By Krista Stracka ~
Rollin R. Gregg’s Illustrated Repertory of Pains in the Chest, Sides and Back published in 1879, came to the National Library of Medicine in 2007 through a generous donation from the National Center for Homeopathy. The Center characterized the book as “surely one of the most unusual repertories published.” Rollin Robinson Gregg (1828–1886) was a well-known homeopathic physician in the United States who believed, “Wherever there is suffering to be relieved, there MUST be a remedy for it.” Gregg felt that he and his fellow homeopaths themselves were suffering from symptoms of confusion and memory impairment from the exhaustive reference volumes they relied upon to for patient care. Gregg decided that charts were the remedy for what would now be recognized as “information overload.”
Gregg strictly followed and applied the homeopathic principles established decades before by founder Samuel Hahnemann, including the Law of Similars and the Law of Infinitesimal Dose. In practice, this involved gathering information through a lengthy patient consultation followed by a detailed search of the Materia Medica and repertories to select a remedy based on the highly individualized symptoms expressed by the patient. These three tools contained too much for the mind to process quickly, let alone memorize. To aid in the process, Gregg whittled hundreds of pages of dense text from the most consulted homeopathic texts down to 79 pages and 5 plates in his Illustrated Repertory. Homoeopathic World later wrote, “The idea of helping our sadly overladen memories with the aid of pictorial symptomatology is very laudable,” a review repeatedly reprinted (only in part) by the book’s publishers in later catalogs.
These five plates illustrate all pain events in the torso region, presented from different angles. Against a black background, the striking arrows and darts in white shoot across the torso like a constellation map to help homeopaths navigate the course of repertorization by which they designed treatments. The characteristics and direction of pain symptoms are differentiated in the charts through a variety of symbols placed in the location of the event. For instance, a throbbing or pulsating stitch is represented as an arrow with a figure of a heart. Pinchers represent a pinching pain or stitch. Pressure in connection with stitching or darting pain is represented by a half-globe. Each symptom is accompanied by the abbreviated name of the remedy, more fully described in the text.
These diagrams are early examples of infographics, a method of visually interpreting complex information in an easily digestible form and also a way cope with the dreaded information overload. Data visualization is a rapidly growing field in this digital age which produces an ever-expanding amount of data and the use of infographics has remained popular. You can find modern examples of medical infographics at NIH ( and on pain at the NIH Pain Consortium) and at the BMJ.
In advertisements, the publisher left out the reviewer’s opinion that Gregg’s remedy for information overload did not work as intended. The Homoeopathic World reviewer wrote:
“…a battalion of white darts and arrows flying about in all directions…makes confusion worse confounded. Try another plan, dear doctor, and send us an advance sheet.”
We hear about data every day. In historical medical collections, data abounds, both quantitative and qualitative. In its format, scope, and biases, data inherently contains more information than its face value. This series, Revealing Data, explores how, by preserving the research data of the past and making it publicly available, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) helps to ensure that generations of researchers can reexamine it, reveal new stories, and make new discoveries. As the NLM becomes the new home of data science at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Circulating Now explores what researchers from a variety of disciplines are learning from centuries of preserved data, and how their work can help us think about the future preservation and uses of the data we collect today.
Interested to see up-close the historical text described in this blog post? Come for a visit! The History of Medicine Reading Room at NLM is open from 8:30 to 5pm (EST) Monday through Friday except for Federal holidays. Access to this book is provided through LocatorPlus, the Library’s online catalog. For questions about this book and other historical collections, including how to consult them, please contact the History of Medicine Division Reference staff at NLM Customer Support or call (301) 402-8878.