Leafing through the pages of medical library history

Walking through the halls of Pennsylvania Hospital often feels like embarking on a treasure hunt. Whether you stumble upon an old apothecary photo hanging in what is now the Great Court Conference Room, or you find centuries-old notes scrawled underneath archived weather records, your discoveries are sure to have fascinating stories behind them.

Library room at the Pennsylvania Hospital with a long table, ornate rug and glass cabinets of books
This room has housed the library since 1807, save a brief period when the space was used as the lying-in (obstetrical) ward. (Photo: Penn Medicine News Blog)

The Historic Medical Library in the Pine Building—the first of its kind in the country—is home to many of these historic gems, making it no surprise that it was designated the “largest and most important” medical library nationwide by the American Medical Association in 1847. But amidst the rare incunabula (books printed before 1501) and beautifully illustrated anatomical and botanical volumes, there are also some unexpected sources of history and intrigue—including the humble library catalog.

While the Historic Medical Library would eventually amass a collection of more than 13,000 volumes, its early days would best be described as slow and steady. In 1762—11 years after the hospital was founded—John Fothergill, a British friend of co-founder Benjamin Franklin, secured his place in Pennsylvania Hospital history by donating the first book: a copy of “An Experimental History of the Materia Medica” by William Lewis, FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society). He also provided three anatomical casts of a pregnant woman and 16 anatomical drawings by Dutch artist Jan Van Rymsdyk, a gesture that sparked interest among hospital leaders in establishing an up-to-date reference library that could be used by managers, physicians, and students.

Read more at the Penn Medicine News Blog.