Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Books and Men, Redux 1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Books and Men, Redux 1

Article excerpt

"Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?" So the Duke of Gloucester is said to have exclaimed one day in 1781, when Edward Gibbon presented him with a copy of the second volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. We have no record of the portly little scholar's response, but it may be guessed that he paid little heed to the nobleman's foolishness, and with good reason: The first volume of his chronicle had been so astonishingly successful that he had no doubt already begun daring to hope that his "scribbling" might be destined for literary immortality.

Since the Iliad and the Bible, the course of our civilization has been marked by the appearance of great books, some of which have become famously designated as Great Books. For every one of these that competes for inclusion in the so-called Western Canon, there are dozens, of equal importance to the development of our culture, that are little read or are remembered only by specialists of one sort or another. Among them are some of the landmark works in the history of medical knowledge. More than any other profession or calling-except perhaps the clergy-doctors have always recorded their experiences and interpretations. They have done this primarily for instructional and archival reasons, but a byproduct has been the influence of such works on the ways in which their readers think about humankind's relationship with nature.

This is why the presence of renowned libraries of the history of medicine-and storehouses of the most current of medical science- have graced some of the leading universities and other scholarly institutions of the Western world. Included-to speak only of the Northeast of our nation-are the Countway in Boston, the Cushing/ Whitney at Yale in New Haven, the New York Academy of Medicine, and the College of Physicians (among others) here in Philadelphia.

On 12 January 1901, the then fifty-one-year-old William Osler, at the height of his career as professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, spoke at the official opening of the newly reconstituted Boston Medical Library (since then subsumed into the Countway) on the topic "Books and Men." Eleven years later, when he was Regius Professor at Oxford, Sir William Osler collected a group of his short writings that he liked to call Men and Books, written mostly for the Canadian Medical Association Journal, which were published long after his death in a small volume of that name.

But it is the original "Books and Men" to which I'd like to return, in which Osler spoke of the well-known phenomenon of bibliomania, a major species of which is a fanatical interest in the works and authors of bygone eras. "The men I speak of," he said, "keep alive in us an interest in the great men of the past and not alone in their works, which they cherish, but in their lives, which they emulate." By "emulate," Osler meant what he referred to as "the silent influence of character on character and in no way more potent than in the contemplation of the lives of the great and good of the past, in no way more than in the touch divine of noble natures gone." In his closing words, Osler referred to the great library in which he was speaking and, by association, libraries in general as "this home for your books, this workshop for your members."

Like virtually everyone here this afternoon, I have spent countless hours in such workshops. But it is in the Medical Historical Library of the Cushing/Whitney at Yale that I have found my scholarly home. I like to think of it as my own personal place, even though it is shared by hundreds of men and women very much like me, who are often overcome by the need to look backward in the midst of trying to move forward. To my knowledge, none of us has yet been turned into a pillar of salt.

It is there that I have been able to make what one of the library's original donors called "voyages to other times and other places." That inspiring arena creates an atmosphere in which medical bibliomaniacs can book passage on uninterrupted voyages to yesteryear. …

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