The Well Read Doctor of 1840

We recently discussed the evolution of medical literature as a searchable archive, noting that the National Library of Medicine grew out of the efforts of Dr. John Shaw Billings and the US Army. Here we give due credit to Joseph Lovell, the first Surgeon General, who started the library in 1838. The holdings as of 1840 were 130 titles, listed by hand. We began exploring this list and quickly digressed into paleography and genealogy.

Dr. Joseph Lovell, first Surgeon General
Joseph Lovell graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1811 and served as a combat surgeon in the War of 1812. As chief medical officer for the Northern Department, his reports up the chain of command were both analytical on medical risks and prescriptive of change. He was soon rewarded with appointment as the nation’s first Surgeon General. Over eighteen years he brought spit and polish to the medical corps, collected epidemiological and weather data (the beginning of the Weather Bureau) and funded research such as Beaumont’s famous observations (literally) of gastric digestion. 

 Joseph Lovell

Joseph Lovell

Lovell died in 1838, when Billings was just 6 months old. In his last year he began yet another project—buying books for a new Army medical library.  A facsimile copy of the holdings two years on (1840) was published to mark the 125th anniversary of the founding of the National Library of Medicine (1961).

The Doctor's Reading List, 1840
I thought it would be interesting to look at this list, for at least two reasons. First, what were the topics of interest and what deemed to be worthy sources of medical knowledge 175 years ago? Second, and even more entertaining, is the fact that finding the primary documents mostly doable, but challenging enough to give the amateur historian (us dear reader) the satisfaction of solving a puzzle. 



As to the composition of the collection, there are 130 titles listed. Of these, 112 are books, 12 journals and 10 administrative items. The majority are general medical-surgical volumes, along with a surprising number of gynecologic and pediatric texts. Other sciences were represented, especially meteorology. 

Medical Mystery Tour
Let’s look at a few of the adventures in historical research this list offers. Consider the entry “Coopers Lectures”. This was, I’m sure obvious to the physician of 1840. But we have to wonder: “which Cooper, what lectures”. At first I considered Bransby Cooper Lecture on Amputation, as reviewed in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in 1849. However, if seems much more likely to refer to a famous lecturer in surgery Sir Astley Cooper, whose two volume set of 45 lectures can be purchase today. 

Or take the entry “Curiosities of Med. Exp.” I thought this might be “Medical Experimentation”. It is in fact a fascinating survey of “Medical Experiences” and can be seen in the second edition, scanned on Archive dot Org. It deals with such things as unlawful cures, medical effects of water, coffee and hydrophobia.

These cases involved some educated guesses. Other entries required a genealogical perspective—most challenging here were the “Bells” documents, of which there are four. The author of the handwritten list eschewed the possessive apostrophe, but I took my lead from knowing that Bell’s Palsy was described by a Dr. Bell. In this case Charles Bell. And indeed, he wrote Engravings of the arteries, in 1801. But it was his brother John was wrote “Engraving of the Bones…” in 1810. Two down.

Ringing the Bell


From McIntyre. J R Coll Physicians Edinb 2011; 41:174–81 © 2011 RCPE

The other two are Bell’s Dissection and Bell’s Operative Surgery. We could invoke John Bell again (The Principles of Surgery) but we must also turn to an unrelated family of surgeons named Bell, all distinguished and spanning over four-generation between 1749 and 1911. There are no dates of publication given on the list, so we are left with a matching exercise where “Benjamin” and “Joseph” are found in multiple generations, and there is a George as well. The holding titled “Operative Surgery” is certainly not Joseph Bell’s (1837-1911) “A Manual of Operations in Surgery” as he was only 3 years old in 1840. Benjamin’s (1749-1806) famous surgical tome,“A System of Surgery”, was in its 7th edition in 1801. So I am undecided as to author here. It could be a different Joseph or Benjamin or a George in that family tree. 

We wrap up with a note on handwriting. It can be really hard to decipher the penmanship of 175 years ago. As an example, I was striking out with the title Bandeloque’s Midwifery—until a Google search (which is particularly good at including misspellings) coughed up Baudeloque’s Midwifery. Which led to the primary source and nice Wikipedia bio

Another item which looks like “Xancredes O2fila or Prson” I could surmise to contain Nancrede (because it was under the heading “Ns”). And I suspected it had to do with “Poison”. Once I found the primary document, it was clear that the reference was to “A General System of Toxicology or A Treatise on Poisons found in the Mineral, Vegetable and Animal Kingdoms, considered in their relations with Physiology, Pathology, and Medical Jurisprudence”—by MP Orfila MDP and Joseph G Nancrede MD (1817). Little wonder that the archivist took a short cut.

But you have to wonder why the New England Journal of Medicine was entered as simply “New England”.

As it turns out, there is help out there for the reading of old script (paleography). The English handwriting styles to be alert to include Round Hand (since the early 1800s), Italic (1500s to early 1800s), Secretary (1400s to mid-1800s) and Court (late middle ages to early 1700s).

Tutorials can be found at Brigham Young University, the National ArchivesDoHistory and RootsWeb.

If you can help solve some of these lexical mysteries, leave a comment, write to, and visit

 Xancredes O2fila or Prson ?

Xancredes O2fila or Prson ?