Early Journals: What’s in a Name?

By Atalanta Grant-Suttie

The journal is so much a part of the current apparatus of scholarly communication that one never really thinks where and how the term might have originated. The origins of the word “journal” derive from Old French, Middle English and Late Latin in the fourteen century. However, perhaps the concept of the journal all started under the oriental plane tree in Kos, Greece with Hippocrates, the Father of Western Medicine, discussing medical topics with his students. The complete collection of Hippocrates’s writings does not appear to have been undertaken by him alone as there are different writing styles and different medical topics. Thus, the work attributed to Hippocrates that has survived could be the earliest contributions of the journal format in the western world.

In the collection of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine, there is a rich and interesting journal collection from the late seventeenth century to 1870 published in many different European languages. Books and pamphlets from the period before 1870 are considered journals when they have a range of content that is linked to a series of dates. I recently inventoried this fascinating collection and surveyed its condition. The review revealed a wealth of provenance information in many of the titles, including ownership signatures, former owners, title changes, bookplates and inscriptions. As the inventory proceeded, examples from over two centuries of journals surfaced that shed light on how the journal format has evolved through many different variations in support of scholarly discourse.

One current meaning of the word ‘journal’ is a personal collection of chronological writings, in other words, a diary. Diaries have been written over many centuries to record daily occurrences and events and in current parlance are associated with personal ruminations and private use. In the collection is a fascinating octavo in Portuguese published in Lisbon in 1764 entitled Diario Universal de Medicina, Cirurgia, Pharmacia Etc. In this book, there are two letters after the title page. Both letters are from Manoel Gomes De Lima. The first letter seems to address Senhor D. Josephi, and the second letter is addressed to Antonio Soares, professed Knight in the Order of Christo and chief surgeon and colonel in the Kingdom of Portugal. The main text is a diary for the months of January to March 1764. The author presents his information by specific months indicating that the time of the year was important. This Portuguese publication seems to be a presentation of medical, surgical, and pharmaceutical information addressed by the author to people held in high repute as a tribute to them.

Another intriguing title from the collection is in Dutch. Naleezing van den Artz, of Genees-heer in spectatoriaale vertoogen was published in Amsterdam in 1784 by Jacobus van der Burgh en Zoon and translates into English as Gleanings from the doctor of medicine …. The word “gleaning” is usually associated with the harvest, gathering in dropped grain after the reapers have passed. It is a “here and there” process picking up discarded grains. Science is a “here and there” process of observation, experimentation, and proof, as knowledge is built up over time. There are four volumes of this title published over several years, thus, the recognized journal format that we know today. This work by a Dutch doctor makes clear that the information has been gathered over time and extracted from various sources though, unlike other titles for journals, “gleanings” is not a term that has persisted to the present day.

There are so many interesting titles in the journal collection at the National Library of Medicine all of which are variations on the theme of what is considered a journal for scholarly discourse. There is a newspaper format in twelve volumes published in Venice entitled Giornale per servire alla storai ragionata della medicina di questo secolo, and volumes of another newspaper format published in Salzburg called Medicinisch-Chirurgishce Zeitung beginning in 1790. There are also weekly publications such as Weekelyk Discours over de Pest, en alle Pestilentiale Zieken published in Amsterdam in issues numbered 1-30, from November 1721–June 1722. The day, month and/or year were important to demonstrate the advance of the information and the continuing work of the authors, and over time to provide context for the comparison and evaluation of the information; this became the convention for scholarly discourse.

An open book showing the title page of Histoire de L’Academie Royale... and an elaborate engraved centerpiece honoring King Louis XV

Volume I of Histoire de L’Academie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, 1717

A number of journals in the collection include the term “memoria” or “histoire” in the title such as Memorias de la Real Academia Medica de Madrid, volume one and two, published in 1797 and 1862 respectively, and Histoire de L’Academie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres published in Paris by the Royal Printers in forty-three volumes from 1717–1786. French is not the only language with titles beginning with “memoria” or “historia,” there is a journal title called Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester published in London in three volumes from 1785–1790, with a second series in 1806, and a third series in three volumes from 1862–1868. These publications are like diaries for organizations, documenting the activities of the organization through time.

There are many other titles in the Collection, which are, ostensibly, in the journal format as currently accepted but their titles have slight permutations in meaning and emphasis. One particularly interesting example is a London publication in three volumes dated 1763–1764 called The Medical Museum; or A Repository of Cases, Experiments, Researches, and Discoveries Collected at Home and Abroad… with a list on the title page of the subject areas covered. Another Swiss publication in four volumes for the years 1792–1797 entitled Museum der Heilkunde, which translates roughly in English to “Museum of Medicine,” is also in the collection. With this later title, ‘museum’ is used to mean something like ‘annals’ or a recording of knowledge collected over time. And of course, there are also publications in the collection that state exactly their format in the title such as the French publication from 1680 to February 1682 called Journal des nouvelles découvertes, concernant les sciences & les arts qui font partie de la médecine produced in Paris which in English translates as Journal of new discoveries in science & arts that are part of medicine.

Of particular significance in the collection are the many volumes of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, first published in 1665/1666. The word “transaction” has a business connotation and in this instance the exchange is in information. This title is considered one of the first journal publications to engage in peer review and contains a rich array of scientific discourse over two centuries, often with many wonderful illustrations to enhance whatever argument is being presented. Today, peer review is the core tenant of modern journals where the scholarly and scientific community goes about its business of transacting information about the latest discoveries among the various scientific constituencies.

Thus, there are many permutations on the journal in the Rare Book Stacks in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine. Titles include terms such as diaries, gleanings, weeklies, histories, museums, and transactions as we’ve seen and there are also magazines, memoirs, newspapers, commentaries, reviews and treatises depending on how the information has been planned for publication. All of these formats have at their core the serious intention to present professional scientific information to peers and the wider scientific scholarly community and the date of the discoveries are paramount to the discourse.

Special thanks to Michael Winship, Iris Howard Regents Professor of English II at the University of Texas at Austin who first sparked my interest in the journal format during his course The American Book in the Industrial Era, 1820–1940 taught at the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA.

Atalanta Grant-Suttie is a Preservation Librarian for the Rare Books and Early Manuscripts Section in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.