In 11th grade, my AP Lang class read 84 Charing Cross Road, an epistolary book about a woman in World War 2 era New York who, for a number of years, corresponds with a bookseller in an antiquarian book shop in London. In the book, which is actually just a series of letters between the two, we read about the woman’s fascination with old books: their musty smell, the yellowing of the pages, the original binding…
Today, I had an experience with an old book. A very old book, in fact. As posted yesterday, the Central Library here at Otago holds the original handwritten copy of the anatomy lectures from the University of Edinburgh’s Medical School, by Alexander Monro (primus), the man whose grandson was Darwin’s teacher a century later.
I paid the library a visit this afternoon. The Special Collections section is in a corner of the library where I can only presume not many students go. I knocked on the window to catch the receptionist’s attention and asked to take the book out. She handed me a key to a locker– I was not allowed to bring in my backpack– and she went into the archives to find the book for me. When she came back out, she handed me the protective box it came in and told me to have fun.
This book. This book is a masterpiece, in all senses of the word. Beautifully bound, beautifully written, beautiful calligraphy, beautiful content.
I opened the cover and was immediately overcome with that scent you only ever smell when in the presence of something incredible. You know– that old, musty, dusty smell of something of grave importance that has not been handled in years and years. To be honest, I don’t know the last time this book was handled. But given the praise the woman who worked there gave it when she briefly looked through the pages, I’d be willing to bet it hasn’t been removed from the archives in quite some time.
The title page says the following, in centered script: Anatomical Lectures, delivered by Doctor Alexander Monro, Professor of Anatomy in the College of Edinburgh, Winter 1773/4. I could almost see this wigged man sitting at his desk by candlelight, dipping his feather quill into a bottle of brown ink, and writing his introduction:
“Gentlemen, when ___ consider the office of a Physician or Surgeon, one of which I am to suppose all present mean to be, which is to preserve health or to cure disease, i.e: to prevent or redress disorders in the human body; it will appear to you evidently to follow, that the found ___ of their Science must consist in the just knowledge of the Situation, Structure, ___ of Properties of the several Organs, of the several powers by which its functions are performed in health.”
The book contains 238 pages. The first lecture or two are written delicately. But as I flipped through the pages, I could see the handwriting getting ever so slightly larger, sloppier, darker. The pages are stiffer than most books I’ve ever handled before, and yellower. But when held up to light, they become translucent, and you can see the writing through the other side. I flipped through more pages. On 167, there was a series of lines that was X’d out, reminding me that a human, not a machine, had taken the time to write each page, each word carefully.
I read a couple of pages here and there. Monro talked about the duties of the physician, and later, about the ossification of bone. I flipped to the last lecture, where I guessed correctly that there would be a piece about the brain (save the most important organ for last, of course).
I was taken aback to read the following:
“We now proceed to examine each of the pieces which have been shown to compose the Cranium, and we begin with the piece that first presents. The Os Frontis[…] when the two pieces of this bone unite in the middle, their edges turn inwards as meeting with least resistance here between the great Lobes of the brain. The vein below this ridge receives its covering from the Dura Mater, and we must attend to the Situation of the Sinus, or so be covered as either a ridge stands out here or a furrow runs along the inside of it, we cannot perform the operation of the Trepan (?) without being in danger of wounding the Sinus or brain and the matter from within cannot easily get out. So the Surgeon, if he has a choice, ought not to apply the Trepan here.”
(Note: what I think says “trepan” was repeated a number of times in subsequent paragraphs. I’m not sure what that is. I may have been misreading the handwriting.) –> upon further research (thank you, Google), I discovered that trepans are actually burr holes (holes drilled in the skull to relieve pressure). Ok cool.
What strikes me about this writing is the following: 1. That the language has stayed the same in 300 years. We still call the Dura Mater just that; we still call the sinuses sinuses. 2. The accuracy of the facts, and the content in general: the sinuses are in fact very bloody cavities that surgeons should try to avoid nicking at any cost. If you damage a sinus, the patient could very well bleed out and die. Monro knew this. 3. The grammar. This entire book is written beautifully. From the above paragraph, I hope you can see this. I copied down a couple more paragraphs, but I won’t bore you with those. Trust me though, it is a pleasure to read, from a scientist’s point of view, as well as from a writer’s.
I wish I could have stayed and read more, but I was hungry, and I had to eat before running to neuro class. I carefully wrapped the book in its box and gave it back to the receptionist. Then I went home and ate Easy Mac.