A collage featuring a photograph of Windsor, seated, in a hat and materials he wrote or collected.

Dr. Windsor: Gentleman Collector of Rare Medical Books

By Anne Rothfeld ~

What motivates a rare book collector? A medical professional naturally accumulates an array of reference books particularly around their specialization. But what attracts some to historical works, and materials that range far from a collector’s professional interests?  Books are certainly beautiful, aesthetic objects; and then there’s the thrill of the hunt. Book collectors’ euphoria for seeking certain editions through antiquarian bookshops and assembling materials into an ever-growing collection, indicates into emotional investment. Collectors’ motivations are as unique to the individual as to their collection—the private pleasure of discovering and accumulating treasures, an altruistic impulse to preserve knowledge, or a more public desire to build a quality collection that will stand as a legacy.  Some or all of these may have motivated Thomas Windsor, whose lifetime of investment in books enriched the growing collections of the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office (now the National Library of Medicine) upon his death in 1910.

A photograph of an older man, seated in profile, in a heavy coat and brimmed cap.
Thomas Windsor in A Centenary History of the Manchester Medical Society, With Biographical Notices of its First President, Secretaries and Honorary Librarian, 1934
National Library of Medicine #31711080R

Thomas Windsor (1831–1910) was a well-regarded British surgeon who had a large private practice. He studied at the Manchester Royal School of Medicine where he qualified and passed the Membership of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) in 1853–1854.  After receiving his diploma from the Manchester Eye Hospital in 1856, Windsor began his career working in London’s general and special hospitals as an ophthalmic surgeon, including Salford and Pendleton Royal Hospital and Dispensary, Manchester Southern Hospital for Women and Children, and Royal Infirmary, and served as lecturer in ophthalmology at Owens College Manchester.  He spoke several languages and tracked medical advancements across Europe. He abstracted articles from medical journals indicating his knowledge of the breadth of the surgical field and transcribed and translated numerous articles from German and French medical journals into notebooks.  He even introduced German ophthalmological innovations to British surgeons.

A handwritten page headed Na in a book with alphabetical page tabs, heavily worn,
Thomas Windsor’s handwritten Index to Medical Literature, 1855
National Library of Medicine #2931155R

But Windsor’s lasting fame rests on his love for collecting old and rare medical books. Retiring from his practice in 1878 at the age of 47, Windsor turned his attention to acquiring rare medical books, early manuscripts, and incunabula, and building medical bibliographic knowledge.  His love of books led to a longstanding association as an honorary librarian to the Manchester Medical Society (MMS) from 1858–1883 during which time he took over the MMS library, acquiring new material, cataloging the entire collection, and eventually supervising its transfer to Owens College in 1875.  Windsor inexpensively purchased books “…rich in books of plates, dictionaries, cyclopædias, periodicals and old and scarce books” not only for their rarity, but also for the artworks, turning the MMS into a nationally significant collection.  The collection grew four-fold under his tutelage.

The inside cover of a small leather-bound book with a pasted book label of the Surgeon General's Office Library and reading presented by Dr. Thomas Windsor, Manchester, Engl.
A book plate documenting the acquisition of a manuscript from Thomas Windsor in 1913.
National Library of Medicine #2931174R

In 1874, Windsor’s connection to the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office began. John Shaw Billings (1838–1913), the surgeon and librarian in charge, wrote to Windsor at the MMS regarding an exchange of duplicate medical books housed in each library.  Windsor enthusiastically responded and negotiations commenced.  Specific exchange clauses were established, and financials rendered at stated intervals.  Soon, crates of books crossed the Atlantic Ocean in both directions.  Reportedly, one crate consisted of approximately 148 volumes and 64 pamphlets.

Windsor, described as Billing’s second-hand man and thus the library’s greatest benefactor, became Billings’ overseas book agent, searching for and acquiring special titles for the Army medical library. Soon, Windsor took an interest in Index Medicus, contributing to “Notes and Queries” regarding rare book editions, and the Index-Catalogue, where Windsor was acknowledged for his voluntary donations of valuable rare medical books, including watercolors of anatomical sketches by Sir Charles Bell.

As the former owner and donor of nearly 80 remarkable examples of rare medical books acquired for the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office collections, Thomas Windsor exemplifies the gentleman book collections. Examples of his purchases for his private collection, now available through NLM Digital Collections, include:

Materials connected to important figures in medical history including:

A page with two papers pasted on, one a handwritten slip dated April 4, 1873, the other a bookplate with the initials BAZW.
Thomas Windsor’s annotation and initials in Flosule viatici (13th century)
National Library of Medicine #100899285

And a wealth of unique manuscripts by:

Photograph of an open book with two detailed colored illustrations of a human heart on one side and handwritten comments titled Front and Back Views of the Heart on the other.
Engravings of the arteries, 1801 by Sir John Bell
National Library of Medicine #65530510R

Windsor was a born book collector, a combination of medical professional and bibliographer, freely buying and collecting common and rare books to please his fellow physicians, librarians, bibliophiles, and his own eccentric taste.  Windsor did not collect for himself alone. Whatever his motivation, researchers today are the benefactors of Windsor’s determination that the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office would be a fitting repository for his extensive collection and his foresight that the institution would evolve into the current internationally known research institution for medicine and public health and world class biomedical library, the National Library of Medicine.

Anne Rothfeld, PhD, is a librarian and historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.