detail from the title page of A booke of the arte and maner how to plant and graffe all sortes of trees...

How to… in the historical collections of NLM

By Michael Sappol

The “how to” is an ancient genre. There are Egyptian how-to texts (in hieroglyphics) on how to prepare mummies; Sumerian how-tos (in cuneiform), on how to pray; Hellenistic how-tos (in Greek) on how to do geometry; Roman how-tos (in Latin) on how to seduce people; and so on. In English, “how to” becomes a frequently used formula in the late nineteenth century and almost ubiquitous after the 1936 publication of Dale Carnegie’s  How to Win Friends and Influence People.

But it goes back. The oldest English-language how-to at the National Library of Medicine dates from 1575:

A booke of the arte and maner how to plant and graffe all sortes of
trees, how to set stones, and sowe pepins,
to make wylde trees to graffe on, as also
remedies and medicines….

book open to the title page, the long title set in an inverted pyramid and illustrated with a woodcut of a man grafting trees
A booke of the arte and maner how to plant and graffe all sortes of trees,… 1575
National Library of Medicine #2262027

As it turns out, the National Library of Medicine has over 8000 “how to” items, in English alone: books, pamphlets, handbills, prints, posters, articles. Some are instructional, some satirical; some highly technical, some stupefyingly simple. As you might expect, many of them deal with health and disease: How to Avoid Infection; How to Avert CancerHow to Prevent  Scarlet Fever from Spreading; How to Be Always Well; etc.

cover of a small pamphlet illustrated with a drawing of a cow
How to Kill Animals Humanely
National Library of Medicine #101215931

But there are all kinds of topics: How to Behave in a Hospital; How to Use a Forceps; How to See with a Microscope; How to Become a Lady Sanitary Inspector; How to Adjust Mental Mal-Adjustments. And some are only peripherally medical (How to Enjoy Life; How to Avoid Spoiling a Child) or not medical at all (How to Kill Animals Humanely; Human Faces, What They Mean! How to Read Personal Character). But all of them are artifacts of time and place. They richly document historical acts and actors, events, trends, beliefs, institutions and technologies.

From time to time this blog will shine a spotlight on the NLM’s “how to” holdings. Next up: The Bubonic Plague and How to Prevent It (Lahore, British Colonial India, 1897) …

profile portrait of Michael Sappol in ChicagoMichael Sappol is a historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.


  1. From what I understand there really weren’t any ancient Egyptian papyri on the preparation of the body for mummification–why, because this was so common a procedure that a written record was not necessary, it was passed by word of mouth. On the other hand there were written records on mummification of the sacred Apis bull—because the bull’s life span was 20-30 years and more likely than not the embalmers would be deceased when it became necessary to prepare the next in line, hence written instructions were necessary.

    1. Maybe it’s a stretch to say “There are Egyptian how-to texts (in hieroglyphics) on how to prepare mummies” (other than mummies of sacred bulls). The Egyptian Book of the Dead, originally painted on walls in hieroglyphics, later transcribed to papyrus, and other ancient funerary texts, don’t say how to prepare bodies for mummification, rather they tell how to help mummies go off on their trip to the after-world. The preparation was in the form of spells written on the mummy wrap or amulets or other devices. One other point: while many of the ancient Egyptian funerary texts are in hieroglyphic, with or without illustrations, others are in hieratic script. For more information, pray to Anubis the Jackal-Headed God (or see wikipedia)!

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