University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Edward W. Mulligan Collection of Early Medical Books

Volume I · November 1945 · Number 1
The Edward W. Mulligan Collection of Early Medical Books

In the years 1924 and 1925 Dr. Edward W. Mulligan was definitely the king of the Rochester medical profession. As the young professors of the new University of Rochester medical school came one by one to town to join the faculty, one of their first semi-official duties was to be presented to Dr. Mulligan. I remember well how carefully his importance was explained to me before the meeting. Dr. Mulligan, I was told, was the city's most influential surgeon; he had won the confidence of George Eastman; he was head of the surgical service of the Rochester General Hospital; he was well disposed toward the new school and his good will was valuable. The interview, which might have been formidable in view of the great man's importance, was made easy for me by his kindness and simplicity. He was a man of rather heavy build, with a large head and strong features bearing the tired look of an old surgeon but also a glint of boyish enthusiasm and an indefinable touch of spiritual uncertainty which somehow appealed to one's sympathy. I liked him from the first and was happy to find that we had a great interest in common. Each of us, in our very different ways, was an enthusiastic student of the history of medicine.

The story of the relations between Dr. Mulligan and myself, which ultimately brought about the foundation of the Mulligan Collection in the Medical School Library, is worth telling for the lessons that can be read between its lines. I think I can best make it clear by explaining first that my own way of being a medical historian was a bookish one. Thanks to a schoolmaster who was a genius at teaching Latin, I was, if not a fluent reader, at least not afraid of that language in which most of the record of older medicine is written. As interne and junior professor I had gotten a lot of fun out of studying and writing sketchily about two or three romantic episodes in the lore of ancient medicine - the stories of the search for a universal drug and for the anatomical location of man's soul. Later on, when in 1923-24 I was abroad in preparation for my new post at Rochester, I was thrown almost by chance into the company of Charles Singer and was encouraged by him to execute a serious study I had long dreamed of, on the history of anatomy in the earlier Middle Ages. The notes for a volume on this subject were already in hand when I met Dr. Mulligan. This avocation of mine was known to the University of Rochester administration and indeed the president, Dr. Rush Rhees, had told me he hoped I would make it my special business to develop the historical viewpoint in the new school. The Dean had tagged me to be Chairman of the Library Committee. I was already, so to speak, a semi-pro.

Dr. Mulligan, on the other hand, was not a bookish man and he was an amateur in the original sense of the term. He loved the history of his profession so much that he had to talk about it regardless of a lack of the technical equipment necessary to a professional specialist in the subject. He had gone to medical college from high school, and had never had the opportunity to study Latin or any modern foreign language. His audience for his historical discourses was the Sunday morning staff meeting of Rochester General Hospital. For the benefit of the house staff and junior visiting men, Dr. Mulligan had organized a weekly session for the review of cases and the exchange of medical information. Many of the senior staff members supported this excellent enterprise by regular attendance, and there were others who came no doubt because it was politic to be seen at the Chief's conference. At the time I first knew Dr. Mulligan, he was in the habit of opening his Sunday meeting with a ten-minute talk on a historical subject. At the only one I remember attending, his subject was the life and works of Ambroise Pare. I soon learned that the great Renaissance surgeon was Dr. Mulligan's special hero, with good reason, indeed, for Dr. Mulligan himself was much like Pare in his combination of bluntness, obstinacy, courage, honesty, and self-confidence mixed with self-distrust. His sketch of Pare was by necessity taken from the standard textbooks of medical history in English. It emphasized the well-worn dramatic touches, the story of the boiling oil, the great saying "I dressed his wounds, God cured him." There was no critical scholarship in his account, nor indeed anything a bright schoolboy could not have worked up from an encyclopedia; and yet the tale was told with force and dignity that stemmed from the speaker's personal experience. Like Pare, he had learned his surgical lessons on the battlefield of practical effort; he too had borne responsibility for human life through many grave hours, and thus he understood and loved, across the centuries, his valiant elder brother in the surgeon's art.

