Spotlight on: Medical History of British India

In this series, I’ll be highlighting a digital resource or collection of primary resource materials in the history of medicine. You can find a lengthy list of these at our history of medicine subject guide and feel free to share any resources you’ve found useful!

Medical History of British India is a fascinating digital collection from the National Library of Scotland. The materials digitized for this collection consist mostly of documents from the India Papers Collection. The India Papers Collection is made up of central British Imperial and British Indian government publications from the mid-19th century until the first decades of the 20th century. The Medical History of British India project has digitized and made available online the many volumes of reports relating to public health, disease, and medical research. It even includes 146 volumes (40,000 pages!) on veterinary medicine. The online collection is divided into 6 primary subject areas: disease, institutions, drugs, veterinary, mental health, and vaccination. You can browse by these sub-collections, or browse by other criteria such as form and genre (includes images, maps, and texts), place, subject, person and organization, and time period. All of the digitized volumes are also fully text searchable, a great research benefit. Another interesting feature is that you can download up to 30 images to create a custom PDF, which brings together only the pages you need.  The About the collection page gives a great introduction to all of the major subjects covered—click on the link to Institutions and you will get lots of good background information about the organization of medical research, hospitals, and healthcare services in British India.




Online resource: Travel Journals of Martin Lister

A new online resource brings together the travel journals and memoirs of English physician Dr. Martin Lister (1639-1712): Every Man’s Companion: Or, a Useful Pocket-Book.

As a medical student in Montpellier, Lister kept pocket books of his lessons and observations. Here he closely documented, among other things, the medical texts and recipes he used and acquired and the many observations on natural history that were the mark of a gentleman-naturalist. This site, by medical historian Dr. Anna Marie Roos, traces Lister’s peregrinatio medica, his travels for the purposes of medical education, from England to Montpellier and home again via Paris. Also included on the site is a page detailing the books that accompanied Lister on his travels and during his schooling

Detail from Dr. Roos' interactive map of Lister's travels.

Detail from Dr. Roos’ interactive map of Lister’s travels.


Further reading:

For more about medical travel and foreign medical education in the early modern period, see Ole Peter Grell, Andrew Cunningham, and Jon Arrizabalaga’s edited volume Centres of Medical Excellence?: Medical Travel and Education in Europe, 1500-1789. Burlington, VT : Ashgate, 2010.

History of Medicine on Overdrive

Looking for some reading over the long weekend? Like listening to audiobooks during your commute? Check out some medical history titles now available on Overdrive.

Overdrive is a digital media library that McGill subscribes too. You can borrow and download e-books and audiobooks for a lending period of up to 3 weeks.

Here are a couple of newly available titles for history of medicine:

The medical book: from witch doctors to robot surgeons, 250 milestones in the history of medicine, by Clifford Pickover.

            Touching on such diverse subspecialties as genetics, pharmacology, neurology, sexology, and immunology, Pickover intersperses “obvious” historical milestones—the Hippocratic Oath, general anesthesia, the Human Genome Project—with unexpected and intriguing topics like “truth serum,” the use of cocaine in eye surgery, and face transplants.


The iMinds series has short, readable on Bubonic Plague, Epidemics, Penicillin, and other medical topics.

Medical detectives: the lives and cases of Britain’s forensic five, by Robin Odell.

            The development of forensic pathology in Britain is told here through the lives of five outstanding medical pioneers. Spanning seventy years, their careers and achievements marked major milestones in the development of legal medicine, their work and innovation laying the foundations for modern crime scene investigation (CSI). Sir Bernard Spilsbury, Sir Sydney Smith and Professors John Glaister, Francis Camps and Keith Simpson were the original expert witnesses. Between them, they performed over 200,000 post-mortems during their professional careers, establishing cruicial elements of murder investigation such as time, place and cause of death


Nothing but the tooth: a dental odyssey, by Barry Berkovitz.

            This book offers facts and figures regarding famous historical figures, such as John Hunter, Dr Crippen, Doc Holliday, and Paul Revere, exploring how their connections to dentistry shaped them, as well as the story of the two young dentists who discovered the principles of general anaesthesia. Other chapters focus on the amazing ranges of teeth in animals, from the teeth in piranhas to the tusks and ivory of elephants and narwhals, looking at their biological and cultural significance.


