Jan. 27, 2022
‘These books shaped the practice of medicine’: VCU Libraries acquires large collection of rare medical texts, illustrations and documents
The Richmond Academy of Medicine Joseph Lyon Miller Collection, which dates to 1500, returns to 12th and Clay streets after more than three decades.
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VCU Libraries has acquired a treasure trove of thousands of rare medical books, manuscripts, silhouettes and prints, providing researchers with the opportunity to explore the history and evolution of medicine in its earliest printed form.
The collection of Joseph Lyon Miller (1875-1957) — who practiced medicine in Thomas, West Virginia, while serving as medical director of the Davis Coal and Coke Co. and as surgeon to the Western Maryland Railroad Co. — includes 2,250 books, published from 1500 to 1946; 78 silhouettes; 3,500 prints; as well as approximately 400 manuscript items, including correspondence, account ledgers, medical student notes and essays with a significant portion related to Virginia and Virginia physicians.
“The Richmond Academy of Medicine Joseph Lyon Miller Collection contains remarkable first and second editions of books dating back to 1500, as well as prints and records,” said Teresa L. Knott, associate dean for VCU Libraries and director of the VCU Health Sciences Library. “These books shaped the practice of medicine, nursing and public hygiene. Many are artifacts themselves — offering beautiful illustrations, interesting printing techniques and insight into medical history.”
Arthur L. Kellermann, M.D., senior vice president for VCU Health Sciences and CEO of VCU Health System, said he had a recent opportunity to see the Miller Collection and was “struck by its beauty, historical significance and power.”
“I am proud and grateful for the team who worked so hard to bring the Miller Collection back to VCU Libraries,” Kellermann said.
The acquisition is a homecoming for the collection, which Miller began building as a student at the University College of Medicine, which merged with the Medical College of Virginia in 1913 and was a precursor of the VCU School of Medicine.
In 1927, Miller formally offered to donate the collection to the Richmond Academy of Medicine on the condition that the organization would build a permanent home for it with a fireproof library. William T. Sanger, Ph.D., president of the Medical College of Virginia, proposed the institutions cooperate via a public-private partnership that led to the construction of the Richmond Academy of Medicine’s first permanent facility at 1200 E. Clay St., built in tandem alongside and connected to VCU’s health sciences library that opened in 1932. The collection was available in the building for 56 years, until it was relocated in 1988 to the Virginia Historical Society, now the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.
“It’s exciting to see the collection return to the corner of 12th and Clay streets,” Knott said.
“Until 33 years ago, the Miller Collection was available to VCU Libraries personnel who helped organize and present the collection, through the double doors connecting the library and the Richmond Academy of Medicine building, now the Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research,” she said. “Most importantly, Health Sciences Library special collections materials were acquired based on having the Miller Collection readily accessible. The collections complement each other like two interlocking pieces.”
Jodi Koste, interim department head and university archivist, VCU Health Sciences Library, said the collection is significant for a number of reasons.
“It represents a chapter in the history of VCU and the story of the public/private partnership that resulted in the first library building for the Medical College of Virginia,” she said. “The collection is noteworthy for the books, manuscripts, photographs and prints related to Virginia and the history of health care in the commonwealth. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is a collection of rare books that would be almost impossible to replicate today. The Miller Collection contains many 15th-, 16th-, and 17th-century titles vital to our understanding of the history and development of medicine. These scarce volumes rarely come on the market today. Only private collectors and the major research libraries in the United States and abroad are fortunate enough to have them in their collections.”
Gonzalo Bearman, M.D., the Richard P. Wenzel Professor of Medicine at VCU and chair of the Division of Infectious Diseases, recounted on his blog a recent visit to the Miller Collection, calling it a “visual and historical feast.”
“It is wonderful to have the Miller Collection back on campus at VCU,” Bearman said. “This collection of rare books and manuscripts, dating from the 1500s onwards, is truly at home, for medical scholars and bibliophiles, in the historic library of one of Virginia’s oldest and widely recognized schools of medicine.”
The collection includes countless fascinating items from medical history, including a copy of Paracelsus’ 1573 “Chirurgia Minor,” translated by Gérard Dorn, which has passages deemed heretical by the Spanish Inquisition that were obscured by pressing wax over the objectionable text.
It also includes Edward Jenner’s 182-page treatise on cow pox that echoes today’s pandemic and controversy over vaccines.
And it includes the second edition of Andreas Vesalius’ “De Humani Corporis Fabrica” (The Fabric of the Human Body), published in 1555. “The illustrations are precise and beautiful, finer than in the first edition,” Knott said. “The volumes enhanced and advanced understanding of human anatomy for hundreds of years and launched the practice of anatomy.”
Correspondence included in the collection dates primarily from the 18th and 19th centuries and includes letters from prominent American physicians such as Daniel Drake, S. Weir Mitchell and John Shaw Billings.
The 78 silhouettes are a unique collection of likenesses of American and British physicians. Fourteen of the silhouettes are attributed to Auguste Edouart, a widely known 19th-century French artist, and another nine are by celebrated American artist Charles Willson Peale.
The collection also includes a significant number of prints, photos, engravings and lithographs focusing on prominent figures in the history of medicine.
The collection will enable new and exciting opportunities for research, exhibition and more, Koste said.
“The collection has now returned to the MCV Campus and a health sciences environment where health sciences students will have an opportunity to learn about the antecedents of their professions, history scholars may learn more about the development of health care, and aspiring artists may be inspired by the images found throughout this amazing collection,” she said. “The VCU Health Sciences Library is the oldest and largest library of its type in Virginia. Here we have amassed a strong collection to support all of these researchers exploring the Miller Collection.”
The acquisition is a collaborative effort between VCU Libraries and the VCU Office of the Senior Vice President for Health Sciences, supplemented with endowment funds, and with the balance paid for over an eight-year period through fundraising.
To support the Miller Collection, donations can be made at https://www.support.vcu.edu/give/vculibraries?des=140047. To learn more or schedule a briefing about the collection, contact VCU Libraries Director of Development Kelly Gotschalk at (804) 827-1163 or firstname.lastname@example.org.