It must be added that an academic education is not the only way a man can be taught to value books. Dr. Mulligan had travelled widely. He had a wife who bubbled with intellectual ambition. His character and abilities had won him the friendship of several men who were keen bibliophiles and students of history. One of these was Dr. Edward Wheelock, a strange figure of the Genesee Valley whose life would be worth narrating in full, if there is anyone left who can tell it. Another was George Goler, Rochester's great Health Officer, and a third was Edward G. Miner, a gentleman who needs no explanation in the University of Rochester Library Bulletin. From such men as these Dr. Mulligan could learn more about the bookish side of medical history than he would likely have learned in college. It is also worth recording that in his youth he spent some weeks of postgraduate work in pathology at the Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York City, under the greatest of our medical antiquarians, William Henry Welch, then himself a comparatively young man. I wonder whether it may not have been Welch who was the first to mention Ambroise Pare to the earnest young surgeon from upstate.

Dr. Mulligan was a member of The Club, the "Pundits," eldest of the group of small dinner clubs characteristic of Rochester, in which leaders in business and the professions gather fortnightly for a studious paper followed by debate. Their quiet influence in the city during the past eighty years would reward a sociologist's research, but that is a digression. I received the honor of election to the "Pundits," and in due time read my first essay as a member. The debate turned on the place of science in the community, and one of the members contributed a vigorous disparagement of modern science in general as contrasted with the value of humanistic studies and the classical tradition as a guide to life. As an amateur historian as well as scientific investigator I was prepared to consider both sides of this question sympathetically, but Dr. Mulligan seemed to feel that my ideals had been traduced and he pitched into the debate like a true Irishman into a fight, with a slashing defense of the scientific viewpoint all the more astonishing and touching because it came from a speaker generally considered a type of the practical rather than the scientific doctor.

One night in November 1926 after a meeting of The Club, I took Dr. Mulligan to his home in my car. On the way he asked me how the library at the Medical School was coming along. He hoped we were not forgetting the history of medicine. We ought, he said, to get English translations of all the great books of early medicine so that a busy doctor like himself, who knew only English, could read them all. In replying to this naive proposal I had perforce to be didactic. He simply did not know that no great part of the medical classics has been translated into English. I told him that only a fraction of the Hippocratic books, only a few fragments of Galen, and scarcely a word of such a book as the De Humani Corporis Fabrica of Vesalius had been printed in our own language. Many of those books that had been translated were rare and expensive. "For example," I said, "the only complete English version of the writings of Ambroise Pare, in whom you have taken so much interest, was made in the seventeenth century. It has not been reprinted in more recent times. A copy of one or another edition of this work, Thomas Johnson's The Works of that Famous Chirurgeon Ambrose Parey, when it can be found costs about one hundred dollars. I agree that we should have it, but our library is new. We must consider first the necessary working literature of present-day medicine before we strain the budget to buy books that only enthusiasts like you and me would think of." By this time we were at the Doctor's curb and the conversation ended. I thought no more of it, but during Christmas week Dr. Rhees telephoned me and said that he had received in the morning's mail a check for five thousand dollars, with a note from Dr. Mulligan saying that Dr. Corner was to spend it for books on the history of medicine, in particular, of anatomy and surgery.

It is unnecessary to say that in the use of this money I had the enthusiastic collaboration of my colleagues on the Library Committee, Dr. Clausen and Dr. Bayne-Jones, the latter of whom was succeeded by Dr. Wilson. Before describing how we spent the Mulligan Fund, I must add that without any solicitation Dr. Mulligan again sent checks for five thousand dollars at each of the next two Christmases. I heard on good authority that he intended to send a fourth, but he was ill at the end of 1929 and his death on January 2, 1930, terminated the benefaction.

