38.1).

For the NYAM’s founders, as I came to realize, medicine is a quasi-divine enterprise: correspondingly, approaching the Academy’s front entrance feels like entering a temple dedicated to the art of healing and its ancient Greco-Roman heroes. As I walked towards the portal, I stopped to look closely at its architectural decoration.

The high-relief tympanum features the divine healers Asclepius and Hygieia, accompanied by their dogs, on either side of the famous serpent-entwined rod. Above the portal, portraits of Hippocrates and Galen flank the Academy’s Latin motto, [NEC] POST MILLE SAECULA PRAESCINDETUR OCCASIO ALIQUID ADJICIENDI (an adaptation of Seneca, Epistulae Morales 64.7–8), which asserts faith in the never-ending progress of science: “Even a thousand ages hence, the opportunity to add something further will still be open.”

I could not resist the temptation to track down the original passage: in Letter 64, Seneca tells Lucilius that, in science, there will always be new discoveries to be made, and that even the time-honored findings of ancient inventors and scientists (and philosophers) will inevitably need to be adjusted to new circumstances.

Thus, old medical remedies will have to be reworked to cure new diseases: I think this is probably an echo of the idea, widespread in the ancient medical tradition, that future scientific discoveries can virtually be unlimited, as long as they rely on a deep understanding of past ones and the methods employed to achieve them.

The Academy’s portal.

Soon after the NYAM building was completed, thousands of medical books found a new home in its library. Manuscripts and early printed volumes quickly became a focus of the Academy’s librarians, and the Rare Book Collection now includes about 32,000 items spanning from the fifteenth century to the eighteenth.

Even the conspicuous reproductions of Renaissance watermarks on the chandeliers in the Rare Book Reading Room pay homage to the history of early printing. In 1878, the Fellows and Board of the Academy voted to open the library to the general public. The library is now accessible by appointment, and guided tours are offered at no cost on the first Monday of every month (excluding holidays).

A chandelier featuring Aldus Manutius’ seal, visible in the foreground along with the emblems of other Renaissance publishers (courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library)

I visited the NYAM Rare Book Reading Room earlier this September, when the NYAM offered tours of its Library as part of MED, a four-day outreach initiative designed to engage both the public and medical professionals in an effort to expand access to the world of medicine and healthcare. Exhibits, talks, and similar events are periodically organized by MED in various cities around the world.

The NYAM’s Rare Book Reading Room is a very intimate, homely place where anyone interested in the history of the medical sciences can delve into a unique world of books and artworks. As soon as I arrived, I was warmly welcomed by Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian, who expertly walked me and other visitors through a breathtaking array of hidden treasures.

A view of the NYAM’s Rare Book Reading Room (courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library)

Among the earliest volumes held in the collection, an illuminated manuscript containing a Middle English translation of Guy de Chauliac’s seminal treatise Chirurgia magna (Great Surgery) is particularly intriguing. The illumination style, in fact, is echoed in the decoration and design of the Rare Book Room itself — especially the painted plaster ceiling.

While my eyes wandered back and forth from the book’s illuminations to the flowery motifs on the ceiling, I began to realize how the library and its volumes are a mirror image of each other, testifying to the pivotal importance of books in transmitting scientific knowledge throughout history.

Above: a detail of the ceiling; below: an illuminated page in the Chauliac manuscript (courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library; a digital version of the manuscript is available through the NYAM website)

Thanks to his status as papal physician in Avignon, the fourteenth-century doctor Guy de Chauliac, author of the Chirurgia Magna, had access to an extraordinary wealth of medical books—including translations of the works of Greek- and Arabic-speaking scientists.

Thus, in his compendium of surgical techniques, Chauliac was able to integrate the teachings of Hippocrates and Galen with references to Ibn Sina, Al-Razi, and Al-Zahrawi. Throughout his work, Chauliac sees the practice of medicine as inseparable from the study of its history, and books as the first and foremost tools of the surgeon’s trade.

