Medicine, Museums, and Unicorns

By Stephen J. Greenberg

One of the fun parts of working at the reference desk in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine is never quite knowing what question you will be asked next.  The phone rings, an email pops into your mailbox, and suddenly you are being asked whether the red silk linings of British Army pith helmets had medicinal benefits or how would leukemia have been treated in 12th century Florence.

So it’s a bit of a relief when you answer the phone and find you are talking to Dr. Barbara Drake Boehm, Curator, Department of Medieval Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  Dr. Boehm tells you she is organizing a special exhibition to celebrate the 75th anniversary of The Cloisters, home of the Met’s spectacular medieval and early Renaissance collections.

Unicorn objects on display under the stone arches of The Cloisters building

Courtesy The Cloisters
Photograph by Stephen Greenberg

The Cloisters is just that: a re-creation of a High Medieval cloister in northern Manhattan, comprising elements of several French structures, plus new architecture, to create a unique venue for the Met’s treasures.  The most famous of these would have to be the Unicorn Tapestries, portraying the hunt and capture of a unicorn with all of the romance and symbolism that 15th century Dutch artisans could cram into a piece of woven cloth. What better way to celebrate the anniversary than with an exhibition centered on the tapestries?

five engravings of unicorns

Illustration from Histoire générale des drogues
National Library of Medicine #2396074R

While researching possible items to supplement the Met’s holdings, Dr. Boehm had decided to include Pierre Pomet’s Histoire générale des drogues (A Complete History of Drugs), which features (in Dr. Boehm’s words) “lively and varied engraved images of unicorns.” There are several editions of this work, but she had determined that NLM held a copy of the 1694 French first edition, and she was on the phone to ask if NLM would consider loaning our Pomet to the Met for the exhibition. Indeed we would. There were procedures to follow, details to be fleshed out, forms to complete, transportation options to consider, but when two large institutions are of a single mind to make something happen, success is pretty much assured.

five handcolored animals that resemble cats, a dog and a unicorn.

Illustration from
The Wonders of Creation
National Library of Medicine #9409277

During a visit to NLM to see the Pomet in person, Dr. Boehm met with Michael North, Head of HMD’s Rare Books and Early Manuscripts Section, who suggested another unicorn-related volume: the Kitāb-i ʻajāyīb al-makhlūqāt va gharāʼib al-mawjūdāt, known in English as The Wonders of Creation, compiled by Zakarīyā ibn Muhammad al Qazwīnī.  NLM’s manuscript copy, in Persian, dates to about 1700, and features a striking and unusual hand-drawn and -colored unicorn. The Wonders of Creation was added to the loan list.

Why does NLM have books on unicorns?  There are different reasons for the two books.  In the case of Pomet, the text concentrates on the powerful healing qualities of unicorns horns, qualities still prized in non-Western medicine.  A 17th century “complete and general history of drugs” such as Pomet’s would be bound to contain a bit on unicorns and their horns.  The al Qazwīnī is part of another tradition, in which bestiaries and books on the wonders of an imperfectly known world gradually add to the collective body of scientific knowledge.  Books as varied as Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium (1551) and Ambroise Paré’s surgical Oeuvres (“Complete Works,” 1585) mix real and imagined creatures for the edification of their readers (although it’s never quite clear whether such authors believed in all of the creatures they present).

four women surround a book on a table

Delivering the goods: (l-r) Met Registrar Meryl Cohen; NLM Conservator Holly Herro; Met Curator Barbara Drake Boehm; Met Conservator Yana Van Dyke. In the middle is Pomet.

It was decided that The Cloisters would take responsibility for fabricating exhibition cradles, and NLM staff would transport the two books to New York. So, one brisk spring day, Holly Herro, NLM Conservator, and I took the two carefully packed books to the Met, where they were joyfully received and gently unpacked by Met staff in a custom-designed receiving room.  The books are now on view as part of The Cloisters exhibition Search for the Unicorn: An Exhibition in Honor of The Cloisters’ 75th Anniversary which will be on display at the Cloisters from May 15 to August 18, 2013.  For further information, go to:

http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2013/search-for-the-unicorn

Stephen J Greenberg in his officeStephen J. Greenberg, PhD, is Coordinator of Public Services for the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.