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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.


Alchemy, like astrology, played a major role in early medical and scientific thought. The healing properties of chemistry and chemicals were sought after, as well as the possibility of creating silver and gold from other metals. Alchemy appears in many of the books in the W.C. Gibson collection, and it was not until the 19th century that the science of alchemy was disproved.


Image: Title page of Adrian von Mynsicht's Thesaurus et armamentarium medicochymicum. WZ250 V48 1674.


Example of Books on Alchemy at RBSC

Title Author Date
Artis chemicae principes, Avicenna atque Geber, hoc volumine continentur; quorum alter nunquam hactenus in lucem prodijt: alter verò vetustis exemplaribus collatus ... Adiecto indice rerum & verborum copioso. Avicenna 1572
Thesaurus et armamentarium medicochymicum. Cui in fine adiunctum est Testamentum Hadrianeum de aureo philosophorum lapide. Adrian von Mynsicht 1645
Works. English. 1689 The works of the highly experienced and famous chymist, John Rudolph Glauber ; containing, great variety of choice secrets in medicine and alchymy in the working of metallick mines, and the separation of metals ; also, various cheap and easie ways of making salt-petre, and improving of barren-land, and the fruits of the earth ... / Translated into English, and published for publick good by the labour, care, and charge, of Christopher Packe John Rudolph Glauber 1689

Subject Headings: Alchemy

Alchemy--Early works to 1800. Alchemy.



undefinedAncient civilizations, including Egyptian, Greek, and Roman peoples used a limited knowledge of human anatomy to practice medicine. Early anatomical discoveries by Galen, Aristotle, and Herophilus influenced the field for many centuries. Greater anatomical knowledge came with discoveries from Arabian scholars including Avicenna and Muhammad Al-Razi. In 1000 B.C.E. a medical school  in Salerno, Italy, The Schola Medica Salernitiana, became an important hub for medical knowledge, as many of the medical works from Arab and Muslim scholars were translated and shared. Over the next few hundred years many anatomical discoveries were recorded by artists. In the renaissance period these artists included Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Albrecht Durer. Despite restrictions on dissections, anatomical discoveries by Andreas Vesalius and others in the 16th century corrected long held-anatomical beliefs based on early historical understanding. In the 17th century, Anton van Leeuwenhoek refined these discoveries with his creation of the microscope, allowing him to study tissue at the microscopic level.  In the 18th and 19th century these discoveries were built upon to further knowledge of human cells, allowing the fields of histology, embryology and pathology to develop.


Image: Title page of The workes of that famous chirurgion Ambrose Parey. Translated out of Latine and compared with the French by Th. Johnson. WZ250 .P28 1634


undefinedPrior to Hippocrates, much of early medicine focused on prognosis. Physicians were expected to predict who would die and who would recover from an illness. Additionally, diseases were often considered a super-natural rather than a natural phenomenon. In his writings, Hippocrates stressed the importance of evaluating the different aspects a patient's symptoms, and using these to create a diagnosis. The ability to diagnose diseases advanced with the creation of technology such as the microscope, the thermometer, the opthalmoscope and the X-ray. Physician's training greatly influenced their ability to diagnose diseases and between the late Middle Ages and the end of the 19th century, physicians were often trained by lectures and exams. Sir William Osler, one of the most renowned physicians of the early 20th century, emphasized the importance of instructing medical students at the patients' bedside. Major diseases through history have included malaria, HIV/AIDS, cholera, influenza, black plague, smallpox, tuberculosis, yellow fever, and polio. Diagnosing and treating these diseases formed an important part of medical history, and many medical books at RBSC document this changing knowledge.


Image: Example of Marginalia in Hippocrates' Aphorisms. WZ240 .H53 1555

Examples of Books on Disease and Diagnosis at RBSC

Title Author Date
Operum Hippocratis coi quae Graece et Latine extante. Hippocrates 1588
The method of phisick, containing the causes, signes and cures of inward diseases in mans body, from the head to the foote. Phillip Barrough 1596
A collection of chronical diseases, viz, the colick, the bilious colick, hysterick diseases, the gout, and the bloody urine from the stone in the kidnies. John Pechey 1691



undefinedPlants have been used for their medicinal properties since ancient history; the oldest written evidence of medicinal plants' usage for preparation of drugs has been found on a Sumerian clay slap, approximately 5000 years old. One of the longest-standing sources of herbal knowledge came from Celsus (25 B.C.E. to 50 A.C.E.) who quoted over 200 medicinal plants in his work, "De re medica". Dioscorides, who was a physician in Nero's army , studied medicinal plants in his travels with the Roman army, and in ca. 77 A.C.E. he wrote "De Materia Medica", which included over 600 drugs made from plants. Pliny the Elder (23 - 79 A.C.E.) also documented about 100 plants in is book "Historia Naturalis" which UBC also has a digitized copy of available for online browsing. Other important authors who wrote on the uses of medicinal plants inlcuded Galen and Avicenna. Rare Books and Special Collections has a wonderful selection of some of the most well-known books on medicinal plants and their usage. These books are known as Herbals. During the 15th to 17th centuries herbals began to be published in English, French, and German, not just in Latin or Greek, and they became staples of family households. Well known herbalists included Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), John Gerard (1545-1612), John Pechey (1655-1716).


