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Becker Library’s Archives and Rare Books

at the Washington University School of Medicine

Elisabeth Brander
Bernard Becker Medical Library
St. Louis, Missouri
Stephen Logsdon
Bernard Becker Medical Library
St. Louis, Missouri

The Archives and Rare Books at the Bernard Becker Medical Library of the Washington University School of Medicine serves as a continuing resource providing information services to faculty, staff, and students as well as visiting researchers, scholars, and the general public. The library’s rare book holdings consist of some 20,000 volumes spread across nine distinct collections. Some of these collections are general in scope, and contain works on a wide variety of medical topics, while others are focused on a specific subject. Altogether, the Becker’s rare book collections cover the past 500 years of medical history, and contain several landmarks in medical publication including the first and second editions of Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica, Siegfried Albinus’ monumental Tabulae sceleti et musculorum corporis humani, with its superb copperplate engravings, and the first American edition of Henry Gray’s Anatomy, descriptive and surgical.

Copperplate engraving from Cowper’s ‘Myotomia reformata’. William Cowper (1666-1709). Myotomia reformata, or an anatomical treatise on the muscles of the human body illustrated with figures after the life. London: Printed for Robert Knaplock . . ., William & John Innes, and Jacob Tonson, 1724. (Plate XII) Copper engraving.

The medical school began to collect rare books in 1912, when it purchased the library of Professor Walter Pagel, Professor of Medicine at the University of Berlin. This initial purchase was followed by the acquisition of Dr. John Green’s collection of 19th century books on ophthalmology and otology, and, in 1916, the purchase of Frank J. Lutz’s collection of early printed medical works. These books are now the basis of the Becker’s Classics of Medicine and Monuments of Medicine collection. The Classics of Medicine contains works from the late 15th century up to 1820 while Monuments, the largest of the individual collections, holds books from 1820 to the mid-20th century. These two collections, which hold works by both major and less well-known medical authors, form the core of the Becker’s rare book holdings.

A patient in restraints prior to surgery. George Bartisch (1535-1607). Ophthalmodouleia, das ist Augendienst. Dresden: Stöckel, 1583. (Page 143)

The other rare book collections are more specialized in nature. Two of the most significant of these are the Becker Collection in Ophthalmology and Optics and the H. Richard Tyler Collection of the American Academy of Neurology Library. The Becker collection was donated to the library by the former Chairman of the Ophthalmology Department, Bernard Becker, in 1975, and contains over 300 works on ophthalmology and optics dating from the 16th century to the 1850s. The Tyler collection was donated by neurologist H. Richard Tyler, a Washington University School of Medicine alumnus, in 1999. The library’s copies of the 1543 and 1555 editions of Vesalius’ Fabrica, several 17th century editions of Thomas Willis’ Cerebri anatome, and Charles Bell’s beautifully illustrated 19th century work The anatomy of the brain, explained in a series of engravings, were all part of Dr. Tyler’s donation. In addition to the Becker and Tyler collections, the library holds the CID-Max A. Goldstein Collection in Speech and Hearing, the James Moores Ball Collection, which contains numerous beautiful anatomical atlases; the Robert E. Schleuter Paracelsus Collection, the Henry J. McKellops Collection in Dental Medicine, and the Rare Medical Periodicals.

Woodcut of “Wound-man,” from: Paracelsus (1493-1541), Der grossenn Wundartzney, das erst Bůch. Augsburg: Heynrich Steyner, 1537.

The Becker’s rare book collections are used in a variety of ways. While the collection is of course used by researchers working in the history of medicine, they are also used in educational displays for undergraduate and graduate classes from several St. Louis area institutions, and serve as centerpieces for exhibitions highlighting specific historical trends. The Library’s archival collections on the other hand are more focused on St. Louis medicine, with a particular emphasis on the School of Medicine, its individual departments, its faculty, and the associated hospitals and research institutions at the Washington University Medical Center. There are over 900 individual archival collections that occupy nearly 4,000 linear feet of stacks space at the Becker Library.

Beaumont StMartin
IMAGE 4 – William Beaumont
IMAGE 5 – Alexis St. Martin

One of the most significant archival collections at the Becker Library is the William Beaumont Papers. William Beaumont (1785-1853) was a US Army surgeon who served during the War of 1812, and was later stationed in New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Missouri. He is remembered for his book Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion. Beaumont was able to write this book after spending eight years (1825-1833) performing various digestion experiments on a French Canadian named Alexis St. Martin. While stationed in Michigan, Beaumont treated St. Martin for a gunshot wound to the stomach. St. Martin’s wound healed with a permanent opening in his abdomen through which the interior of his stomach was exposed to the outside. This opening, along with St. Martin’s cooperation, allowed Beaumont to observe the functions of the human stomach.

Engraving of St. Martin’s wound. Beaumont, William. Experiments and observations on the gastric juice, and the physiology of digestion. (Plattsburgh, NY, F. P. Allen, 1833), p. 25.

One of Beaumont’s annotations included in the notebook he kept on the St. Martin experiments describes the insertion of “different kinds of food, drinks, elastic catheters, [and] thermometer tubes into the opening and extracting large quantities of gastric juice.” As one might imagine, the experiments were often quite painful for St. Martin. Beaumont writes, “When the bulb is sunk low into the stomach, and suffered to remain there a minute or two it gives severe pain and distress at the pyloric extremity, like the cramp, or, the sensation frequently described by persons suffering from undigested food in the stomach, and leaves a sense of soreness, if repeated a few times, as was very evident this morning.” Beaumont later complained that St. Martin exhibited an “obstinacy and unwillingness” throughout the experiments.

While Beaumont’s experiments may have resulted in a greater understanding of the physiology of the stomach, their physician/patient relationship would not meet the modern standards of ethical awareness in the medical community. For instance, the Beaumont collection includes several copies of the contracts that were signed by Beaumont and St. Martin to conduct the experiments. Given that St. Martin was being compensated for his discomfort, Beaumont believed that he was entitled to St. Martin’s cooperation. It is clear from Beaumont’s writings that he expected St. Martin to comply with each and every experiment.

Paragraph from Beaumont / St. Martin contract. Box 3, Folder 23, William Beaumont Papers, Bernard Becker Medical Library Archives, Washington University School of Medicine.

Meanwhile, Beaumont considered that his experiments “were executed in obedience to the dictates of humanity, and a desire to benefit community and perpetuate the advantages of this signal opportunity for physiological improvement.” His contemporary reviewers and later biographers also showed little concern for the rights of St. Martin. In fact, few even recognized the significant role that St. Martin played in the Beaumont experiments. It would not be until the late 20th century when medical ethicists would start to look at Beaumont’s relationship with St. Martin with a critical eye.

If you would like to learn more about the William Beaumont Papers, over 500 of his letters have been scanned and are publicly available online in the library’s Beaumont Collection in the Digital Commons. For more information on the archives and rare books at the Becker Library, take a look at our website or contact us.

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