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Rare Books in Science and Medicine

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

Historical Works on Energy



Dibner, B. & Burndy Library. (1955). Heralds of science: As represented by two hundred epochal books and pamphlets selected from the Burndy Library: Vol. no. 12; Burndy Library.  

Mottelay, P. F. & Universal Library. (1922). Bibliographical history Of Electricity and Magnetism. Charles Griffin and Company Limited. 


400 Years of “De Magnete.” (n.d.). Retrieved September 14, 2023, from 

BBC - History - Historic Figures: William Gilbert (1544 - 1603). (n.d.). Retrieved September 14, 2023, from


Benjamin Wilson (1721-88)—A short view of electricity / B. Wilson. (n.d.). Retrieved September 14, 2023, from 

Graciano, A. (2012). The Memoir of Benjamin Wilson, Frs (1721-88): Painter and Electrical Scientist. The Volume of the Walpole Society, 74, 165–243.


Schiffer, M. B., Hollenback, K. L., & Bell, C. L. (2003). Draw the Lightning Down: Benjamin Franklin and Electrical Technology in the Age of Enlightenment. University of California Press.


The History and Practice of Aerostation. (n.d.). Science History Institute Digital Collections. Retrieved September 14, 2023, from

Galvani and Aldini 

Laboratory, N. H. M. F. (n.d.). Luigi Galvani—Magnet Academy. Retrieved September 14, 2023, from 

Giovanni Aldini. (n.d.). The Linda Hall Library. Retrieved September 14, 2023, from


Applications of electromagnetic induction. (n.d.). Retrieved September 14, 2023, from


Ballantyne, Robert Michael (1825–1894), author. (n.d.). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Canada. Commission of Conservation 

Girard, M. (1991). The Commission of Conservation as a Forerunner to the National Research Council 1909-1921. Scientia Canadensis : Canadian Journal of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine / Scientia Canadensis : Revue Canadienne d’histoire Des Sciences, Des Techniques et de La Médecine, 15(2), 19–40. 

Hall, D. J. (2007). The Commission of Conservation (1909–1921). In The Commission of Conservation (1909–1921) (pp. 236–263). University of British Columbia Press.

The role of historical material in biodiversity

Historical material plays an important role in biodiversity research. The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) series of blogs demonstrate how historic literature provides unique and "time-stamped" information about previous ecosystems, climate records, habitat alteration and species mortality and adaptation.

This series discusses how both the knowledge about the earth’s species and ecosystems in previous times and the historical perspective it provides help identify the extent of climate change.  Learning about past extinctions informs the relationships within ecosystems and therefore can help identify current day critical keystone species.  This in turn can help predict future extinctions and inform protective strategies.  Additionally, harvesting the information in books into modern datasets creates big data that can be used in computational models to inform the development of conservation measures and create theories. 

Rare Books and Special Collections at UBC has an extensive science collection starting from the 15th century and the early days of the printing press. Below is a selection of some of these; many of which are also digitally available   

Zoological resources - Early books 

Climate-related fonds and collections

Rare Books and Special Collections holds many fonds related to British Columbia's environment. As we know now, global climate health is determined by and connected to a variety of environmental factors, including air quality, the health of oceans and waterways, forested lands, biodiversity and more. Many historical forces have impacted these factors, and still do today, including settler-colonial appropriation of Indigenous lands and waters, resource extraction industries, and organizations which fought for the preservation of what is conceptualized in a western framework as 'wilderness'. As we continue to write the history of tomorrow, what can be learned by the records of the past? For a highlight on the Forestry Industry in British Columbia, check out the Forest History and Archives LibGuide, available here.

You can also out some of the fonds below, which include records documenting historical climate data, struggles for climate action, and the development of creative works to educate others on the importance of climate issues. If you're interested in seeing any of these materials in person, visit us at RBSC.

Botanical sources – Herbals etc.

Botanical sources – Herbals etc. 

Surveys, fieldbooks and travel

Surveys, fieldbooks and travel  

An Ocean of Knowledge, a Sea of Books blog post from Science Literacy Week 2019

Many thanks to guest blogger Alvionne Gardner-Harrison for contributing the below post! Alvionne is a graduate student at UBC’s iSchool (School of Library, Archival and Information Studies) and is currently working with UBC Library’s W.C. Gibson History of Science and Medicine Collection as a professional experience project.

An Ocean of Knowledge, a Sea of Books: The Ocean and its Inhabitants in the W.C. Gibson History of Science and Medicine Collection

For Science Literacy Week 2019, one of the exhibits shared by Rare Books and Special Collections focused on materials from the W.C. Gibson History of Science and Medicine collection. With exhibit items ranging from sea otters on book-bindings to hand-painted seaweed fronds, and from the earliest studies in microscopy to guides for hobbyist naturalists, “An Ocean of Knowledge, a Sea of Books” gives some historical background to the ocean science highlighted in this year’s Science Literacy Week theme.

