To help, or at least do no harm
History of Medicine Collection


Southwestern University Library’s Special Collections holds over one hundred titles related to early medicine and medical practices. The oldest text, written in Arabic, is a volume of Avicenna’s Canon or Compendium of Medicine. Avicenna (980-1037) was a Persian philosopher, mathematician, and physician whose translated medical works were standard texts in European universities for centuries. The older of Southwestern’s two Avicenna manuscripts has been dated no later than the 14th century and is filled with marginal notations made by various owners over the centuries. Other early works include a 1546 German herbal, a 1652 British compilation of various medical tracts printed in protest against the academic medical establishment, and a 1685 edition of Hippocrates' Aphorisms. The aphorism "to help, or at least do no harm" in the title of this exhibit is from Hippocrates’ works.

An examination of the medical treatises from the 19th century, which make up most of the collection, would have one reflect on Hippocrates’ statement since they frequently prescribe bleeding, purging, and dosing with toxic heavy metals. Many of these works belonged to Dr. John Purdy Reynolds, who died at the Alamo. At one time, Southwestern University loaned these books to the Alamo, where they stayed for over fifty years. A note in the loan file stated that the books had no value other than their association with Purdy and the Alamo, but in fact many of them are seminal works for the history of medicine in the United States. Among the authors are the physicians who advised Lewis and Clark before their expedition.

The collection also includes many tracts intended for self-treatment, ranging from a 1773 copy of John Wesley’s Primitive Physic or An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases to a 1918 work titled The People’s Common Sense Adviser in Plain English : or, Medicine Simplified. Please visit the A. Frank Smith, Jr. Library Center’s Special Collections to examine these works.

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