The symbolic figures of Britannia, Minerva, and Charity look at a document outside a large building.

NLM’s Unique Early English Books Now Online

By Krista Stracka

Earlier this summer, the National Library of Medicine announced the release of Unique English Imprints, pre-1800, a new collection available now through the NLM’s Digital Collections. The collection comprises letterpress books and pamphlets printed in the English-speaking world between 1550 and 1800 that are uniquely-held by NLM and are now accessible without a trip to our reading room. The material covers a variety of topics, including the Great Plague, the Voluntary Hospital Movement, and the adoption of inoculation for smallpox.

NLM’s participation with the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) helped staff identify and select these unique items for digitization. The ESTC is a database designed to include a bibliographic record, with holdings, of everything printed between 1473 and 1800 in Great Britain or any of its dependencies, in any language. The ESTC contains over 480,000 records with holdings from libraries around the world and is co-managed by the British Library and the Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research (CBSR) at the University of California, Riverside. Currently, NLM has over 9,000 books that are listed in the ESTC, the most for any medical library in the world. In 2011, we requested a list from the ESTC of pre-1800 English materials uniquely held here at the National Library of Medicine. About 300 books were identified on this list. After cross-checking the information with the physical copies in hand, we selected around 270 books to be scanned for the project. So far, over 160 of those books have been digitized with more still to come.

Feature from the NLM Digital Collections homepage.The majority of the collection was published during the eighteenth century, a particularly innovative period in both medicine and printing. The image that represents the collection on the main page of the Digital Collections (caption: “Pre-1800 English, Scottish, Irish, and American items uniquely held by NLM”) is an engraving by Samuel Wales and Charles Grignion from on the first page of An account of the Westminster New Lying-in Hospital, begun and finished under the patronage of the Right Honorable Earl Percy, president, London, ca. 1767. Allegorical in nature, the scene represents the initial proposal for the hospital by Dr. John Leake to the British public through the symbolic figures of Britannia, Minerva, and Charity. The Westminster New Lying-In Hospital was opened in 1767 as one of the first general maternity hospitals to offer care to poor women regardless of marital status.

Here Beginneth the Seinge of Urynes, of All Coloures That Urynes Be Of (1552) is one of the earliest publications in this collection and was printed using a gothic typeface by William Copland for Abraham Uele. This guide for “uroscopy,” or the sensory analysis of urine, describes a spectrum of twenty colors ranging from “whyte as Claye water of a well” to “blacke as cole,” with likely implications and treatment recommendations. Each description is accompanied by a simple woodcut illustration of a matula—a small, bulbous glass flask used to physically examine the color and consistency of the urine. Based on similar works, it is likely that these woodcuts were meant to be hand-colored by the user for visual reference.

Popular works are particularly well represented in this collection and include several unique editions. For example, the sixth edition of The Family’s Best Friend, or the Whole art of Cookery by Arabella Fairfax was printed in London by C. Henderson around 1755. Little is known about Fairfax to date, and only information about the fifth and sixth editions is available. Although this work is most likely a pirated version itself, the prefaces for both editions were printed using a distinctive typeface to prevent the work from being reprinted without permission.

Detail of a distinctive typeface.
A distinctive typeface was used for the Preface to “…prevent unfair Traders from reprinting, or in any wise from defrauding the Author.” The Family’s Best Friend, or the Whole art of Cookery, 1775

Bound in brown calf, the pages are filled with numerous sweet and savory recipes, including some traditional English dishes like giblet pie and strawberry fool. Based on the principle of frugality, Fairfax’s instructions for the housewife and domestic servant include advice on pickling, potting, and preserving fruits and vegetables year-round, with guidance on managing a kitchen garden and cultivating flowers and fruit trees.

An illustration of two ducks ready to roast, one shown breast side up, the other back side up..
A woodcut illustration displays the proper technique for trussing a duck for roasting.

The kitchen garden provided more than the ingredients for a meal. Nestled between the chapters on brewing and gardening is a selection of several recipes for the care of the sick and preserving one’s health. These traditional remedies were the first line of defense against illness and disease, as care from a physician was not always feasible. A few of these recipes are familiar remedies in homes today (Chicken Broth, p. 183). Others, like Snail Water (p. 180), have waned in popularity, to say the least. Dr. Richard Mead (1673–1754), an eminent physician and advocate for the poor, is credited with the original printed recipe for Snail Water as an affordable alternative for treating tuberculosis and venereal disease. Several other nostrums printed in The Family’s Best Friend, or the Whole Art of Cookery are also attributed to Dr. Mead, including “A valuable Remedy to prevent persons from catching the Small-Pox, Plague, or any other Epidemical Disorder” (p. 186) and “Dr. Mead’s Receipt for the Bite of a Mad Dog” (p. 191).

Look for more titles to appear in the Digital Collections in the coming year, including a diploma earned by Dr. John Mapples after completing Dr. William Smellie’s courses on midwifery and two editions of Aristotle’s Master-piece Compleated from 1702 and 1776.

Krista Stracka is a Rare Book Cataloger for the Rare Books and Early Manuscripts Section in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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