Traditions & Culture of Collecting Articles by and about Collectors, Librarians, and Booksellers

Background on the Bibliotheca Osleriana: Osler as a Book Collector Leonard M. Payne

Reprinted from Oslerian Anniversary. The record of the 300th meeting of The Osler Club of London held jointly with the Royal College of Physicians of London. London: The Osler Club, 1976, 38-47

It was about a year ago that, in writing the introduction to the catalogue of an exhibition on medical book collectors, I used some words from Carter’s Taste and technique in book collecting, which while not profound did cause me to stop short. “There is undoubtedly a greater tendency for book-collecting to take root and flourish in persons of reflective or studious temper than among pugilists or aviators; certain professions, like surgery and law, seem especially favourable to it”—but why single out surgery from medicine? On this occasion two physicians come readily to mind-Joseph Frank Payne, one-time Harveian Librarian at this College, and William Osler. Both were featured in the exhibition to which I have referred. It is, moreover, difficult to distinguish book-collecting in the sense in which it is used today from the formation of a working library. Indeed it has to be admitted that the working library of one century has become a quarry for the book-collector in the next century. Archbishop Cranmer, Lord Arundel, and Lord Lumley brought together the best books of their day in all departments of learned literature and made them generally available. William Osler, whose Bibliotheca Osleriana speaks for itself, might not unfairly be likened to these collectors. But for him books were more than collector’s pieces as we shall presently see.

Since an exhibition of Osleriana is a part of this symposium, what follows will both serve to introduce that exhibition and describe Osler’s tastes and adventures in collecting and the various fields into which his love of books took him. The Canadian home of a country parson in which Osler grew up was not lacking in books; his father’s books, about 1,500 of them, were naturally chiefly theological, and of themselves would not inevitably lead to a love of books. Sunday reading was a trial. Novels were, of course, taboo. George Borrow, however, was a delight. Since he had been a missionary, his books, The Bible in Spain, Gipsies in Spain, and even Lavengro, could not be hurtful. Special pride was taken in the books of Osler’s Uncle Edward, a surgeon in Truro, whose letters from England were eagerly awaited and one of whose hymns was sung in church. Papers by him had appeared in the Transactions of the Royal Society and it was Uncle Edward’s Life of Exmouth, Church and King, and a volume of his poems, The Voyage, that seemed to confer a literary flavour on the family. The copy of The Voyage in the exhibition may well have been read by William Osler since it is the one Edward gave to his brother, Featherstone Osler. It contains, among other things, his essay on West Indian slavery which rather suggests that he was not an emancipationist.

When Osler went to Weston at the age of sixteen, he had his first opportunity to see scientific books which afforded him an introduction to a very different book-world, with its manuals of geology, botany, and microscopy. The Warden and Founder of this school, the Revd. W. A. Johnson, affectionately known as Father Johnson, was a good field botanist, an ardent microscopist, and no mean artist, to judge from his sketch-book, a gift from Harvey Cushing to The Osler Club, “unless W. A. Johnson’s ‘lost son’ should be found.”

It was Johnson’s custom to read aloud to the boys in the parsonage. To illustrate the beauty of the English language he would choose extracts from Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio medici. To have been able in so doing to transmit, as he did, his appreciation to a lad of seventeen was quite remarkable. At about this time (Christmas 1867) William’s eldest brother gave him a copy of Friswell’s Varia: Readings from Rare Books (1866). Among its essays was one on Sir Thomas Browne. In these ways Osler was introduced to the Religio. The first book he bought was the Globe Shakespeare, and then, in 1868, the 1862 Boston edition of the Religio medici.

From the time Osler became a medical student until he settled in England as Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford it is possible to discern some of the influences which contributed to the growth of the library which eventually found its way to McGill. Osler’s days as a medical student must be passed over quickly, but not without a mention of Palmer Howard through whom he was introduced to the works of Laennec, Stokes, and Graves. When Osler graduated and the prizes for 1872 were announced, he received a special prize for his M.D. thesis which was greatly distinguished for its originality and research. He left for England soon after with an order for books in his pocket on Nock the medical bookseller. He was instructed to have printed in the books he selected “Graduation prize awarded to Wm. Osler.”