In the Renaissance as now, visual presentation was crucial to scientific communication. While I looked at the NYAM’s copy of an early-sixteenth-century French translation of the Latin treatise Hortus sanitatis (“The Garden of Health”), my attention was immediately caught by its numerous woodcut images of herbs and plants used to prepare drugs and remedies.

The widespread attribution of healing powers to mandrake plants probably originates in the observation that the shape of mandrake roots vaguely resembles that of human bodies — the Hortus’ illustrator, though, takes the idea to the next level by making the plants look like actual human figures.

The ‘Mandrake Man’ and the ‘Mandrake Woman’, from Antoine Vérard’s “Ortus sanitatis translate de latin en françois” (courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library)

Along similar lines, the late-fifteenth-century treatise known as Fasciculus Medicinae (“Booklet of Medicine”), attributed to the German doctor Johannes de Ketham, illustrates the technique of bloodletting through a diagram directing physicians to the points in the human body where phlebotomy can be performed.

The text includes detailed instructions on how to carry out each type of venesection properly: for example, “make sure that the patient has an empty stomach before cutting any arm veins” is one of the precepts found in the book.

Bloodletting, a dangerous practice already recommended by ancient medical writers, was still common in the late nineteenth century, with much of its success resting on the Galenic idea that removing an excess of blood from the body can help cure various diseases by restoring the natural balance of the four humors: phlegm, yellow bile, black bile, and blood itself.

While glancing at the NYAM’s copy of the Fasciculus, I suddenly recalled that America’s first president, George Washington, died soon after nearly forty percent of his blood had been drained from his body to treat a seasonal illness in 1799. (Let me add a curiosity: a set of dental tools made by George Washington’s personal dentist, Dr. John Greenwood, is on display in the NYAM Rare Book Room).

Above: the ‘Bloodletting Man’; below: diagram of female anatomy, both from an early-sixteenth-century Italian edition of the “Fasciculus Medicinae” (courtesy of the U.S. National Library of Medicine; digital versions of the NYAM copies are available through the NYAM website)

Humoral theory, one of the pillars of European medicine from Greek antiquity to the late Renaissance and beyond, is also the physiological underpinning of the notion of ‘temperament’. On the Galenic account, the states, moods, and passions of the mind are influenced by the mixture of the four humors in the body.

Thus, you can be ‘phlegmatic’, ‘choleric’, ‘melancholic’, or ‘sanguine’ depending on which humor predominates (the Fasciculus, for instance, claims that pregnant women are especially prone to melancholy). During my visit to the NYAM Rare Book Collection, Arlene Shaner pointed out that the Fasciculus and other early medical treatises show particular interest in the ways in which pregnancy affects the anatomy and the physiology of a woman’s body.

Without a doubt, the presence of an embryo — or homunculus — inside another human body intrigued generations of physicians. In fact, the preformationist idea that human organisms develop from fully formed, yet miniaturized, version of themselves ruled the day until the nineteenth century and the rise of modern cell theory.

A pair of seventeenth-century anatomical models, which I find one of the most startling artifacts on display in the NYAM Rare Book Room, confirms this trend. The outer part of the torso in both ivory figurines can be detached to reveal their (painted) organs and, in the female figure’s case, the fetus.

It is still unclear what such objects were used for; scholars currently tend to rule out any pedagogical function and think that the mannequins were, rather, collector’s items for wealthy medical doctors.

Two ivory anatomical models, probably made in Germany in the late seventeenth century (courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library)

As I contemplated the wondrous level of detail that distinguishes these artifacts, I asked myself: how did anatomy become such a source of fascination to doctors and artists alike?

Some possible answers can perhaps be found in another Renaissance highlight of the NYAM Library: a copy of Andreas Vesalius’ 1543 anatomical atlas, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (“On the Architecture of the Human Body”).