Image: Title page of The herball; or Generall historie of plantes. Gathered by John Gerarde ... very much enlarged and amended by Thomas Johnson ... QK41 .G3 1636

Examples of Herbals at RBSC

Title Author Date
[The herball; or, Generall historie of plantes. Gathered by John Gerarde ... Very much enl. and amended by Thomas Johnson] John Gerard 1633
Theatrum botanicvm = The theater of plants, or, An herball of large extent : containing therein a more ample and exact history and declaration of the physicall herbs and plants ... John Parkinson 1640
Blagrave's Supplement; or, Enlargement to Mr. Nich. Culpeper's English physician. Containing a description of the form, names, place, time, celestial government and vitures of all such medicinal plants as grow in England and are omitted in his book called The English physician... Joseph Blagrave 1677



undefinedMathematics have been used in civilizations since ancient history, and evidence of its uses have been documented in cultural artifacts from Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Chinese, and Mayan civilizations, among others.  Greek mathematics, and especially Pythagoras and his followers, refined methods of mathematics through the use of deductive reasoning and geometrical proofs. Ancient Romans used applied mathematics for a variety of projects including structural engineering and the creation of lunar and solar calendars. Chinese mathematical contributions included the place value system and the use of negative numbers. The Hindu-Arabic numerical system, used internationally today, was transmitted to the Western World via Islamic mathematics and particularly the works of Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. Mayan numerals included the concept of zero with a standard symbol. The translation and reproduction of Greek and Arabic texts on mathematics into Latin allowed for the development of mathematics in Medieval Europe. During the 17th century the work of Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz dramatically changed the landscape of mathematics with their development of infinitesimal calculus.


Image: Title page of Sir Issac Newton's Principia Mathematica. QA802 .A2 1713

Examples of Books on Mathematics at RBSC

Title Author Date
[Archimēdous panta sōzomena]. = Archimedis opera quae extant. / Nouis demonstrationibus commentariisque illustrata. Per Dauidem Riualtum a Flurantia Coenemanum Archimedes 1615
Elements of geometry : the first VI books, in a compendious form contracted and demonstrated / by Thomas Rudd. Whereunto is added the mathematical preface of John Dee. Euclid 1651
Mathematical magick, or, The wonders that may be performed by mechanical geometry : in two books, concerning mechanical powers [and] motions, being one of the most easie, pleasant, useful (and yet most neglected) part[s] of mathematicks, not before treated of in this language / by J. Wilkins ... John Wilkins 1691
Universal arithmetick; or, A treatise of arithmetical composition and resolution. To which is added Dr. Halley's Method of finding the roots of equations arithmetically. Written in Latin by Sir Isaac Newton, and translated by the late Mr. Ralphson and revised and corrected by Mr. Cunn. Sir Isaac Newton 1728
A new system of arithmetick, theoretical and practical... Alexander Malcom 1730
Examples of the processes of the differential and integral calculus. Collected by D.F. Gregory. Duncan Farquharson Gregory 1846



Midwifery is a common practice across all cultures and is as old as childbearing itself; however the specific practices and cultural status of midwives differed between cultures and changed over time.The interaction, and, at times, competition, between midwives and surgeons is documented in our historical books, as well as the publication of knowledge generally amassed by and for women, authored by men, such as is the case with Nicholas Culpeper's 'A Directory for Midwives'. In addition to books on midwifery in the W.C. Gibson Collection of History and Medicine and Science, RBSC also houses the Gerald W. Korn Gynecology and Obstetrics Collection, which contains a wealth of books on gynecology, midwifery, and obstetrics.


Examples of Books on Midwifery at RBSC

Title Author Date
A directory for midwives; or, A guide for women in their conception, bearing and suckling their children. Now are added five brass figures and explanations of them, at page 54, never printed before. Nicholas Culpeper 1660
Observations sur la pratique des acouchemens naturels, contre nature et monstreux : avec une methode tres-facile pour secourir les femmes en toutes sortes d'accouchemens, sans se servir de crochets ny d'aucun instrument que de la seule main ... : avec un traitté des principales maladies qui arrivent ordinairement aux femmes & aux filles, & des maladies des mammelles : reveu, corrigé., enrichy & augmenté. de quantitě de figures en taille douce ... / composé par Cosme Viardel, ... Cosme Viardel 1674
John Allen 1749
Subject Headings: Midwifery
Midwifery--Early works to 1800. Obstetrics--Early works to 1800.
Natural childbirth--Early works to 1800. Midwifery.
Obstetrics. Midwifery--Atlases.