It was some months before he visited the firm of S. & J. Nock in Bloomsbury and found the brothers “far advanced in years and weird and desiccated specimens of humanity.” By this time he had begun to frequent the antiquarian book-stands in the company of his room-mate Arthur Browne, a lover of English literature, who was to become Professor of Obstetrics at McGill. He introduced Osler to the works of Lamb and Coleridge, and gave him a copy of John Brown’s Horae subsecivae, Locke and Sydenham with other occasional papers (Edinburgh, 1858) which made a lasting impression on Osler, and from which dates his interest in Locke and Sydenham. This interest is reflected in various ways. Many years later he had been given a copy of John Locke’s Essay concerning humane understanding (London, 1690) by Dr. Pleasants of Baltimore: Osler then bought another copy superbly bound by Bedford. He kept the former, believing it to be in the original binding. The other copy he gave to the College and, as was sometimes his wont, wrote a note in it, on this occasion a quotation from Fowler on Locke. This he also used in his paper to the students’ societies of the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania on John Locke as a physician.

His habit of writing in books allows us to know the story behind the acquisition by the Edinburgh College of Physicians of the manuscript of “Rab and his friends”, one of the essays in Brown’s Horae subsecivae.

I sent a bid to the auctioneer for £50, and at the same time notified George Gibson, Edinburgh, that the MS. should be bought for the Royal College of Physicians, Edin. (of which Dr. Brown had been the president) and that I would subscribe £5. The sale was the next day. At breakfast the thought came that Quaritch would be very likely to bid on such a MS., so I cancelled my auctioneer’s bid and took the early train for London. B. Quaritch Jr. said, “Yes, we had decided to bid to £l00, but we have no special commission and I will not lose it for the College.” The bidding was lively at first, as two or three dealers seemed keen, but it was knocked down at £45. It is now in the library of the [Edinburgh] College.

This is to anticipate a little but it does show that Osler was not selfishly acquisitive.

While in England he visited Norwich and was much moved by the sight of Thomas Browne’s skull which many years later he was instrumental in having placed in a proper receptacle. In the two years spent in Europe Osler bought few books but read many. He was introduced to the library of the Royal College of Surgeons and of the Medico-Chirurgical Society and found the students’ library of University College very good.

Returning to Montreal he assembled a collection of Canadian scientific and medical journals which cost him not a little time and money, and which went to the McGill medical library. The first glimmer of Osler’s subsequent deep interest in matters relating to medical history and biography dates from that time. As a teacher of physiology he had been interested in the case of Alexis St. Martin described by William Beaumont, and at every session he referred to his remarkable wound and showed Beaumont’s book. In Osler’s view, for the medical bibliographer there were few more treasured Americana than that brown-backed poorly printed octavo volume. The copy on view was given by Osler.

After telling the story of St. Martin he usually asked where St. Martin’s stomach should finally be deposited, and in consequence it became generally known that Osler expected in due time to hold a post-mortem examination.

Knowledge of Osler’s intent had reached the community, which had apparently been aroused in opposition, and on the day of St. Martin’s death a warning telegram came from the local doctor, saying: “Don’t come for autopsy; will be killed”, and this was followed by the announcement that the grave was being guarded every night by French Canadians armed with rifles. It was a great disappointment to Osler who “had offered to pay a fair sum in case the relatives would agree to deposit the stomach in the Army Medical Museum in Washington”.

His Philadelphia period (1884-9) is notable for his association with the library of the College of Physicians where he was a member of the Library Committee with Weir Mitchell among his colleagues. In Philadelphia too he used to read for an hour after dinner at the Rittenhouse Club, and many standard authors were read for the first time, particularly American ones, Emerson, Lowell, and Franklin. Here he was following advice given in his Student Life years after.

Every day do some reading or work apart from your profession. I fully realise, no one more so, how absorbing is the profession of medicine but…you will be a better man and not a worse practitioner for an avocation. I care not what it may be; gardening or farming, literature or history or bibliography, any of which will bring you into contact with books.

His library grew rapidly. At this time his interest in the American masters of medicine began, and some of the special treasures like John Jones…on the Treatment of Wounds (Philadelphia, 1776), and Morgan’s Discourse upon the Institution of Medical Schools in America (Philadelphia, 1765) were acquired.

When Osler moved from Philadelphia to Baltimore in the spring of 1889 he left behind nearly1,000 volumes, chiefly journals, which he knew were in Baltimore. These were distributed to various li-braries. Hitherto with a comparatively small income only the more important books and journals could be bought, a working library in fact. With an increased income Osler began to buy, first the early books and pamphlets relating to the profession in America; the original editions of the great writers in science and in medicine; and the works of such general authors as Sir Thomas Browne, Milton, Shelley, and Keats. Osler used to call the edition of the Religio bought in his youth the Father of his Browne collection. The idea of such a collection did not mature until the summer of 1899 when he was on holiday in England. He had bought the first authorized edition (1643) £7. 7s. from Quaritch, and then seen the two unauthorized editions in the British Mu-seum and the R.C.P. Besides this he had seen a good deal of Dr. J. F. Payne, the Harveian Librarian of the College, and at about this time an effort was being made to collect funds for the erection of a monument to Sir Thomas Browne to be placed in the shadow of St. Peter Mancroft, Norwich.