Check out the Getting Started guide to download the software you’ll need (Mac/Ipad users take note: you will need to download the free Overdrive Media Console from the app store). You’ll need to sign in with your library account number.

Find more information about e-books here.


The historian of medicine’s blogroll (part 1)

William Osler keeping up-to-date pre-blogosphere. From the Osler Photo Collection, CUS_064-048_P.

William Osler keeping up-to-date pre-blogosphere. From the Osler Photo Collection, CUS_064-048_P.

The world of academic blogging keeps getting better and better and, indeed, a more and more important way of engaging with scholarly communities. Here are just a couple highlights for the historian of medicine.

Center for Medical Humanities blog: This longstanding blog from the Centre for Medical Humanities at Durham University is definitely one for the RSS.  It’s an important distributor of calls for papers and announcements of conferences, talks, and new publications in medical humanities and history of medicine.  It’s also a collaborative blog that features scholarly content from guest contributors ranging from profiles of researchers to introductions to current work.

Remedia is a beautifully designed new blog devoted to all things history of medicine, particularly topics that help to illuminate contemporary issues. Entries so far touch on obesity and death and dying (see, for example, this interview about assisted suicide) and although it’s young, it looks like a promising blog to follow.

Contagions: Subtitled “Thoughts on historic infectious diseases,” this is an  impressive blog by biologist Michelle Ziegler of Saint Louis University that provides an account on her work on “old germs” and public health. Current research topics of her include a bioarcheology of plague, particularly a study of the early medieval plague of Justinian, and inflectious disease in the Americas. Have a look at her entry on gerbil plague!

Next in our series of professor blogs comes William Eamon’s site, featuring his blog Labyrinth of Nature: “occasional thoughts and random reflections on the history of Renaissance science.” Eamon, a professor at New Mexico State University and author of two excellent and eminently readable books on Renaissance scientific and medical culture, writes a great blog. The posts are on various topics or events in early modern medicine or science; all are illustrated with images and provide further readings. Check out his study of 16th century Italian surgeon Leonardo Fioravanti and his drug of choice, Precipitato (mercuric oxide), which he prescribed liberally for purgation.

Medical History: In this blog, our host, Dr. Turkey, obstetrician by day and historical storyteller by night, shares photographs, anecdotes, and diagnoses (see, for example, her brief history of anesthesia or her opinion on Attila the Hun’s death. A fun read for the historically curious.

The Medicine Chest is devoted specifically to early modern and 18th century medicine from Dutch historian Marieke Hendriksen. Her posts span a range of subjects from medical material culture to pharmacy, and topics from harelips to mercury.



New resource: Scientific Instrument Society

Back issues of the Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society from The British Society for the History of Science are now freely available online.

There’s no search capability, but back issues from 1984 to 2004 are available for download as PDF from the Scientific Instrument Society’s website.

Here’s one example of historical medical instruments found on the pages of the Bulletin: Roland Wittje, “Centrifuges and Ultracentrifuges in Medical, Chemical and Microbiologic Laboratories,” Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society 80 (2004).

Engraving of medical instruments, likely to replace broken bones, by Carlo Cesi, 1626-1686. From the Osler Library Prints Collection, OPF000047.

Engraving of medical instruments, likely to replace broken bones, by Carlo Cesi, 1626-1686. From the Osler Library Prints Collection, OPF000047.



New resource: Codebreakers, makers of modern genetics

The Wellcome Library announced the launch of an important new digital collection yesterday. Codebreakers: makers of modern genetics brings together the papers and archives of twenty leading researchers and organizations in biochemistry and genetics, including the personal papers of James Watson and Francis Crick, two scientists credited with discovering the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule in 1953.

Lots of other archival material provides the context for this discovery. From the Wellcome Library blog:

We also have collections that help place their work in a broader context. From the first half of the 20th century we have the archive of the Eugenics Society, made available by kind permission of the Council of the Galton Institute, and the papers of J B S Haldane, a leading figure in pre-war British science and the first Professor of Genetics at University College London. From the post-war period we have, amongst others, the collections of Guido Pontecorvo and his students Malcolm Ferguson-Smith and James Renwick, who helped make Glasgow a leading centre for the study of medical genetics. We’ve also digitised over a thousand books covering the science, history and social and cultural aspects of genetics and related disciplines, mostly from the 20th century.


