Woodcut of a woman sowing on a machine in a room full of folded cloth, a nurse stands by while men discuss a parcel.

Hosting the Representative of Flanders

By Jeffrey S. Reznick

The richness of Flemish history came alive here at the NLM recently, when we were honored to host a visit of Geert De Proost, the General Representative of the Government of Flanders to the United States. He joins a number of VIPs who have graciously turned their attention to our collection and programs, and, through their own interest and work, have engaged with our mission to collect, preserve, make available, and interpret for diverse audiences one of the world’s richest collections of historical material related to human health and disease.

We were pleased to share with Mr. De Proost some of the rare and unique materials from the Library’s collection, including the oldest Belgian book in our collections, Enchiridion theologico-moralia [Moral-Theological Handbook]. Composed in Brussels and dating from 1471, this book is in fact a manuscript collection of essays attributed to Wilhelm Schultes and others on a variety of religious subjects, but also including medicine in the context of sin as a poison to the body. Through the expertise of our colleague Dr. Stephen Greenberg, Mr. De Proost also learned about a 1565 manuscript letter De morte Vesalii ex letteris Huberti Langueti [The death of Vesalius, from a letter by Hubert Languet], written in Paris by Hubert Languet (1518–1581) on the flyleaf of a non-medical text by Kaspar Peucer (1525–1602). This letter describes the pilgrimage to Jerusalem of Andreas Vesalius—the great anatomist from Belgium’s capital—following his unintentional incision into a body which had a beating heart. Vesalius died on the pilgrimage under obscure circumstances, and this letter is the earliest known account of his death.

Another highlight of Mr. De Proost’s visit was viewing several books published during and immediately after World War I. Events to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the war have been taking place since 2014, and will continue through 2018. Among the items displayed was Journal of a Canteen Worker: A Record of Service with the American Red Cross in Flanders, by Herbert Mason Sears, the prominent Boston banker and philanthropist who recorded his experiences as a Red Cross volunteer in the Flemish town of Oostvleteren. Mr. De Proost also examined a copy of A Green Tent in Flanders, an illustrated memoir by Maud Mortimer, a “New York society girl” who served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D.) in a French field hospital during the war. A contemporary review of her book, published in the Evening Capital News of Boise, Idaho, described it as containing “stories of wounded men, some stories light, some grave, some tender, some gruesome…Miss Mortimer writes graphically. Her green tent was but five miles back of the firing line.” Mortimer’s engagement with the war continued after the guns fell silent in November 1918; she became a member of the American Committee for Devastated France, and was in charge of its tearoom on New York’s 39th Street.

Above: Images from Journal of a Canteen Worker: A Record of Service with the American Red Cross in Flanders, by Herbert Mason Sears. Below: Images from A Green Tent in Flanders, by Maud Mortimer.

Mr. De Proost’s visit also featured a tour of Confronting Violence, Improving Women’s Lives, a powerful special display, currently open at the NLM until October 14, 2016 and also traveling around the country through 2019, which tells the story of a vanguard of nurse activists who worked to change the way the medical profession responded to patients who had been battered. The display served a touchstone for our conversation about the profound impact of such personal trauma, as well as the experience of trauma in other far-reaching contexts. Mr. De Proost shared details of the 2013 seminar “Between Trauma and Transformation: A Needs Based Approach,” an initiative of the Flemish Department of Foreign Affairs, which addressed how scientific expertise can contribute to trauma therapy and peace-building during and in the aftermath of war, armed conflict or catastrophe. Proceedings of this seminar are publicly available, and we appreciate Mr. De Proost calling our attention to them so we can share them with you.

Mr. De Proost, who graduated from the University of Leuven with his LL.M. in European and international law, appreciated his visit and the copy of the NLM’s Hidden Treasure book presented to him by NLM Acting Director Betsy Humphreys:

I want to thank Betsy and Jeff and their colleagues for their warm welcome as well as for this wonderfully illustrated book. It has been a truly eye-opening experience to explore such an impressive institution. The NLM is a real treasure trove for all who are passionate about the history of health and disease. I hope to visit again and welcome an opportunity to collaborate.

We look forward to keeping in touch with Mr. De Proost and all our friends from Belgium, and we appreciate their valuable time and interest in our collections and programs!

The NLM and its History of Medicine Division are open to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (EST) Monday thru Friday except for Federal holidays. We warmly welcome visitors and anyone who would wish to request a tour of our collections and exhibitions. Contact us at (301) 402-8878 or at NLM Customer Support.

Portrait of Jeffrey S. Reznick in the HMD Reading RoomJeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, is Chief of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.


  1. The reason for Vesalius’ pilgrimage to Jerusalem is unclear . From what is written I suspect that the reason for the journey was in penance for dissecting what he thought was a cadaver but what was actually a living specimen. He probably thought he had murdered the unfortunate individual and was going to Jerusalem as an act of contrition to make amends. Does this sound plausible ?

      1. Your references cite several other explanations beside mine . I never knew there was so much interest out there, fascinating , I guess we will never know for sure . Thankyou

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