The Library Committee thought Dr. Mulligan's intentions would best be fulfilled if we used his gift to furnish the Medical School, not with a show collection of rare books, but rather with a working collection that could be used by the staff and students to get at the ideas and achievements of our predecessors as easily and fully as possible. We followed Dr. Mulligan's idea about translations as much as we could, purchasing every English version of a medical classic we could lay our hands on. We thought that many a student who would never read a Latin text could gain much from illustrations, and therefore we accumulated a really distinguished collection of the great illustrated books on anatomy and surgery. Among these are the first and second editions of the Fabrica of Vesalius, a fine copy of Aselli on the lymphatic system, with the first colored anatomical engravings, and a truly noble unbound set of the anatomical plates of Albinus. We tried of course to get the standard working texts of the classics preferred by scholars, for example Littre's Hippocrates and Kuhn's Galen. Although, as I have said, we were not seeking books primarily for their rarity, there were items we thought necessary in a well rounded historical collection that were, unfortunately, rare and costly. The two Vesalius books are in this class. We bought an early edition of Harvey's De Motu Cordis, though not the first, which would have eaten up almost the whole fund. Wishing that our students might be able to see how medical literature has come down to us, we purchased, after serious consideration and consultation with the Dean, a good and typical example of the mediaeval manuscript, a fourteenth-century copy of the Cyrurgia of Roland of Parma. To this we added a chosen few incunabula and some early sixteenth-century imprints, all of them valuable medical texts as well as examples of typography.

All in all, Dr. Mulligan's gift of fifteen thousand dollars brought the School an excellent working library of about one thousand volumes which includes most of the really important older medical classics in usable editions, and at the same time affords a survey of medical book­making and of the history of medical illustration. The Mulligan Collection is, as its donor wished, especially strong in anatomy and surgery. A fortunate purchase enabled us to add a good section on obstetrics and gynecology. Other branches were not neglected. The generous gifts of Mr. E. G. Miner supplement the Mulligan books with a large collection of the history of epidemic diseases. The whole medical history collection could probably not now be duplicated at current prices for less than twice its actual cost.

Dr. Mulligan never, so far as I can remember, let me know directly what he thought of our use of his money, but Dean Whipple told me that once the Doctor visited the Library without sending for me, looked over the growing collection very carefully, and told the Dean that he was very much pleased. This was, I think, not long before he sent the third installment of his fund.

These books cannot fail to exert an influence upon the School through the years. Students who merely see them on the shelves in passing will at least realize that their profession has a long history behind it. From time to time those of the faculty who like to discuss the history of their subjects will take chosen volumes to the classroom for exhibition. A few students will use the books for serious study. I know of at least four good articles on historical subjects written by students of the School who found all or nearly all the necessary texts in the Mulligan Collection. Who knows but that some future Welch or Cushing will find in these books the inspiration that will start him on the road to pre-eminence as a medical historian?

The day Dr. Mulligan's first check arrived I began to watch the booksellers' catalogues for a copy of T. Johnson's translation of Pare into English. Whatever else we bought, Pare must certainly be there, in language that our benefactor himself could read. All the editions of this book are scarce and more than two years went by before we found one. At last a fine copy of the 1678 edition arrived, and as soon as it was accessioned Mrs. Corner and I took it from the Library to Dr. Mulligan's home on East Avenue. He was no longer robust and was going out very little. The book brought new light to his eyes. We left him at a table in his sitting-room, happily studying for the first time a full and comprehensible text of the work he had so long admired and so often talked about. He was able that year to read a paper at the Pundit Club, the last he ever presented. Announced under the modest title A Little Medical History, it was an account of the life and works of Ambroise Pare, illustrated by our copy of the English translation.

I once came across an early book about the navigation of the air, published in the eighteenth century, and was enchanted by a suggestion that the author made for the invention of airships. The idea was that people should go to the tops of high mountains, and there collect the fine, pure, light, rarefied air of the summits and put it into bags and seal up the bags and bring them down to the commonplace level of everyday. There, by attaching the upward lift of those bags to a raft, they could be used for an airship. That is precisely what lovers of great books try to find in the books they love -- the lighter air of the mountain peaks of human life.

From Ex Libris Carissimis, by Christopher Morley