This past fall we were asked to disbind a set of Dartmouth Medical School theses from their heavy half-leather bindings and return them to their original form as separate items, whether a stack of single sheets or a folded pamphlet. The disbinding of these volumes will allow for increased accessibility to the material due to their new storage arrangement and cataloging enhancements.
The medical school at Dartmouth was founded in 1797, and until the fall of 1882 required a thesis of its students for graduation. For those interested, there is a short history of the medical school, as well as a more detailed history of the first one hundred years in the Historical Address by Phineas S. Conner, M.D., LL.D. published in the volume Centennial Exercises, Tuesday, June 29, 1897. Conner discusses the medical volumes that might have been part of the original donation founder Nathan Smith made to the library. His list includes a number of volumes that Dartmouth’s Rauner Library holds, such as:
- Lectures on the materia medica, as delivered by William Cullen, M. D., professor of medicine in the University of Edinburgh
- W. Cheselden’s The anatomy of the human body
- Samuel Sharpe’s A treatise on the operations of surgery, with a description and representation of the instruments used in performing them: to which is prefixed an introduction on the nature and treatment of wounds, abscesses, and ulcers
- W. Smellie’s A treatise on the theory and practice of midwifery
- Alexander Hamilton’s Outlines of the theory and practice of midwifery
- The Edinburgh new dispensatory
To disbind the thesis volumes, we cut away the cover and released the textblock from the boards. Then we wet-cleaned the spines with wheat starch paste. Once the spine was clean, the sewing was cut to separate the signature or individual thesis’ gathering of pages.
As we worked on this project, cleaning spines and snipping threads to release the sewing, we noticed titles and topics, language and names, penmanship and design. Over the span of the project as we pulled these pages and text caught our eyes, we would read out interesting turns of phrase or title, and occasionally stop to take a photograph of an outstanding title page, diagram or illustration. In an age where the mark of the hand is not always present in our forms of communication, it is a pleasure to see the variety of penmanship between doctor-scholars in a given year, as well as between years. It appeared to us that some title pages may have been prepared by someone other than the particular student. In a given year several title pages looked nearly identical to one another with only the titles and authors varying between them. We include here some photographs from the pages of these volumes. Aside from one or two penmanship examples of texts, along with a variety of title pages, we include an image from the only thesis we found with photographs.
We are not the only admirers of these pages. In the winter of 2008, Dartmouth Medicine published a story about undergraduate research in these theses, and they too noticed the wonderful handwork in the pages of these manuscripts as well as in the student notebooks of the period.
We will leave the conclusions to others regarding what these theses have to tell us about medicine, medical education, and penmanship. Instead, we will show you a small peek inside - to whet an appetite for delving into them further or merely to enjoy as a visual curiosity.
Written by Stephanie Wolff and Arini Esarey.