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Rare Books in Science and Medicine

This guide highlights rare and historical books in this area. The History of Science and Medicine guide is also available.


Introduction and Background

The W. C. Gibson History of Science & Medicine Collection, which contains rare books, manuscripts, medical biographies and books about medical history, is named for Dr. William C.Gibson (1913-2009) in recognition of his efforts in creating the historical book collection. Gibson’s remarks about the historical collection at the dedication ceremony September 7th, 1988 are available here.

Dr. Gibson joined the Faculty of Medicine at UBC in 1950 as a clinical researcher and associate professor. He was instrumental in the opening of the medical school after which he became Director of the Kinsman Laboratory for Neurological Research. From 1960 to 1978 he served as Professor and Head of the History of Medicine and Science Department. During that time he spearheaded the building of the Woodward Biomedical Library and was particularly involved in the purchases of antiquarian books for the Charles Woodward Memorial Room.

The motivation behind acquiring these rare books was to show students "the milestones of science - the first time any new discovery was published". The personal collections of Chauncey Leake, a US pharmacologist and medical historian, Hugh M. Sinclair, an Oxford lecturer and researcher, and Sir Robert MacIntosh, an Oxford professor of anesthesiology, were among the purchases that comprise the core of the collection. Additional collections have since been acquired from Claude Dolman and the Vancouver Medical Association, and special collections in obstetrics and gynecology from Dr. Gerald Korn, and in dermatology from Dr. McLean. 

Dr. Gibson was a student of Sir Charles Sherrington and through this connection UBC Library acquired his fonds. Other archival material in the collection include the Darwin and the Florence Nightingale letters as well as early medical British Columbia history documents. 

The rare books and manuscripts in this collection, which were housed in the purposefully built Charles Woodward Memorial Room, are now available in UBC Rare Books and Special Collections.

Due to the evolving situation with COVID-19, Rare Books and Special Collections is currently closed, however some materials are available online, please see the Other Resources and Remote Access page for more information. 

For more information about the History of Science and Medicine in general, and other available resources at RBSC, please see the History of Medicine and Science LibGuide.

Development of the Collection

There were two main phases in acquiring rare books for the W.C. Gibson History of Science and Medicine collection. The first was the opening of the University of British Columbia under the first president, Dr. Frank Wesbrook (1868-1918). The second phase was the opening of Woodward Library with designated space, the Charles Woodward Memorial Room, for housing the “medical milestones”.

In the earlier phase there were a couple of significant gifts from  Sir Charles Sherrington (1857-1952) to Wesbrook.  The two men had been undergraduates together at Cambridge University in the 1890s and remained friends.  The first gift, which was given to mark the occasion of the opening of UBC in 1915, was an annotated and signed copy of Anatomia Humani Corporis(1685) by Godefridi Bidloo to Wesbrook.   This copy was previously owned by Hawksmoor, apprentice to Christopher Wren (who himself had been an anatomist before becoming an architect), and before sending it, Sherrington had notable physicians sign the book.  These signatures include those of Sir William Osler, eminent Canadian physician, and John McRae, author of In Flanders Field.

Sherrington's second gift was given to the University library in memoriam to Wesbrook, who had died in 1918.  It is an incunabulum, Valla's Elegantiae Linguae Latinae Libri Sex (1476), and is annotated with fists and contemporaneous marginalia in red.  William Gibson, who was a pupil of Sherrington’s, brought it back with him on his return to Canada in 1938. 

In addition to these specific gifts, other medical rare book acquisitions during this early period were acquired, by exchange with the Wellcome Library in London and by book buying expeditions by Robert McKechnie, Basil Stuart Stubbs and others. 

The second phase of acquisitions took place with the building of the Woodward Biomedical Library, now known as Woodward Library. The major donor for this library, P. A. (Puggy) Woodward (1888-1968), wished to show students "the milestones of science - the first time any new discovery was published".  The goal to acquire first editions of "medical milestones" gained impetus with two significant purchases; the libraries of Chauncy Depew Leake in 1963 and of Hugh Macdonald Sinclair in 1965.  These were funded from the Woodward Foundation and from H.R. Macmillan respectively.

The collection continued to grow in support of the history of medicine courses and notable acquisitions of this period include collections from Gerald Korn, Claude Dolman and the Vancouver Medical Association.

In 2014, the Gibson collection was moved to Rare Books and Special Collections for better access and preservation.  It continues to grow with purchases made with the Molly Kidd-Timbers endowment and by personal donations, such as the acquisition of Dr. McLean's dermatology collection.