Detail of the engraved title page of Observations including a portrait of a woman and baby

Three Rare Volumes Go to New York

By Michael J. North

I was quite excited when I heard that The Grolier Club of New York was staging an exhibition on the history of women in science and medicine, but I was even more thrilled when the curators asked if the National Library of Medicine could contribute by lending three rare volumes to the show. Extraordinary Women in Science & Medicine: Four Centuries of Achievement  “explores the legacy of thirty-two remarkable women whose extraordinary scientific accomplishments in physics, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics, computing, and medicine changed science” and will be on display at the Grolier Club from September 18 to November 23, 2013.

A photograph of a two story hall with display cases set in the lower story wall s and bookshelves in the gallery above.
The Grolier Club Gallery
Courtesy The Grolier Club

The Grolier Club is the oldest and largest organization dedicated to the book arts and graphic design in the United States.  Its Library of over 80,000 volumes focuses on all aspects of the book, including the history of printing, bookbinding, paper, typography, and the book trade. In its 125-year history the Club has organized more than five hundred exhibitions on topics ranging from chess and fine printing to bookbindings, botany, and photography. I had the privilege of working at the Grolier Club myself as a rare book cataloger and as curator of the Library from 1997 to 2000, so my connections are also personal.

The current exhibition presents more than 170 original artifacts, including printed books, manuscripts, and scientific apparatus gathered by curators Ronald Smeltzer, Robert Ruben, and Paulette Rose. Included are items like a 1759 first edition of Emilie du Châtelet’s translation into French of Isaac Newton’s groundbreaking work, Principia Mathematica.

Two of the items lent by NLM are by Louise Bourgeois Boursier (1563–1636), who was the midwife to the Queen of France, Marie de’ Medici. Boursier is famous for improving the science of obstetrics and was the first French midwife (“sage-femme”) to publish a book on the topic, Observations Diverses sur la Sterilité, Perte de Fruict, Foecondité, Accouchements, et Maladies des Femmes, et Enfants Nouveaux Naiz, published in Paris in 1609. NLM is lending a copy of the second edition of Observations, published in 1617, which includes engraved portraits of Boursier and the Queen and a special essay, Advice to my Daughter (Conseils à ma Fille). Also on loan is an early English translation of this book, The Compleat Midwife’s Practice Enlarged, published in London in 1663, which was heavily edited by English obstetrician Thomas Chamberlayne.

The third item lent was published three centuries later: volume 54 of the Archives de Biologie, published in Liège, Belgium, in 1943 during the height of World War II. This unassuming scientific journal volume contains an article by Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909–2012) which contributed to her receipt of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986, “Recherches quantitatives sur la marche du processus de différenciation des neurones dans les ganglions spinaux de l’embryon de poulet” (“Quantative research on the process of differentiation of neurons in the spinal ganglia of the chick embryo”). What is stunning about this article, which she co-wrote with Giuseppe Levi, is that the experiments described were performed on chicken eggs and carried out in home-made laboratories in Turin and the Italian countryside in Piemonte while the authors, who were Jewish, were hiding from Italian fascists as the War raged on (read her own account of it here). After the War, Levi-Montalcini became a renowned scientist for her research into nerve growth factor (NGF) and the first living Nobel Laureate to reach the age of 100 in 2009.

The Grolier Club will also hold a symposium on the history of medicine and science on October 26 from 12:00 to 5:00 P.M. For more information about the Grolier Club, this exhibition, and the symposium, please visit the Club’s website.

Michael J. North in the incunaMichael J. North is the Head of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.


  1. Interesting; I would love to hear more about the authorship of the “Compleat Widwife’s Practice.” In some sources it is attributed only to Thomas Chamberlayne, but in others it is mainly attributed to Boursier; I suspect it is an amalgam. The “Instructions of the Queen of France’s Midwife to her Daughter” appears to be a reference to Boursier’s “Conseils à ma Fille.”

  2. Hi Michael,

    Great exhibit! Stephanie knows whereof she speaks…it’s worth taking a look at her article.

Leave a Reply to Michael NorthCancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.