Delving into medical treatments and procedures of the past is an immersive way to consider the hidden histories of medical care we now so often take for granted. The John Rylands Library (part of the University of Manchester) has a number of key artefacts linking to the history of medicine in its Special Collections – many of which can be viewed online.

In terms of the public health situation regarding Coronavirus, The John Rylands Library is closed until further notice. The official statement on the closure, along with links to view the collections online and social media accounts, can be found here:

Pictured below - The Frontispiece of The Canon of Medicine, The University of Manchester Library, JRL1403261. LUNA link here

The University of Manchester Library

Earlier this month, as part of their series of Collection Encounters – events allowing the public to get close to Special Collections material – The John Rylands Library focused on Medicine Through Time (with these encounters running up until the 6 March). From ancient medical textbooks with drawings of the human body almost haunting in their detail to mysterious manuscript collections detailing medical recipes and charms, there is plenty for the curious.

The John Rylands Library is after all part of The University of Manchester Library, which holds one of the most significant Special Collections in the country. This means the opportunity to encounter books and records from centuries ago, shedding light on transformative medical developments through time and how a range of other cultures have contributed to this fascinating history. It also highlights a range of weird and wonderful ways illness has been treated!

What are some of the examples in the collection? The Frontispiece of The Canon of Medicine is a highly historically significant item – a title-page of an encyclopaedia of medical knowledge originally written by Ibn Sina in 1025, though the edition in the collection dates from 1608. This book compiled a crucial overview of medical knowledge from the Islamic World, practices that would go on to significantly shape medieval and Renaissance Europe too. The Frontispiece in the collection is the Renaissance Latin edition (produced by Andrea Alpago, an Italian physicist), complete with pictures of some of the great historic physicians and philosophers such as Galen, Hippocrates and Ibn/Avicenna himself! A Persian-Muslim physician and philosopher, Ibn Sina (980-1037) was one the most significant thinkers of his age; with The Canon of Medicine detailing his work in learning about various parts of the body, diseases and medicines that could be used for their treatment.

Another feature in the collection is the beautiful book by the Brussels-born anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) titled De Humani Corporis Fabrica (translates as ‘On the Fabric of the Human Body’). The John Rylands Library has three copies (one dating from 1543 and two from 1555) of this highly influential text, which details the structure of the body in depth and contains woodcut illustrations made by Jan Stefan van Calcar. The illustrations are iconic in their own right, superior to any produced previously and including ‘muscle men’ and skeletons shown in various stylised poses, against a backdrop of the Euganean Hills in Italy. There are some grisly details behind the origins of the book too, as it is based on lectures that Versalius would give, in which he dissected human corpses in front of an audience.

Pictured below - Andreae Vesalii Bruxellensis, Scholae medicorum Patauinæ professoris, de Humani corporis fabrica Libri septem (On The Fabric of The Human Body by Andreas Vesalius, 1514-1564) The University of Manchester Library, JRL022932tr. LUNA link here

The University of Manchester Library

Whilst some of the artefacts in the Special Collections highlight the sometimes gory and bodily histories of medical discovery, others document cures and creative approaches to dealing with disease. Take The English Physician by the evocatively-named botanist and physician Nicholas Culpeper, a book first published in 1652 – with the edition in the collection dating from 1683. The English Physician was amongst the texts taken by pilgrims to the New World and is a catalogue consisting of 369 medicines made of English herbs… hence its nickname ‘The Complete Herbal’. Yet this interest in creating concoctions from plants did not always serve Culpeper well, as he was accused of witchcraft in 1642! Very much a fascinating figure, Culpeper also ran a pharmacy in the Spitalfields area of London and would sometimes provide his herbal treatments for free, as he believed that people who were struggling financially should not have to make a decision between food and medical treatment: he saw medical treatment as a public right.

Want to find out more for yourself? The majority of The John Rylands Library’s Special Collections’ rare books, maps and visual collections can be found using the search function online: After all, it was the vision of Enriqueta Rylands – founder of the library which opened to the public in 1900 – that a diverse audience would be able to access the material within. The Library’s digital repository, LUNA ( also has links to images of plenty of weird and wonderful artefacts, from the theme of medicine to subjects such as witchcraft, alchemy and magic!

By Emily Oldfield 




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