Utilizing the Past in the Present Curriculum: Historical Collections and Anatomy at the University of Alabama School of Medicine

Article excerpt


The Reynolds Historical Library (RHL) at the Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences, University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), is a rich treasure trove of health sciences materials equaled by only a few institutions in the United States. Having a first-rate, subject-specific collection like the RHL is not enough, however: it must be linked in a meaningful way to campus life. Outreach efforts are various and legion: history clubs, lecture series, symposia focusing on one or more aspects of the collection's strengths, tours, media coverage, and so on. All are useful means to the laudable goal of raising the historical consciousness of faculty, students, and administrators and, moreover, leading them to appreciate the valuable perspectives that special collections can offer. But when one or more aspects of a university's historical material is directly tied to class activities, something special happens. Not only does an often-neglected but extremely valuable tool come alive for faculty and students, but, more broadly, this resource is effectively put to work for the curriculum. Thus, the educational experience is enhanced on the one hand, and the collection is made pertinent and integral to the institutional mission on the other.

This paper reports on one such linkage at the UAB School of Medicine, specifically between Michael Casey, Ph.D., course director of gross anatomy, and Michael Flannery, associate director for historical collections. The project began with the realization that RHL's holdings of original works on anatomy, particularly those by Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), could be used to enhance the "Medical Gross Anatomy" course. It should be pointed out that "Medical Gross Anatomy" is part of every first-year medical student's course load, providing the opportunity to showcase the resources of the RHL to the entire medical student body at the beginning of their studies. Thus, this case has significant implications for the viability of special collections in the medical school curriculum.

The details of implementing the plan were left to the discretion of RHL staff. The staff decided that the best approach would be to limit direct access to the original material by creating an informed display that showed Vesalius's great anatomical classic, De humani corporis fabrica, his Epitome (which the students rather endearingly referred to as "baby Oe fabrica"), an illustration of Vesalius, and a pre-Vesalius work showing an anatomical plate that would demonstrate in "before and after" fashion the great contribution of this Renaissance anatomist. Because the copies in the RHL collection were in excellent overall condition but still retained their rather fragile bindings and spines, access to the original works was limited to small groups under the direct supervision of the course director and RHL staff.


The RHL features not only a rare copy of the first edition of Vesalius's De humani corporis fabrica (1543), but also a copy of the expanded second edition of De fabrica (1555) and two copies of Vesalius's Epitome (1543), the "student version" of the De fabrica. For both the professor and the students, being able to actually turn the pages of these books has been practically a religious experience. De fabrica represents the beginning of modern observational science and is arguably the "holy grail" of anatomy and biomedical science.

To actually see this book has special meaning beyond its contribution as the first comprehensive, accurate anatomical text. The book brings together a number of interesting conjunctions, a fact not lost upon another great physician and medical bibliophile, Harvey Gushing (1869-1939). Gushing writes,

Vesalius came on the scene at a time when the inviolability of tradition, whether ecclesiastical or scientific was being widely questioned. What is more, ready at hand as if for his special purpose were newly discovered and highly perfected arts, that of printing by moveable type and that of engraving on wood, both having reached in his day a level of excellence scarcely surpassed even in modern times. …