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Spring 2014
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Magic Touch

Reading online is easy, but nothing beats the sensuous pleasure of holding an old book in your hands.

By Steven Moss, MD, and Tovah Reis
Photography by Paul Clancy

The library at Brown University is used by the medical faculty, students,and staff, whether they reside on or off campus. The print collection is at the Sciences Library, but because Brown University subscribes to more than 13,500 online journals and 100 electronic medical textbooks, the current generation of students never need experience the thrill of locating an elusive manuscript in a dusty stack of journals hidden away in a little-frequented shelf.

That treat is available to those who visit the John Hay Library, the home of Brown University’s Special Collections. Brown was the fortunate recipient of much of the Rhode Island Medical Society [RIMS] library, which transferred about 30,000 volumes to the University in 1987. Included are famous early medical texts dating back to 1501 (e.g., Pliny’s Historia Naturalis) and works by Vesalius, Boerhave, Harvey, Willis, Addison, Jenner, and Laënnec. Several treasures are of interest to oncologists—including surgically oriented case reports on cancer, which offer fascinating insights into the causes of cancer. For example, in The Chirurgical Works of Percivall Potts, FRS, Surgeon to St Bartholomew’s Hospital (1779), Potts records the first description of the occupationally acquired scrotal cancer of chimney sweepers: “The fate of these people seems singularly hard; in their early infancy, they are most frequently treated with great brutality … and when they get to puberty, become peculiarly liable to a most noisome, painful, and fatal disease”.

Treatments for cancer are discussed in Dissertation on Cancer by Usher Parsons, which won the Boylston Premium of Harvard University in 1835. In it, Parsons notes with disapproval that “green lizards, swallowed fresh, have enjoyed high reputation for the cure of cancer”. On the Treatment of Cancer by John Clay is an 1882 collection of three Lancet papers that promoted Chian turpentine as an early form of chemotherapy. Volumes from the RIMS collection and other rare books are searchable from the University’s online catalogue. In our opinion, however, handling the musty-smelling pages of 500-year-old first editions of medical classics is infinitely more enjoyable than scrolling down a nondescript document on one’s laptop.

Steven Moss is a professor of medicine and Tovah Reis is head of medical and science information, Brown University Library.

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