Curling up with a rare book

Ask John Schleicher, associate professor and head of special collections at the McGoogan Library of Medicine, what he’s got in the rare book room. And the answer is: “How many things do you want to see?”

Oh, he’s got stuff. A fourth edition (1730) of Optiks, written by Sir Isaac Newton. Yeah, that’s right – the guy of the apple-bonking incident fame.

A book from 1517, its binding sewn by hand, its illustrations of military surgery (there’s some dude getting his leg sawn off).

Yes, this guy is being treated via hacksaw. But don’t worry. They put a towel over his head, so he’ll be fine.

Medieval text from the 1300s, one of the works of Albertus Magnus. Fittingly, UNMC’s copy was hand-written by university scribes, not monastery ones. The style of script confirms it.

Look at the pictures in this one: “They’re kind of dressed like … they’ve got Christopher Columbus hats,” I said.

“They look like the Montagues and Capulets,” Schleicher said.

What penmanship!

It’s an impressive collection. Some of the best stuff was acquired in the 1920s, when a doctor would make an annual pilgrimage to Europe in search of antiquities to add to the university’s library. But it’s grown since then and continues to grow. Physicians have donated their collections. Schleicher attends a history of medicine (and rare books) conference each year, and when people see his name tag they still stop him and tell him their Dr. McGoogan tales.

In the library there are book covers made of velum – goat skin or sheep skin. Here’s one with an illustration of a guy who looks like he’s got some problems. He’s got crabs and scorpions and goats and cows and people crawling all over and seemingly inside (!) of his body.

In spite of — or perhaps in some cases because of — their age, many of these books are as beautiful as they’ve ever been.

“We have a translation of this,” Schleicher said. “They thought depending on when you were born, what month, the sign of the zodiac, you should or should not do different things that time of the year.”

Schleicher enjoys telling the stories behind some of the library’s most treasured items.

Let’s see. He says mine says when the moon is in Leo it’s a good time to start building a castle, to establish relationships with princes and to “conclude a marriage.”

To conclude one? Like to end one?

What does that mean? If you’re going to get divorced, do it around your birthday?

Anyone in ortho recognize this?

So, were a lot of things in these books way off, compared with what we know today?

“Not really,” Schleicher said. “Some things yes, some things no.”

A lot of what is found in these books was on the cutting edge. (Um … so to speak.)

Childbirth in the 1500s. She’s about eight minutes from the “I don’t care what it says on my birth plan, I want the epidural” stage.

A good portion of UNMC’s collection deals with obstetrics, thanks to the personal interests of a couple of its big donors, Dr. McGoogan, and Dr. Charles and Olga Moon.

The McGoogan Library has a copy of Eucharius Rösslin’s 1513 classic “Der Rosengarten,” a pregnancy and childbirth guide. It was revolutionary, as it was written by a medical doctor. It swept across Europe, and was published in several languages. It was the “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” of its day.

Apparently, this Isaac Newton guy was a pretty big deal.

Likewise, Madame du Coudray had similar success a couple centuries later. She dedicated herself to reducing infant mortality in rural France in the 1700s (outreach to an underserved population!), and even came up with the kind of simulation mannequin you might find in the Sorrell Center’s Sim Lab today. We’ve got her book, too.

And look at this: “Inside of it this says – I don’t know if we could ever prove this,” Schleicher says, “this is French for: ‘Library of Louis XVI.’ ”

An important text which describes the study of the possibility of vaccination against smallpox. Also — ewwwww.

Uh huh. Well, maybe. But the library did have an appraisal done in 1997, and at that time it was noted to be a $3-4 million collection. How many visitors come to see all this stuff?

“Not enough,” Schleicher said. So there you have it. Give them a call at 559-7094 to set up an appointment. Come see some pretty cool stuff.

Cy wdX


  1. Robin Taylor says:

    Thanks for the great article. I’ve been on campus almost 20 years and didn’t know we had such a great collection of rare books. Time to book an appointment to see them.

  2. Peggy Finch says:

    John Schleicher is the coolest! And the McGoogan Library is truly a treasure!

  3. Tom O'Connor says:

    With apologies to the folks who came up with this slogan for Omaha a few years ago….I have to say this story was, “rare…well done.”

  4. David Martin says:

    I teach composition and research paper writing at UNO. This hidden secret of a library is wonderful to discover in our midst. Hooray. Write on. I will let our more of our students in on this secret.

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