Pharmacy and Pharmacology

While the pharmaceutical industry is considered to have begun in the 19th century, thousands of years of knowledge about the medicinal Water of Clove-Gilly-flowers. properties of plants, animals, and minerals informed this important branch of medicine as we know it today. Alchemical workers in the 2nd century prepared purified inorganic chemicals such as lead carbonate and mercury in Egypt. Dioscorides' 'De Materia Medica' describes the medicinal properties of chemicals including cupric sulfate. Pharmaceutical science improved greatly as technology changed in the 16th and 17 centuries. Books of pharmaceutical compounds, their preparations and usage became common, often titled pharmacopoeias. In the 16th century, Paracelsus (1493- 1541) advocated for the use of chemistry to study the preparation of medicine. The London Society of Apothecaries was founded in 1617, and with it, pharmacy began to emerge as distinct and separate field from that of practising physicians. Notable pharmaceutical advances continued from the 17th century onward, often arising out of the need to cure a specific illness or disease. In 1785 William Withering wrote about the uses of digitalis (derived from foxglove) in treating edema: In 1790 Edward Jenner developed an immunization procedure for smallpox: In 1865 Joseph Lister introduced the use of phenol as an anti-infective agent: In 1885 Louis Pasteur developed a cure for rabies: Paul Ehrlich developed arsphenamine in 1910 for the treatment of syphilis, and in 1929 Alexander Fleming developed penicillin for the same use. The process of observing the efficacy of certain compounds, and developing those compounds in vast quantities so that their efficacy could be replicated, became the basis for the pharmaceutical industry.


Image: An example of a recipe from George Bate's Pharmacopeia Batanea. WZ250 .B35 1706

Examples of Books on Pharmacy and Pharmacology at RBSC

Title Author Date
Ioannis Mesuae Damasceni, De re medica. libri tres. Iacobo Sylvio, interprete. Index locupletissimus cum capitum tum omnium quae digna sunt, operi,praefixus est. Yūḥannā Ibn Māsawayh 1566
Pharmacorum omnium. Valerius Cordus 1592
Myrothecium spagyricum; sive, Pharmacopoea chymica, occultis naturae arcanis, ex hermeticorum medicorum scriniis depromtis abunde illustrata. Pierre Jean Fabré 1632
Pharmacopoeia Londinensis; or, The London dispensatory, further adorned by the studies and collections of the Fellows now living, of the said Colledg. Nicholas Culpeper 1653
Pharmacopoeia Bateana. English George Bate 1706



The plague, a bacterial infection transmitted by fleas, has surfaced in history multiple times in undefinedmultiple parts of the world. Most of the books on the plague at RBSC are from the 17th century, when a major epidemic of the plague occurred in Europe and England. From 1665 to 1666 alone a fifth of London's population died, some 100,000 people.


Image: Title Page of Jean Fabré's Traicté de la peste, selon la doctrine des medecins pagyriques. WZ250 .F29 1629

Examples of Books on the Plague at RBSC

Title Author Date
Traicté de la peste, selon la doctrine des medecins spagyriques. Pierre Jean Fabré 1629
A treatise concerning the plague and the pox, discovering as well as the meanes how to preserve from the danger of these infectious contagions, as also how to cure those which are infected with either of them. A.M. 1652
Tractatus de peste, divisus in partes duas, quarum prior continet speculationem physicam / autore Johanne a Felde ... posterior ea, quae artis medicae sunt propria, remedia nimirum contra pestem speculationi praemissae congruentia atque a multis seculis cum primis autem praecedenti anno comprobata. Johann von Felden 1681
Collections of acute diseases in five parts: 1. Of the small pox and measles; 2. Of the plague and pestilential fevers; 3. Of continual fevers; 4. Of agues, a pleurisy, peripneumonia, quinsey and the cholera morbus; 5. and last, Of the bloody flux, miscarriage, of acute diseases of women with child, a rheumatism, bleeding at nose, apoplexy, lethargy, and of several other diseases. John Pechey 1691

Subject Headings: Plague

Plague. Plague--Early works to 1800.



undefinedScience, or the knowledge of natural processes, is universal among humankind, and has existed since the beginning of human existence. Physical sciences, including physics, astronomy, chemistry and earth science, and life sciences, including biology, anatomy, botany, ecology, and more, developed in different ways across cultures. Important figures in the history of Western Science include Hippocrates, Carl Linnaeus, Galileo Galilei, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein, among many others.


Image: Title page from Galileo Galilei's Systema Cosmicum. QB41 .G12 1641


Examples of Books on Sciences at RBSC

Title Author Date
Systema cosmicum: In quo dialogis IV de duobus maximis mundi systematibus, ptolemaico & copernicano, rationibus utrinque propositis indefinitè disseritur. Accessit locorum S. Scripturae cum terrae mobilitate conciliatio. Galileo Galilei 1641
Philosophia botanica.
Caroli Linnæi ... Philosophia botanica : in qua explicantvr fvndamenta botanica cvm definitionibvs partivm, exemplis terminorvn, observationibvs rariorum, adiectis figvris æneis.
Carl von Linné (Carl Linneaus) 1755
On the origin of species. On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or, The preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life Charles Darwin 1859