The First Medical Book Printed in the New World

By Michael J. North

Just over thirty years after the first printing press arrived in the New World from Spain, the first medical book was printed in Mexico City: Francisco Bravo’s Opera Medicinalia, published by Pedro Ocharte in 1570. While it is well within NLM’s mission to collect, preserve and give the world access to such a book, there is only one known copy of it, housed in La Biblioteca José María Lafragua at the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla in Mexico and we are all extremely fortunate that this sole copy has been digitized by the Primeros Libros project.

Decorative title page with Latin text presented with classical architectural features, dated 1549.

Digitized title page from Francisco Bravo’s Opera Medicinalia, published by Pedro Ocharte in Mexico in 1570.
Courtesy “José María Lafragua Historical Library”. B. Universidad Autónoma de Puebla. México.
Photography: Iván Pérez Pineda

The National Library of Medicine does have a copy of the text, however, in the form of a photostatic copy made in 1944. Long before the age of digitization, the only ways to make rare texts available at other libraries were by copying them by hand, reprinting them, microfilming, or making photocopies, all of which are extremely time-consuming and expensive for entire books. This copy was made from a photostatic copy at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, which in turn was made from a photostatic copy at the New York Public Library. The copy in New York is described as a “facsimile reproduction of the original at the Library at the Universidad de Puebla, Mexico” where the only original copy is held. NLM has at least five other early printed books from the 1500s made using the old photostatic process from the Huntington’s copies. All of these are very rare medical books printed in England between the years 1502 and 1539: some of the earliest medical books printed in England, so scarce the NLM had little chance of ever obtaining originals.

Not much is known about the author of the first medical book printed in the New World, Francisco Bravo, but he was born in Southern Spain around 1525 and studied medicine at the University in Osuna or Sevilla. He was practicing medicine in Sevilla in 1553, and at some point he made the crossing to Mexico—probably sometime after 1560. He practiced medicine in Mexico City and served on the university’s medical faculty there. He seems to have died in about 1595.

Written in Latin, Opera Medicinalia consists of a set of treatises on various medical topics including a long discourse on a disease called “tabardete,” which may have been typhus, citing works on the topic by earlier Arab and Greek physicians. Typhus is a disease spread by lice, and was common on board ships crossing the Atlantic during the colonial period. Also included in the book is a long treatise in the form of a dialog on bloodletting accompanied by a simplistic woodcut of the venous system inspired by Andreas Vesalius’ Epistle [on Venesection], printed in Basel in 1539. Bravo also included a long discussion of the sarsaparilla plant (Smilax aspera), native to North America, including Mexico, whose roots were thought to cure a number of ailments. The book includes two woodcut illustrations of the plant by Juan Ortiz which were based upon illustrations from Pietro Mattioli’s Commentaries on Dioscorides (Commentarii… De Materia Medica) published in Venice in 1554. The fact that Bravo’s book was written in Latin, shows that it was aimed at a scholarly audience rather than the general public.

Opera Medicinalia was printed by Pedro Ocharte (1532–1592), who was originally from Rouen, France and had Hispanicized his name from Pierre Ochart or Charte. He arrived in Mexico from Sevilla as a merchant in the 1550s and by 1560 was managing the press of Mexico’s first printer, Juan Pablos (1500–1560 or 1561). Soon after Pablos died, Ocharte married his daughter Maria Figueroa and took over the press. The main body of the text was printed using one of Juan Pablos’s old thick, blackletter typefaces, which was more common in Germany from which Spain’s first printers came. Eventually printers in Spain preferred Roman typefaces (as in most of Southern and Western Europe), and you can see these in use in this book’s printed marginalia.

In 1571, a year after Ocharte printed Opera Medicinalia, he and his assistant Juan Ortiz (1538–ca. 1595) were arrested by the Holy Inquisition and subjected to brutal torture for allegedly having “heretical opinions;” the reality was that others may have denounced them because they were jealous of Ocharte’s success and wealth and because he and Ortiz were non-Spanish (Ortiz was also born in France). Ocharte’s press continued to produce books during his imprisonment, which ended in 1574, and he went on to print books until 1592. The last book he printed was also a medical book, Agustín Farfan’s Tractado Brebe de Medicina. By coincidence, the former office and prison of the Holy Inquisition in Mexico City where Ocharte was held is now the Museo de Medicina Mexicana, a museum focusing on the history of medicine in Mexico.

For more information about NLM’s early Latin American collections, please contact me at northm@mail.nih.gov.

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.