Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Updated census of De humani corporis fabrica

 A few months ago I responded to an interesting set of survey questions about our 1555 edition of Andreas Vesalius' De humani corporis fabrica. Our response, along with similar submissions from other libraries, book collectors, book dealers, and auction houses, were compiled by Stephen N. Joffe and Veronica Buchanan into a new census of copies held in the U.S.

The results were published as "An Updated Census of the Edition of 1555 of Andreas Vesalius' De humani corporis fabrica in the United State of America" in volume 8 number 1 of the International Archives of Medicine (doi:10.3823/1600). The census updates a previous 2009 version by Joffe, which in turn built upon a 1943 census conducted by Harvey Cushing. This new census was published in conjunction with the 500th anniversary of Vesalius' birth.

Some conclusions of the census that I found interesting:
  • A total of 58 copies were located in 49 libraries. The 2009 census under-reported these holdings (our was included, however). In comparison, Cushing located 22 copies. 20 of those are still in the locations noted by Cushing (primarily institutional libraries).
  • Copies began appearing in the U.S. as early as the mid-eighteenth century.
  • No patterns of theft or other nefarious behavior were discovered. I tend to agree with the authors that most missing books are actually just misplaced.
  • The size of the original print run is unknown. Joffe had estimated that the run would have been in the range of 800-1000 copies but now believes this estimate is too high, with 300-500 copies being more likely. Around half of the original print run appears to have survived to the present day.
The article notes over time, copies are donated to institutional libraries (who will never part with them). Thus, there is a dwindling number of copies left in private hands. This suggests that there are few copies out there still remaining to be discovered - but you never know!

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