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Reasons to Love Minnesota No. 82: Wangensteen Historical Library

Five centuries of rare books about human health

The Owen H. Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine at the University of Minnesota is the finest medical research library in the Midwest — and, amazingly, 100 percent open to the public. The non-circulating collection houses more than 80,000 rare medical and natural history books dating from the 15th century to the 1930s, plus half a millennium of handwritten manuscripts and more than 1,000 medical and scientific artifacts. This includes 30 items from the 15th century, 939 items from the 16th century, 1,606 items from the 17th century, and nearly 40,000 from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. The earliest work? A handwritten copy of the Thesaurus pauperum from 1430.

Whatever health or science topic you’re curious about, no matter how micro — obstetrics, ophthalmology, obesity, astronomy, alchemy, tuberculosis, Bubonic plague, or the fungi illustrations Beatrix Potter drew before she created Peter Rabbit — Wangensteen curator Lois Hendrickson can pull something of interest.

On our visit, Hendrickson laid out more than two dozen rare books and artifacts on tables in the Wangensteen reading room. The spread included fragile antique stethoscopes; a torturous-looking tooth key from the late 1800s placed alongside a first-edition of Miland Austin Knapp’s Orthodontia Practically Treated (1904); Mrs. Elizabeth Nihell’s A Treatise on the Art of Midwifery (1760) resting near etched-crystal baby bottles with lead teats; the microscope of Josephine Tilden, the first woman scientist employed by the University of Minnesota; and a Civil War-era amputation kit with trepanning tools for boring holes in the skull. (Yeow!)

The range was impressive: Over here, Timothie Bright’s A Treatise of Melancholie (1586), which addresses depression and bipolar disorder. Over there, early issues of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, whose flora illustrations were hand-colored by an army of orphan girls. Nathaniel Hodges’ Loimologia, or, An Historical Account of the Plague in London in 1665; with Precautionary Directions Against the Like Contagion (1720) is exactly what it sounds like. The second edition includes fold-out tables summarizing deaths in different parishes.

The colorful and grotesque imagery in Tilbury Fox’s Atlas of Skin Diseases (1877), Robert Adams’ Illustrations of the Effects of Rheumatic Gout (1857), Carl Lewis Barnes’ The Art and Science of Embalming (1898), and Valeriano Luigi Brera’s pithily titled A Treatise on Verminous Diseases: Preceded by the Natural History of Intestinal Worms and Their Origin in the Human Body (1817) are unforgettable, try though you might. The imaginative work of 16th-century Italian Vlyssis Aldrouandi is also notable: Alongside his garden-variety fish and reptile drawings are depictions of sea dragons with unicorn horns and other fantastical beasts.

Most of the titles in the library are written in Latin, German, Italian, French, or English, but the Wangensteen has also acquired materials documenting the history of medicine in East Asia from the 16th through 20th centuries. Hendrickson showed us a 16th-century Japanese veterinary horse medicine manuscript with 61 folding leaves and 119 exquisite brush-and-ink illustrations. We were equally floored by the public health posters from the 1830s measles epidemic in Japan. Famous artists of the day were tapped to illustrate the PSAs, which depicted good and bad foods (kumquats and wheat were seen as potential cures) and relayed instructions for taking care of sick family members. This type of ephemera is very rare; viewed as talismans, posters were typically folded up and floated down the river after the epidemic passed.

Another Minnevangelist favorite: Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), an enormous manual edited by Mrs. Isabella Beeton, who Henderson calls “the Julia Child of England at the time.” The chapters cover everything from “General Directions for Making Soups” to “Domestic Servants,” the latter of which outlines the duties of the butler and lady’s maid. The book is thick with recipes for such tempting dishes as boiled fowl with cauliflower, barley gruel, and invalid’s jelly. Multi-course seasonal dinners for 6 to 18 guests are outlined with intense detail, as are ingredients for a suitable picnic, including but not limited to: a stick of horseradish, a bottle of mint sauce, three dozen quarts of ale, six bottles of sherry, six bottles of claret, Champagne à discrétion, and two bottles of brandy. (The 19th-century elite really knew how to party!)

Breakfast was a lighter affair, according to Lady Beeton — “broiled fish, such as mackerel, whiting, herrings, dried haddocks, &c.; mutton chops and rump-steaks, boiled sheep’s kidneys … bacon, ham, poached eggs, omelets, muffins, toast, marmalade, butter, &c.; collared and potted meats or fish, cold game or poultry, veal-and-ham pies, game-and-rumpsteak pies, cold ham, tongue, &c.” should do the trick.

Wangensteen is open to the public on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Email wanghist@umn.edu to set up an appointment and make research requests. If you’re not sure where to start, search topics via MNCAT, the University of Minnesota Libraries comprehensive online catalog.

Or just drop by to check out the free special exhibits. Past themes have examined the health and history of fermentation and distillation, the real-life maladies of the Downton Abbey-era Edwardian England, and the game-changing work of 16th-century physician and author Andreas Vesalius, whose medical renderings in De Humani Corporis Fabrica revolutionized the field of anatomical illustration. The current show, “The Secret Lives of Books,” is on view through December 23, 2019. Exhibitions for 2020 will be announced after the Wangensteen completes its imminent relocation to the new Health Sciences Education Center in U of M’s Phillips-Wangensteen Building.

All told, we spent about three hours at the library on our first visit, pouring through the fascinating array of books and artifacts selected by Hendrickson — but we could’ve spent all day. Whether you’re a doctor, medical student, chemist, botanist, historian, artist, filmmaker, or just inquisitive like us, it’s a privilege to have this incredible resource at our fingertips.

Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, 568 Diehl Hall, 505 Essex St. SE, Minneapolis, MN; 612-626-6881.