Besides successfully practicing medicine, Vesalius was also an influential lecturer and scholar, responsible for a comprehensive edition of Galen’s writings. The healer of bodies was also a healer of ancient texts!

By realizing that Galen’s grasp of human anatomy was imperfect due to its relying on primate dissection (human dissection was illegal in second-century Rome), Vesalius paved the way for a thoroughly empirical rethinking of anatomical studies and for the establishment of anatomy itself as an autonomous science, rather than an ancillary discipline at the service of therapy and surgery.

Vesalius’ ambitious work painstakingly describes and categorizes all the bones, muscles, nerves, and organs that make up the “fabric” of the human body.

An illustration from Vesalius’ “De humani corporis fabrica” (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Fabrica itself is an ancient technical term for “structure” or “building”, but it can also denote the expert “skill” that artisans and technicians need in order to complete their tasks successfully — in this sense, for instance, it is famously used by Vitruvius in the preface to his De architectura, where the term refers to one of the two essential faculties (along with ratiocinatio) that make the architecti scientia possible.

As such, fabrica is an eminently empirical ability: Vitruvius defines it as continuata ac trita usus meditatio, quae manibus perficitur e materia cuiuscumque generis opus est ad propositum deformationis (“prolonged and familiar practice, which is carried out by means of the hands, starting from whichever material is necessary for the purpose of the design”).

It may be, I thought while gazing at the Fabrica’s unique combination of art and learning, that Vesalius’ approach to anatomy is reminiscent of the scientific lens that Vitruvius applied to architectural knowledge one and a half millennia earlier.

To be sure, a strive towards encyclopedic systematization is apparent in Vesalius’ trilingual glossaries, which meticulously classify each bone, muscle, and organ in the human body by assigning them Latin, Greek, and Hebrew names — a masterpiece of early typesetting art.

It is no wonder to me that the Fabrica, which immediately became renowned for its detailed illustrations (the artists probably attended Vesalius’ dissections), sparked a true revolution in anatomy and medical pedagogy, and remained a must-read in European medical literature for centuries to come.

As Mark Schiefsky has argued on The Lancet, pre-modern medicine is still relevant to today’s physicians — though less so when it comes to the implementation of specific treatments and therapeutic practices than when considering the fundamental questions that medical doctors have frequently asked themselves throughout history, and continue to grapple with.

How do diseases originate? In what ways do physiological processes affect the workings of the mind? Is human dissection ethically justifiable? In what forms should anatomical knowledge be researched, organized, and transmitted? These and related issues were subject to deep scrutiny by medical doctors of all ages.

The Hippocratic oath, one of the best-known medical texts of antiquity, is still adopted by many medical schools. While the ancient Greek version instructs aspiring doctors “to give a share of precepts and oral guidance and all the other learning” to their pupils and children, the modern text—written over two thousand years later—prompts the apprentice physician to make a strikingly similar promise: “I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.”

It should more often be emphasized, I believe, that ancient medical writers—and their Renaissance followers—regarded an understanding of how the art of healing and its scientific discoveries came about as crucial to any further progress of the medical sciences through new discoveries. Indeed, according to numerous doctors of classical antiquity and beyond, any new medical discoveries are made possible by that very inquiry into the past.

The time I spent in the NYAM Rare Book Room poured new energy into my study of ancient and early modern science. If you are curious about the history of medicine and would like to learn more, the New York Academy of Medicine Library is a perfect place for you.


[Our best thanks are due to Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian, and the NYAM Library for kindly allowing us to publish the pictures taken by the author during a visit to the NYAM Library on September 7, 2019. For more information about the library, visit its website.]


In Medias Res

A magazine for lovers of the Classics, published by the Paideia Institute.

Marco Romani

Written by

Dr. Marco Romani holds a PhD in Classics from Harvard and works as Outreach Manager at the Paideia Institute. He also enjoys the NYC theater and opera scene.

In Medias Res

A magazine for lovers of the Classics, published by the Paideia Institute.

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