The exhibit of European scientific literature and illustration from the 17th-19th century explores representations of oceanic life and the techniques and technologies that were used to gather, organize, and distribute information about oceanic organisms. For much of the history of science that the W.C. Gibson collection documents, manuscripts and printed books were the main format in which new scientific observations and ideas were disseminated. The physical qualities of organisms such as fish, molluscs, and sea mammals that were encountered on colonial scientific expeditions, could best be preserved through detailed illustrations that were then reproduced in copperplate and sometimes coloured by hand. These striking images, organized according to new taxonomic systems like that of Linnaeus, were distributed in books such as those in this exhibit. The books included in the exhibit’s cases, some of which are featured below, highlight both ocean science and scientific literacy prior to the 20th century.

Microscopy, Taxonomy, and Colonial Voyages

Significant advances in technology, both intellectual and material, were required for European scientists to systematically study oceanic organisms, as was the expansion of colonial voyages. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and Robert Hooke contributed to the nascent biological sciences through their development of microscopes and their demonstration of how they could be used to study microscopic organisms and the structures within larger organisms.

  • Hooke, Robert. Micrographia (1665). [QH271 .H79 1665]
  • Leeuwenhoek, Antoni van. Vervolg der brieven (1704). [QH41 .L4393]
  • Mantell, Gideon Algernon. Thoughts on animalcules: or, A glimpse of the invisible world revealed by the microscope (1846). [QL365 .M35 1846]

Snow, In forbidden seas. [F5817.S3 S6].

Taxonomic systems enabled naturalists to organise newly discovered (and previously known) life forms into meaningful categories and to better understand them. Encountering unfamiliar varieties of oceanic animals and plants required journeying abroad. This usually took place in the context of voyages on merchant ships; “discovery” was funded and enabled by the processes of capitalism and colonialism.


  • Pennant, Thomas. Arctic Zoology, II (1784). [QL105 .P4]
  • Linné, Carl von. Systema naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classes, ordines (1767). [QH43 .S9 1767]

The Material Science Book

The physical descriptions of organisms that were encountered on both local and colonial scientific expeditions could be communicated most effectively through detailed illustrations. These images were then reproduced as prints which were made from copperplate engravings, and which could be easily shared throughout the scientific community. In the 19th century, these illustrations were also widely printed in less expensive—but often beautifully bound—books for the general public, who enthusiastically engaged in early popular science.

  • Gosse, Philip Henry. A history of the British sea-anemones and corals: with coloured figures of the species and principal varieties (1860). [QL377.C7 G67 1860]
  • Adams, Henry Gardiner. Beautiful shells: their nature, structure, and uses familiarly explained, with directions for collection, cleaning, and arranging them in the cabinet and descriptions of the most remarkable species (1871). [QL405 .A33 1871]
  • Recent polar voyages: a record of discovery and adventure from the search after Franklin to the British polar expedition, 1875-76 (1877). [G625 .R35]


Hamilton, The natural history of the amphibious carnivora. [QL737.P6 H2 1839]

Mechanized reproduction of images reduced costs, but some book buyers still chose to have illustrations hand-painted with striking colour on top of the printed images, such as the unusually large seaweed pictured in The botany of the Antarctic voyage of H. M. discovery ships Erebus and Terror.


  • Hooker, Joseph Dalton. The botany of the Antarctic voyage of H. M. discovery ships Erebus and Terror, in the years 1839-1843, under the command of Captain Sir James Clark Ross (1844). [QK5 .E6 1844]

Inconceivable Ichthyology

This case featured examples of illustrations depicting fishes identified and illustrated during global voyages of exploration and organized according to the binomial nomenclature of Linnaeus.

  • Richardson, John. Ichthyology of the voyage of H.M.S. Erebus & Terror, under the command of Captain Sir James Clark Ross (1844). [QL636 .R52]
  • Schomburgk, Robert Hermann. Natural history of the fishes of Guiana (1843). [QL632.A3 B8 1843]
  • Bennett, James William. A selection of rare and curious fishes found upon the coast of Ceylon: from drawings made in that island, and coloured from life, with letter-press descriptions (1851). [QL634.C3 B4 1851]
  • Fries, Bengt Fredrik. A History of Scandinavian Fishes, Vol. II (1893). [QL633.S22 F74 1893 v.2]

From “Sea Monsters” to Seals

In addition to an extensive selection of books on fishes, the Gibson collection includes scientific materials on aquatic plants, molluscs, seabirds, and sea mammals, among other groups of organisms recognized during the 19th century.

  • Sowerby, George Brettingham. Genera of recent and fossil shells (1820). [QL 404 S 68]


Dewhurst, The natural history of the order cetacea. [QL737.C4 D5 1834].

Of particular note are books containing illustrations of cetaceans, a group which includes whales, and of various types of seals. These sea mammals were not only of interest from a scientific perspective; increasing awareness of their physical properties and habits improved the effectiveness and efficiency of organized hunting. The object of this was to convert these animals’ bodies into fuel and luxury goods, an effort that was often too successful to be sustainable in the long term. Some sea mammal populations remain subject to conservation efforts today as a result of this hunting.


  • Dewhurst, Henry William. The natural history of the order cetacea, and the oceanic inhabitants of the Arctic regions (1834). [QL737.C4 D5 1834]
  • Hamilton, Robert. The natural history of the amphibious carnivora, including the walrus and seals, also of the herbivorous cetacea. [QL737.P6 H2 1839]
  • Snow, Henry James. In forbidden seas: Recollections of sea-otter hunting in the Kurils (1910). [F5817.S3 S6]

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