March 25, 2016

Special collections libraries are home to the crème de la crème of library possessions. The University of Virginia’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library is known for its Declaration of Independence collection, Thomas Jefferson’s papers and William Faulkner’s major manuscripts.

While less known, UVA’s Claude Moore Health Sciences Library houses some amazing medical artifacts.

The home medicine kit pictured above was used in Charlottesville around 1900. “We know it’s from Charlottesville because it has prescriptions from Chancellor’s Pharmacy,” said Dan Cavanaugh, acting head of historical collection services. “If you’ve ever been to Qdoba on The Corner, that’s where it would be located.”

Join UVA Today and Cavanaugh for a visual tour of some of the library’s more valuable and unusual items.

One wall of the library’s main room is decorated with a series of colorful medical caricatures drawn in the early 19th century by artist George Cruikshank, one of Britain’s most renowned satirical illustrators. The etchings illustrate the discomforts and pain of illness caused by fictional devils. In this image, the little demons are causing this poor gentleman an acute headache.

(Photos by Sanjay Suchak)

This is a cupping set from the mid- to late 1800s. “Cupping” emerged when the foundation of medical treatment was based on balancing the four so-called “humors”: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. The practice of bloodletting was used to restore a person’s health or to prevent disease. The doctor would pierce the skin and place a cup, or glass bell, over the wound to draw out the blood using the pump in the set. (George Washington died after 40 percent of his blood was drained to treat a sore throat.) By the end of the 19th century, the practice was declared quackery. This particular cupping set was used in Virginia.

The man who led the experiments proving yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes is Walter Reed, a U.S. Army physician. Reed graduated from UVA with a medical degree in 1869 and is honored with this bust, which resides in the entryway of the library. The library is home to all of his papers, including love letters that he wrote to his wife.

Reed was put in charge of the United States’ Yellow Fever Commission in Cuba in 1900. His commission used live subjects to test the theory that mosquitoes were the vector for yellow fever. The work was done on a U.S. army base and a call for volunteers was put out to the soldiers as well as recent immigrants from Spain. Those who participated signed an agreement like this one with Walter Reed’s signature – one of the earliest known examples of informed consent. Participants were offered $100 in gold if they survived the test. If they died, their families were to receive $200 in gold. No one in the experiment perished, but a member of Reed’s commission died.

“These are authentic, World War I trench lice,” Cavanaugh said. During the war, the conditions in the trenches were so bad that nearly every soldier was infected with lice. “One of the nurses, a UVA grad by the name of Ella Thomas Whitten, picked the lice off a soldier and put them in this perfume bottle to preserve them.” The Nelson County native brought them back to Virginia. Cavanaugh said the item is a curiosity and allows people to touch history.

Calling Andreas Vesalius’s “The Fabric of the Human Body” his magnum opus is not an overstatement. Cavanaugh said this book is “the crown jewel” of UVA’s collection, and only the top medical collections in the world have copies. Published in 1555, this large, elaborately illustrated book is a second edition, one of about 100 copies known to be in existence. The binding is new, but the paper is original due to its extreme high quality. Cavanaugh said the book is revolutionary because it portrays the most accurate views of the human body done in European civilization in more than 1,500 years. “It’s a magnificent museum piece” that is used by researchers interested in Vesalius’ work and students alike “to excite their imagination and give them an idea of the history of anatomy,” Cavanaugh said. “These are very useful educational tools.”

UVA has two copies of the book, which are preserved in climate-controlled rooms.

“The Physician’s Anatomical Aid,” from 1888, comes complete with a lock on the cover to keep children from peeking at the images. Called a flap book, it was marketed to physicians and surgeons to help them with anatomy. It was also purchased by middle class and wealthy households as a self-help book or curiosity. Users can pull back the elaborately colored flaps to reveal deeper and deeper layers of the human anatomy.

This is a trephine set from 1840. “This is all you needed for brain surgery,” Cavanaugh said. The kit – like ones used during the Civil War – features “trephines,” circular drills to create a hole in the skull, plus bone saws, scalpels, a brush to brush away the bone dust and sutures to close the wound.

An iron lung, this piece was originally in the hospital’s inventory and came to the University’s collection in 2004. The full-body machine was used in polio wards in the 1940s and 1950s to help people who were paralyzed from the neck down breathe. The patient would be placed into the sealed chamber and the device forced the diaphragm to move up and down. Some people would be placed in iron lungs until they partially recovered, but others lived their entire lives in the machines. Family and friends were able to make human contact with patients by slipping their hand into a sealed portal.

UVA’s medical collection is supported by Cavanaugh, historical collections specialist Emily Bowden and historical collections assistant Janet Pearson, who are in the midst of digitizing the massive collection.

“We have 1,000 linear feet of archivable material,” Cavanaugh said.

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications