LIBRARY INSIDER: Medical treasures of the Health Sciences Library System


Medical practices and discoveries have been recorded and disseminated since ancient history, mostly in books used by students, educators and practitioners throughout the world. What if you could delve into this treasure trove of medical advancements, without physically opening a book? The Medical Treasures of the Health Sciences Library System offers just that — a video series that brings many of the fascinating illustrations and written words of centuries past to modern viewers.

Each episode, about 20 to 25 minutes long, follows a theme that ties together several books and artifacts from centuries past:

Episode 1: Enhancing Medical Teaching with Illustrations

This episode kicks off with the most valuable, and one of the most interesting, books in the collection, authored by Andreas Vesalius. This book has an intact version of what should have been an assembled flap anatomy illustration, where the reader assembles pieces of the human body that lift up to show the different layers of biological systems. Watch to see a flap anatomy in action, as well as other early innovative methods of imaging, such as early photographs, stereoscopes, and mezzotint engraving.

Episode 2: What is Rare There?

This episode features the oldest book, the only incunabulum of the collection, from 1496. This Latin commentary on fevers features manuscript-style lettering and ornate capital letters, leaving the mark of previous owners who wrote their notes along the margins of the pages. This episode features many gems of the collection, including the valuable Tagliacozzi treatise on plastic surgery. Next is the book that first proved the heart pumps blood in a circular fashion, written by William Harvey in 1648. We also see one of four known copies of a variant first edition of an anti-animal magnetism pamphlet, as well as a personal reflection of an American who served in a volunteer ambulance service in France in 1914.

Episode 3: Musings on Manuscripts

Six distinct manuscripts are discussed, tied together by their common factor of being handwritten or typewritten. These manuscripts are much younger than the books shown in other episodes, but highlight some truly unique items with local connections. For instance, Erik H. Erikson, a German-American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst, was a visiting professor at Pitt and donated his manuscript to the library. Another academic, in Pitt’s School of Dentistry, entrusted a set of Horace Wells’ family letters to the library. We also see memorabilia, manuals, and reports from both World War I and World War II. The WWII 27th General Hospital in New Guinea collection shows participation of Pitt’s faculty in the medical service of the U.S. Army.

Episode 4: Anatomy with Italian Twist

Anatomical atlases contribute some of the most fascinating and artistic illustrations to the collection. This episode visits examples from the 16th to 19th century, either by Italian anatomists or published in Italy. Early examples show noblemen in everyday poses, exposing systems such as bones and ligaments. We see the progression to isolated, separated depictions of body parts, such as the illustrations by the famous Santorini, which look more like the medical reference books that students and doctors may use today.

This video series was developed through a partnership with the Health Sciences Library System (HSLS) and the Medical Alumni Association. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, alumni visitors frequently stopped by the library’s Rare Books Room. While Pitt’s campus was closed to visitors, the idea for a video series was put into motion.

HSLS’s efforts were led by Gosia Fort, head of digital resource development, whose expertise about the historical collection is often shared through the Treasures from the Rare Book Room article series. Fort chose the books and artifacts, filmed and photographed those items, and recorded narrated scripts. A team from HSLS, led by Julia Dahm, coordinator of technology integration services, combined the narration, text, images, video clips, and captions into episodes.

The Medical Alumni Association team connected with Pitt’s health sciences alumni, inviting them to the premiere of each video, which took place between February and July 2021. The final episode, Medical Classics, will premiere this fall. All the videos can be viewed any time from the Pitt HSLS YouTube channel.

Julia Dahm is the coordinator for technology integration services at the Health Sciences Library System.