When Osler left Baltimore there were again journals and monographs and many works on general literature to be distributed to friends and libraries. A good beginning had been made with the original editions of the great authors in medicine, and the Sir Thomas Browne collection was nearly complete. He had a passion for Vesalius, and with cash in his pocket found copies of the Fabrica impossible to resist. This explains how he came to distribute six copies to libraries, and in so doing tells a story against himself. Forgetting what he had done, he took a copy out to McGill in 1907 and showed it with pride to Dr. Shepherd, the librarian, who pointed out in one of the show cases a very much better example presented by Osler some years before. He then took it to the Boston Library Association where Dr. Farlow looked a bit puzzled and amused. “Come upstairs”, he said, and there in a case in the Holmes room, spread open at the splendid title-page, was the 1543 edition and, on a card beneath it, “The gift of Dr. Osler”. He had better luck in New York, where the volume found a resting place in the library of the Academy of Medicine.

It is apparent from a letter which Osler wrote to Humphry Rolleston the year before coming to Oxford as Regius Professor that Osler was looking forward to taking up his post in the hope that it would relieve the pressure to which he had been subjected in Baltimore. It may have done, but it also brought opportunity for his interest in books and men to be expressed in a great variety of ways. The office of Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford carried with it the automatic appointment as one of the curators of the Bodleian Library. Very soon there was a feeling that a day had not been well spent if altogether away from Bodley. He envied the men who could be there all day and every day. In the annals of the Library little of note had happened since 1860 until 1906 when, by working behind the scenes and contributing liberally himself, Osler helped to restore to the Bodleian the original copy of the first Folio of Shakespeare which had come to the library in 1623. It was purchased from W. G. Turbutt of Ogston Hall, Derbyshire, for £3,000, having been bought by an Oxford bookseller in 1663 or 1664 with a number of “superfluous library books sold by order of the Curators” for £24. Ten years later in 1916 he appropriately contributed a paper on the bookworm to the Bodleian Quarterly Record, and showed that Blades had erred in thinking Hooke’s formidable looking monster illustrated in Micrographia1London, 1667 (schem. xxxiii, fig. 3). was a figment of the imagination. The living specimen came to light in a book which Osler had bought from Paris the previous autumn. A drawing was made by Horace Knight of the British Museum, where there were no eggs of this species and no drawing of any value.

Another duty laid on the Regius was the Mastership of the Almshouses at Ewelme, an office which Osler’s predecessors had not been very diligent in fulfilling. In July 1906 Osler spent two weeks in the Master’s residence at Ewelme, during which he gave a picnic to the elderly inmates as well as the children of the village. Now the Master’s rooms looked down into the cloistered court by the Church, and in one of these rooms was an old safe. No one knew when it had last been opened. The safe had rusted: as Osler failed to open it a Chubb’s man had to come down from London. The interior was coated uniformly with mould and the documents were reeking with damp. They were taken into the graveyard and you can see the photograph from Cushing’s Life which shows Osler’s nephew, W. W. Francis, spreading them out to dry in the sun.

The collection consisted of documents dating from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, ancient title-deeds, audit accounts, conveyances as well as the original charter with the seal of Henry VI attached. Undated, but the earliest of all, is a parchment roll of receipts with directions for making what has since been called gunpowder, but then unknown in warfare. He had the documents taken to the Bodleian where Maltby, the university binder, put them in order and bound them. It has not been possible to show any of these, but we have included one of the miscellaneous documents relating to William Harvey that were discovered when Osler was visiting the College in search of new material for his Harveian Oration to be given in the same year (19o6). These documents, too, were repaired by the same binder at Osler’s initiative.

Whatever may have been Osler’s feelings for the College, he was undoubtedly well disposed to the library, giving many gifts, and to the Harveian Librarian, Dr. J. F. Payne. I cannot claim Dr. Payne as a distinguished ancestor, although he died not far from where I used to live in north London. There was the occasion in 1904 when Osler bid at Sotheby’s for the editio princeps (1478) of Celsus intending to give it to Weir Mitchell for the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. He did in fact get it for £16, but it did not go to Philadelphia. You can see it here. It happened like this; the day after calling at Sotheby’s Osler went to the College where Dr. Payne showed him some books he had bought at the same sale while lamenting the fact that he had lost the Celsus. That same evening, having said nothing, Osler sent him the book. He then adds that the College of Physicians of Philadelphia had to wait until 1912, when Osler helped them to get a specially fine copy, beautifully bound, at the Huth sale for £84.

