Skip to Main Content

Rare Books in Science and Medicine

Highlighting rare science and medicine books at UBC. The History of Science and Medicine guide is also available.

Collectors and Donors associated with the UBC collection

The development of the rare books in science and medicine at UBC was made possible by generous donors who provided either financial support or who donated their personal collections.  Among the former are H.R. MacMillan, whose generous donation to the UBC Library helped finance the purchase of the Sinclair Collection, and P.A. Woodward who in addition to funding the Woodward Library also financed the purchase of the C.D. Leake Collection in 1964.

Personal collections were donated by Claude Dolman, Gerald Korn and David McLean.

Endowments from Iser Steiman and Molly Kidd-Timbers help us continue to develop the collections.

Sherrington, Sir Charles Scott (1857-1952)

Sir Charles Scott Sherrington won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1932 for his work in neurology. Sherrington and UBC’s first president, Frank Wesbrook, became friends at Cambridge University together in the 1890s. To celebrate the opening of UBC, in 1915 Sherrington gifted the Library, in Wesbrook’s name, with a special copy of Govard Bidloo’s Anatomy humani corporis (Amsterdam 1685). This was Sherrington’s own copy that he acquired in 1887. It was formerly owned by Nicholas Hawkesmoor (dated 1693), an apprentice of Sir Christopher Wren (architect of St Paul’s cathedral in London and a former physician). Prior to sending the book to Vancouver, Sherrington had visitors to his laboratory sign the copy. These included Walter Raleigh, Frederick Gowland Hopkins of vitamin fame, Arthur Thomson, and two Canadians, Sir William Osler and John McCrae, author of In Flanders Fields.

In 1938, Sherrington gifted another book to UBC Library in memoriam to Wesbrook, who died in 1918. This is valuable incunabula, Valla Elegantiae linguae latinae libri sex, that was printed in 1476. It is bound in the original wooden boards with brass clasps, and has marginalia in red ink, including fists. Sherrington was a bibliophile who donated his collections generously to The Royal College of Physicians library, the Royal College of Surgeons library and the British Library (formerly the British Museum). His interest in the historical aspects of medicine is evident in his book the Endeavour of Jean Fernel. Sherrington shared his passion for books with other notable bibliophiles: Sir William Osler, Harvey Cushing, John Fulton, and Hugh Macdonald Sinclair. The provenance of several of the books in the rare book collection is testament to the relationships and the exchanges that these bibliophiles made with each other.

Another UBC connection was that of William C. Gibson. Gibson described himself as “Sherrington’s last pupil,” as he had been hired as demonstrator in Physiology under Sir Charles in 1935.

Sinclair, Hugh Macdonald (1910-1990)

Hugh Macdonald Sinclair was a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, London, a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford University, and a member of the Athenaeum Club.   He is well known for his pioneering work on the importance of Essential Unsaturated Fatty Acids (EUFA) in nutrition and the role its deficiency has on health, including heart disease and cancer.  For his nutritional work during the 2nd World War he received the Medal of Freedom with Silver Palm from the United States and the Order of the House of Orange from the Netherlands. In 1979 his self-experiment to test the effect of a diet high in omega 3 essential fatty acids demonstrated that it did affect blood clotting times.

Development of his collection

As a student of Sir Charles Sherrington (1857-1952) at Oxford, Sinclair became ‘aware that the foundation for future discoveries was contained in earlier research, [and] young Hugh began collecting rare and historical books concerning medicine and illness.’[1]   In this pursuit, Sinclair was similar to John Farquhar Fulton, who had also been a student of Sherrington’s and was an avid collector and bibliographer of rare medical books.  

Between 1930 and 1965, Sinclair amassed a collection of approximately seven thousand books, which at the time of its sale, Dawson’s of Pall Mall valued at ninety thousand pounds and gave credit to the “skill, knowledge and time spent in bringing together the collection”.  

Purchase of the collection

After losing his readership at Oxford, Sinclair decided to sell his collection to set up a nutrition institute.  He had previously sold his collection of Boyle and Priestly books in 1955, and in 1965 decided to sell the rest of his collection. His stated preference was to sell it to an academic institution where his “collection [would] be used by serious students …. and not hoarded by collectors.”  At this time, UBC Library was actively building its collection of "the milestones of science - the first time any new discovery was published" to support the history of medicine curriculum.  With funds from HR Macmillan’s donation, the collection was purchased, and the books arrived in early 1966.

