Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Welcoming Willis

A very welcome new addition to the History of Medicine Collection here at OHSU is a copy of Thomas Willis' Pharmaceutice rationalis, or, An exercitation of the operations of medicines in humane bodies, shewing the signs, causes, and cures of most distempers incident thereunto. In two parts. As also A treatise of the scurvy, and the several sorts thereof, with their symptoms, causes, and cure (I love a proper title!), printed in London in 1679.

A landmark of 17th-century English medicine, this was one of the first scientific works on pharmacology, in which Willis attempted to establish pharmacology as a science based on anatomy and chemical experimentation. Here, Willis describes the sweetish flavour of urine in diabetes mellitus, (possibly) differentiating between it and diabetes insipidus--the first Westerner to do so. The text also contains numerous anatomical illustrations of the organs of the abdominal and thoracic cavities, including some very early images of the fine structure of the lungs (such as the one shown here, Tab. V., which "sets forth the pulmonary nerve more accurately described by the aid of a Microscope").

The OHSU copy bears the bookplate of the avid book collector Dr. Oren Otto Fisher. A contemporary signature on the title page is very intriguing: it appears to read "Kath. Wright, 1684." By chance, I happened across a mention of a Katharin Wright, wife of William Lee, burgess and five-time mayor of Abingdon, who happened to be Governor of Christ's Hospital in Abingdon during the second half of the 17th century (cf. Diary of Samuel Sewall, 1674-1729, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1878, p. 301-2). We can't yet say for certain that these two Kath Wrights are one and the same, but it's certainly an intriguing possibility!

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