Since Osler originally had rooms in Christ Church in quarters that both Robert Burton and John Locke may have inhabited, he inevitably became interested in Robert Burton’s books, and sought and obtained permission to reassemble them in one of the rooms off the picture gallery and to use the books as a sort of frame for the portrait of Burton. Having done this he read a paper on the library of Robert Burton at one of the monthly meetings of the Bibliographical Society in 1909. When he had joined that Society in 1906 it needed new inspiration and Osler brought it. His first attendance is vividly recalled by at least one of those present. The meeting had begun when the entrance of a stranger with an attractively mobile face, alert figure, and notably light tread caused a whispered secretarial inquiry as to who he was. The answer came that it was Professor Osler, and the secretary had an instinctive conviction that his coming meant much for the Society. Osler was elected to the council of that body in 1910, became a Vice-president a year later, and served as President for seven years from 1913. When he gave his presidential address in 1914 he confessed that he was not an expert bibliographer, but a representative of an ever-increasing group of ordinary book lovers.

I have tried in the casual studies of a life devoted to hospital and consulting practice to glean two things, the book biographies of the great men of science, and the influence of their hooks in promoting the progress of knowledge. The anatomy of the mind of a man as shown in his book, and the physiology of the book itself, though not perhaps bibliography proper, serve to illustrate its story. [He continued] As my profession has never before been honoured by the presidency of the Bibliographical Society, it seemed appropriate to try to indicate the influence which the introduction of printing had upon medicine.

Thus his Incunabula medica 1467-1480, was conceived.

A further illustration of the working of Osler’s ferment, though it did not have as enduring an effect in England as it had in America, was the foundation of a Medical Library Association. Under his presidency, twenty-seven librarians held their first meeting in 1909. Addressing them he referred to the honourable record of English physicians as booklovers and collectors since the thirteenth century, and said that his experience had been that there were more medical libraries in this country than in any other. The two principles on which he collected books were, first, the interest in the author, a good guide, as the book illustrates the life, and, second, the special impress which the book had left on the history of medicine.

The idea of the Bibliotheca Prima was outlined in a leaflet presented to the members of the Classical Association in May 1919. Sir William as President, had invited them to view his treasures at Oxford and had arranged a special exhibit of first editions of twenty of the great contributors to knowledge. It would appear that the idea of the Bibliotheca Osleriana had taken form while Osler was browsing in the Pepys Library on a Cambridge visit in1914. Charles Sayle of the University Library became interested in the project and gradually in the course of correspondence and exchange of visits the plan of a Bibliotheca Prima, Bibliotheca Secunda, and so on came to be crystallized. During the next five years the cataloguing of his library became an engrossing interest. Osler intended that his catalogue should be something more than a mere impersonal list of books. He was particularly influenced by the Bibliotheca chemica of John Ferguson, and in a tribute to his memory said, “Though an absorbing and profitable study, the results of bibliography are too often recorded in tomes of intolerable dullness. The merit that appeals to me is a combination of biography with bibliography. Beside the book is a picture of the man sketched by a sympathetic hand”. Such was John Ferguson’s bibliography. Osler also mentioned another as “full of the marrow and fatness of books”, this was James Atkinson’s two-letter bibliography, a copy of which he gave to Dr. G. A. Auden, father of the poet, when he appealed to him, as a native of Yorkshire, for information of the author. Auden found that Atkinson was born in 1759, his father was a friend of Laurence Sterne, and that he lived in one of the two houses on the left side of Lendal, opposite to that built by Dr. Wintringham. Dibdin, the bibliographer, stayed with Dr. Atkinson on his northern tour, as did Paganini. Auden confessed that the Medical Bibliography reminded him a good deal of Tristram Shandy’s humour.2Auden’s copy with some correspondence which he gave to the College is among the items on display.

In making plans for the disposition of his library, Osler left a collection chiefly modern, of works on the heart, arteries, blood, and tuberculosis to the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore. A collection of important editions in English literature, is now in the Tudor and Stuart Club, founded at Johns Hopkins University in memory of Edward Revere Osler, the book-loving son who was to have inherited it. The books and manuscripts illustrating the history of medicine and science went, of course, to McGill.

Osler did not see the fulfillment of his dream bibliography. The work was carried through by Archibald Malloch, R. H. Hill of the Bodleian Library, and W. W. Francis, his nephew and librarian. Dr. Francis wrote of the night before Osler died:

I read to him for quite a long time, things he asked for out of the “Spirit of Man” and we finished with the last verses of “The Ancient Mariner”. I thought at the time how well it fitted him and afterwards what an appropriate valedictory for this lover of men and books:

He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small.

« back to all Articles

back to top