Have you had a chance to look through this collection yet? What did you think?


Unsolicited advice: All about JSTOR

Now, I do use and appreciate JSTOR. After all, they have full-text articles! And mugs! But there is a time and a place for this particular resource. And it should never be the only article database you rely on. Consider this a public service announcement for those of you who are working on mid-term assignments to remember to use multiple databases for your research.

First, what is JSTOR?

A digital library. JSTOR aggregates content (journal articles, book reviews, and—new this year—books) from over 1,500 academic journals in a range of disciplines. It’s name is short for Journal STORage, meaning that they have compiled an enormous library of old issues of journals. Although they’ve been working on expanding the number of current journals, there is still often a delay between the time a journal article is published and the time it appears on JSTOR (often 3-5 years!). JSTOR “aims to expand access to scholarly content around the world and to preserve it for future generations,” is a not-for-profit organization, and all-around good guy.

But what is it not?

A research tool. JSTOR, unlike many other databases, doesn’t have abstracts or subject headings. That means, your options for searching and finding relevant information are limited. JSTOR’s primary function is as an archive, which means that their indexing2 is not overly strong. This means, to find the best sources, you are better off searching in a database with better indexing and THEN going to JSTOR to retrieve the article. (Though this might not work if your article is too recent.)

So when should you use JSTOR?

When you have an author or title that you know already. When you have a good idea already of what you need and a simple keyword search will suffice. When you’re looking for an easy way to find historical articles (JSTOR has journal archives going back to the 1840). When you don’t need the most up-to-date research (say, in fields like history or literature, where scholarship from 5+ years ago can still be relevant).

Bottom line?

JSTOR is really great resource. And has nice mugs. You need to be aware of what you’re getting when you’re using it and recognize its limitations. But more than anything, you need to always be using other databases in addition to make sure you’re not missing the most up-to-date research or missing other relevant resources because of limited search capability.

The librarians at McGill provide you with lists of resources (including databases!) relevant to the subjects you’re studying. Just go to this page and look up the topic you’re researching here.

For example, here’s one of our subject research guides for the history of medicine.




1. This is called a “moving wall.”

2. This means, how they organize their articles by topic. Think of this as the equivalent of a hashtag. Normally, librarians tag all of the articles and books entered into a database or library catalog, using a list of predefined terms.

Spotlight on: Wellcome Film

In this series, I’ll be highlighting a digital resource or collection of primary resource materials in the history of medicine. You can find a lengthy list of these at our history of medicine subject guide and feel free to share any resources you’ve found useful!

The Wellcome Library, one of the world’s most important medical libraries, is home to a number of specialized collections representing the history of medicine and medicine in society, including a substantial Moving Images & Sound collection.  A digitized collection of these films dating from 1912 on called Wellcome Film in particular is a fantastic resource in the history of public health and medical training during the 20th century and makes its A/V material freely available to researchers for download as part of the Internet Archive, (they have a YouTube channel as well).

Check out the Wellcome’s film of the month for February, a 1954 short technical film entitled “Relief of Pain in Childbirth.”


New resource: Annual Announcements of the Medical Faculty of McGill College

Early Canadiana Online is an online collection featuring digitized books, articles, pamphlets, and government publications, over 80,000 items published in Canada from the 1600s to the 1950s. Their Health and Medicine collection now contains 9 complete issues of the Annual Announcement of the Medical Faculty of McGill College from 1852/53-1862/63.

The Annual Announcements were used to lay out the course of lectures for the following academic year and update faculty and students on changes in regulations. They included lists of current students and graduates for the given year.

Want to know how much your medical education cost 160 years ago?

The 1853/54 session announcements reports:

“The fee for each class shall be three pounds, Halifax currency; except for the Anatomical and Chemical classes, for each of which the fee shall be three pounds fifteen shillings, of the same currency; and for the classes of Clinical Medicine and Surgery, and of Medical Jurisprudence, for each of which the fee shall be two pound ten shillings.” (p. 9)