Inspiring innovation from tradition

Speaking of archives at-risk evokes war destructions, major cataclysms, or scientific papers forgotten in a lab or an attic. This is the case of the manuscripts in Timbuktu, for example, some of which date as far back as the 13th century and contain scientific texts of interest to the Institute. Although these precious volumes preserved in private houses in Timbuktu were rediscovered in the 1970s, they did not draw the attention of the scientific community until the early 21st century. Recent unrest in the country is putting these exceptional witnesses of ancient science and medicine in danger.

Closer to us and not so dramatic, urban changes and transformation of institutions may have an impact on historical collections. In order to better respond to the changing needs of medical education, the Medical Institute in Birmingham (UK) has embarked in a remodeling of its premises. As a consequence, it moved its historical library out and offered it at auction. On April 18th, a first sale dispersed the works from Hippocrates to Jenner in the form of 455 volumes produced from the early printing activity to the late 18th century. Abiding to its mission of preserving the medical memory of the past, the Institute has obtained a copy of the lavishly illustrated catalogue (Birmingham Medical Institute, The Rare Book Collection, Part I: Hippocrates to Jenner. Wednesday 18 April 2012. Dominic Winter Auctions. Mallard House, Broadway Lane, South Cerney, Gloucestershire GL7 5UQ, Great Britain), also available on the Internet, making it possible to view the volumes in an imaginary consultation.

Whereas such auction is an opportunity for new libraries to acquire items their collection did not include so far, the dispersion of modern scholars’ archives is a loss of original knowledge, particularly because such documents are rarely available in more than one copy. The Institute has recently received the personal archives and papers of Richard Lemay (1916-2004), an internationally renowned specialist of the transmission of Arabic science to the West. Besides documentary material (including copies of manuscripts), the archives contain the manuscript of an unpublished book and drafts for articles. The material was given with the explicit request to make it known and published, something that corresponds to the mission of the Institute (Inspiring innovation from tradition) and the rationale behind its library collection, which is a tool for new research. In order to be available for consultation to interested scholars and scientists, Richard Lemay’s documents will be duly identified and catalogued, with their list uploaded on the Web site of the Institute, and they will be integrated into the constantly growing special collections of the Institute.

This repository, which is the living memory of the history of medicine, is also regularly accrued by copies of recently published works donated by their authors. These items are medical traditions in the making, and are particularly valuable when they come from a long experience in the field, as in the case of Stephan Beyer who has an unparalleled knowledge of sacred plants, or from practitioners who write down the history of their own discipline as Raimondo Villano, an Italian pharmacist who publishes fine works that will probably become rare and difficult to find in the future.

Stephan V. Beyer, Singing to the Plants. A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-8263-4730-5.

Raimondo Villano, Il tempo scolpito nel silenzio dell'eternità. Riflessioni sull'indagine diacronica per la memoria dell'homo faber. Torre Annunziata (Napoli): Edizioni Chiron Foundation Chiron, 2011. ISBN: 978-88-904235-36.

Raimondo Villano, Res Gestae. Il senso di eccellenza nelle vite di farmacisti non comuni. Torre Annunziata (Napoli): Edizioni Chiron Foundation, 2011. ISBN: 978-88-97303-05-3.

Raimondo Villano, Thesaurus Pharmacologicus. Medicamenti, rimedi, segreti, strumenti e pratiche speziali. Torre Annunziata (Napoli): Edizioni Chiron Foundation, 2009. ISBN: 978-88-904235-05.

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