This collection, together with other purchases and donations, was initially housed in the Woodward Library Memorial Room and used as reference for the undergraduate medical curriculum.  In 2013, the rare book portion of the William C. Gibson History of Science and Medicine Collection was moved to the vault in Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC) for better preservation and access.  

Highlights from Sinclair collection:

This collection described by Dawsons in 1965 as one of the finest in private hands includes collections of Fernal, Boerhaave, Boyle, Priestly, Willis, Culpeper, Lower and Mayow to name a few. As well as rare and unusual other items of importance, the collection includes original letters written by Florence Nightingale, and unpublished material of J.S. Haldane and his uncle Sir John Burdon-Sanderson.  

The books previously owned by Sinclair are identified by either his own book plate, or with a UBC Library presentation bookplate recognizing HR Macmillan’s gift.  Sinclair marked his books with shelf marks comprising of the first two digits of the year in which they were printed and a sequential number separated by a period e.g. 15.72. The items are listed in an inventory that is arranged alphabetically by author and includes this shelf mark.

An audit of the 16th and 17th century books in the Gibson Collection in RBSC conducted in 2019-2020 shows that 78% of these books were previously owned by Sinclair.  The data from this audit will be further analysed to assess the subject areas, authors, and published dates; and to identify significant and rare items in the collection.

The oldest book from Sinclair’s collection is Sermones de tempore et de sanctis by Albertus Magnus and published in Ulm in 1478. It has been digitized and available at Open Collections.

[1] Jeannette Ewin, Fine Wines & Fish Oil: The Life of Hugh Macdonald Sinclair (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 19.


Leake, Chauncey Depew (1896-1978)

Chauncey Depew Leake was a Californian physician and pioneer pharmacologist whose work in the 1920s and 1930s initiated the “revolution in therapy and the incredible growth in modern pharmaceuticals” (1)  He was also passionate about the history of medicine and like Dr. William Gibson was a medical educator.  He collected classic contributions to illustrate to students the actual books that established medical practice. In his own words “In general, here is a good working medical history collection for any medical school that may be interested in promoting the humanistic side of medical studies …and can be drawn upon to illustrate at once almost any subject that may come up for discussion.” (2)

This teaching collection of about 3500 items was purchased with funds from the Woodward Foundation for the Woodward Library Memorial Room and are part of the Gibson History of Medicine and Science Collection. These books are identified by Leake’s bookplate, and sometimes his annotation on the front endpaper.  He also frequently wrote extensive notes on the endpapers or flyleaves about his acquisition of the item, or its historical significance.  

About 600 books in this collection are now shelved in the Rare Books and Special Collections vault. A recent audit of the 16th and 17th century medical and science books showed that 8% of these were previously owned by Leake.  Gems for this period are the first editions of De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem (1543) by Vesalius, De Generatione (1651) by William Harvey, and Optiks (1704) by Isaac Newton. In addition, there is the first English edition of the Works of Ambroise Pare.  Notable about the last is Leake’s note: “This fine English Pare was published by the publishers of the first folio Shakespeare and announced in the later volume.”

Leake wrote extensively on topics in medicine.  His two-part paper, A Note on the Medical Books of Famous Printers (1930) (3) (4), is illustrated with examples from this collection.  One of these, an incunabula, Quaestiones super tres libros De anima Aristotelis (1480), has a title page that is beautifully illuminated with gold leaf. It has been digitized and can be viewed in UBC Open Collections.


1. Chauncey Depew Leake [Internet]. []. Available from:;NAAN=13030&doc.view=frames&

2. Leake CD. A Teaching Collection for the History and Philosophy of Medicine. 1963 5 October.

3. Leake CD. A NOTE ON THE MEDICAL BOOKS OF FAMOUS PRINTERS: PART 1. Cal West Med. 1930;32(1):36-40.

4. Leake CD. A NOTE ON THE MEDICAL BOOKS OF FAMOUS PRINTERS: PART II. Cal West Med. 1930;32(2):106-10.

Dolman, Claude E. (1906-1994)

Dr. Claude E Dolman served as head of the department of Bacteriology and Preventive Medicine at UBC from 1936-1965 , he was both professor (later renamed Microbiology and Immunology.) An avid collector of rare books, he also wrote extensively about American microbiologist Theobald Smith. The Dolman collection includes over 700 titles.