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.