Health Science Center library to display rare books; staff to receive conservation training

Special Collections Librarian Pennie Borchers shows one of the illustrations in “Tables of the Skeleton and Muscles of the Human Body,” published in 1747.

About 40 rare and antique books related to the medical profession — some published as far back as the 15th century — will be on public display from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on April 17 at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. The historical collection is located on the fifth floor of the Dolph Briscoe Jr. Library.

The books are the heart of the UT Health Science Center’s Pat Ireland Nixon Medical Historical Library, a special collection of the Briscoe Library. The special collection contains almost 5,000 rare and antique medical texts, manuscripts, photos, slides, oral histories and other items recounting the history of the medical profession from the 15th century through the early 20th century in San Antonio, Texas and the world.

Many of the items were owned by the late Dr. Nixon, a noted San Antonio physician, writer and historian. At one time Dr. Nixon served as president of the Bexar County Medical Society, which in 1970 gave the collection to the UT Health Science Center. The collection has been expanded over the years by generous donors.

Theme of the exhibit is human anatomy
According to Special Collections Librarian Pennie Borchers, the upcoming exhibit will feature human anatomy books for the benefit of students in an elective course at the Health Science Center on the history of anatomy. She said some of the illustrations in the books rival fine art.

“So much of what we see these days is on the Internet. People will be able to see these books up close, laid out on tables in our special collections area. They will be able to experience them as scholars did when they were first published, some of them several hundred years ago,” she said. The exhibit will include:

  • De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem” (“On the Fabric of the Human Body”), the most valuable book in the collection, by Andres Vesalius (1514-1564). The volume served as the foundation of modern medicine, treating anatomy as a science. The illustrations, drawings and woodcuts by Jan Stephan van Calcar, are considered a breakthrough in anatomical illustration.
  • “Tables of the Skeleton and Muscles of the Human Body” by Bernhard Siegfried Albinus (1697-1770) first edition in Latin, published in 1747. This is the principal work of Albinus, an anatomist, whose depictions of the bones and muscles are noted for accuracy. The book is illustrated with 40 copperplates made from original engravings by Jan Wandelaar, considered to be one of the greatest anatomical illustrators and engravers of the 18th century.
  • De Medicina” (“On Medicine”), by Aulus Cornelius Celsus (1481), the library’s oldest book. “Arlus Cornelius Celsus, considered the greatest Latin medical writer who ever lived and first important medical historian, has left us an enormously readable account of medicine in the ancient world…” the library’s description reads.

Briscoe Library receives grant to preserve special collection
The Health Science Center recently received a conservation bookshelf award from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to provide library staff with additional training to preserve the P.I. Nixon collection. The IMLS is the primary source of federal funding of the nation’s museums and libraries and is part of the American Association for State and Local History.

“The contents of the ‘bookshelf’ were selected by a blue ribbon panel of conservation experts; it includes an essential set of books, online resources and a user’s guide that can profoundly impact the ability of small libraries and museums to care for their collections,” according to an IMLS news release announcing the award. “Although our staff has received some training, there is no ‘degree’ in library preservation and very few universities offer certificates of advanced study in that area,” explained Librarian Anne Comeaux who applied for the award. “This grant provides resources to help us preserve artifacts and papers. Although we have some old medical bags and dental equipment, the majority of what we have are documents and books.”

Friends of the P. I. Nixon Medical Historical Library
The Friends of the P. I. Nixon Medical Historical Library support the collection and its aim to further the knowledge of the history of medicine. The group meets regularly for lectures, films, and dinners. Membership is open to Health Science Center faculty, staff and students, as well as members of the community.

Viewing the special collections
The P.I. Nixon Library is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Special Collections Reading Room is open to all persons with a legitimate interest in the materials (proof of identity may be requested).

Tours of the Nixon Library, including viewings of rare books within subject areas, can be arranged by contacting Borchers at (210) 567-2469.

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