This post was written by Corinne Hogan, Assistant Librarian at the Royal College of Surgeons of England. It is part of a series of posts for History Day 2021. Separate posts describe Medical History archive collections and Natural History archive collections.
A collection of over 30,000 pamphlets, dissertations and reprints are held in the College Library. They cover all aspects of medicine and surgery and a wide variety of other subjects.
This collection holds a wealth of material for research in the history of medicine. When the project to make it more discoverable and accessible to researchers was first undertaken many of the scarce pamphlets remained uncatalogued in British libraries. The contents of the collection had been largely hidden in a card catalogue and contemporary printed catalogue. Even the exact number of bibliographic items bound together was uncertain.
The majority are from the nineteenth century, in English, French and German. The collection includes many presentation copies.
The project to catalogue the pamphlets to modern standards began in 2002 and was completed by 2011. To fund the cataloguing and conservation of these unusual items the College won a succession of funding bids from the Research Resources in Medical History grants scheme administered by the British Library and the Wellcome Trust. The pamphlets complement the College Library’s important collection of rare medical books.
During cataloguing pamphlets were discovered that cover the complete scope of contemporary medicine and health-related social concerns. A selection of titles gives an impression of the collection’s range: ‘On the abolition of private slaughter-houses in towns’, ‘The New Zealand War of 1863-64-65: special report on wounds and injuries received in battle’ and ‘A juggler who died in consequence of having swallowed a table-knife’.
Subjects covered include all branches of medicine and some of the natural sciences, in particular natural history, anthropology and palaeontology, which were the interests of the contemporary curators of the College museum. The collection started as a working library for these expert College curatorial staff. There is material to support research into the beginnings of anaesthesia, antisepsis, microbiology, forensic medicine, demography and epidemiology; the reform of the medical and dental professions; military medicine; and, of course, the development of specific surgical techniques. Moreover, pamphlets on sanitation and sewerage, on workhouse hospitals and on the Contagious Diseases Acts illustrate the wider history of public health and social reform.
What started as a staff reference library soon grew. By the close of the 19th century, it was widely recognised that the RCS possessed one of the finest libraries for the medical sciences in Europe. Today, as well as the tracts and pamphlets, the library holds approximately 75,000 books from the fifteenth century onwards, and around 2,000 runs of periodicals, including early journals dating back to the seventeenth century.
In 2013 Arts Council England awarded Designated status to the Library, the Archives and the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. It was noted that the collections contain a remarkable breadth of material relating to surgery, anatomy, pathology, physiology, public health, hospitals, military medicine, infectious diseases, botany and natural history.
The complete cataloguing of the Tracts and pamphlets opened up a valuable but little-used collection of primary sources for both medical and social historians. It also meant that when the UKMHL digitisation project came into being the College was ready to participate and provide the necessary volumes to constitute a large slice of the final selection of little known publications. The UK Medical Heritage Library (UKMHL) is a digitised collection that JISC provides as an open collection via the Historical Texts service.
Around 21,800 items were digitised from front cover to final leaf for this project, constituting around a third of the total number of 66,000 publications in the UKMHL collection. Therefore a key part of the UK Medical Heritage Library digitisation project are examples from the RCS tracts and pamphlets collection.