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From anatomy to witches’ brews, early science – modern and otherwise -- debuts online

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein becomes inspired in his search for the “elixir of life” after turning his back on modern scientific theory for the “wild fancies” of three ancient authors: Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, the 16th-century German occult philosopher, Paracelsus, a 16th-century Swiss physician and alchemist, and Albertus Magnus, a 13th-century Bavarian bishop who, according to legend, created an automaton that could answer questions put to it. These three authors, together with many more in the areas of alchemy, astrology, demonology and pseudo-science, are all held in the Wellcome Library’s holdings of rare books related to the history of medicine. The world-renowned collection is now being digitized by ProQuest — an information company central to research — and, beginning this month, is freely available to citizens of the U.K.

In all, more than 15,000 rare books published between 1485 and 1700 are being digitized, bringing many of the first published, authoritative works of modern science to an online world. Groundbreaking illustrated works of anatomy by Andreas Vesalius, Salomon Alberti and Caspar Bartholin, along with texts such as Jean Beguin's Les elemens de Chymie, an article from 1615 which contained the first ever chemical equation, are available for exploration. These works of modern scientific methods based on precise observation, classification and experiment happily co-exist with folk wisdom and fantasy from the same period. For example, the 11-volume Historia animalum by Ulisse Aldrovandi, one of the founders of modern zoology, is an encyclopedic work full of realistic illustrations of animals and plants drawn from life along with mythical creatures such as griffins and chimeras alongside real animals.

The debut includes 400 books that capture numerous examples of the "Book of Secrets," such as The Secrets of Alexis of Piedmont (1555). Alexis was the pseudonym of an Italian physician and alchemist whose book was a compendium of recipes for medicines, household remedies, perfumes, dyes and experiments. Among them is a witch's brew for the cure of gout, which involves boiling the whole carcass of a red-haired dog. These books were extremely popular and frequently translated and reprinted, as were books of prodigies such as Pierre Boaistuau's Histoires prodigieuses (1568), an illustrated catalog of monsters, demons, deformities, natural disasters and miraculous events. Other illustrated works include books on falconry, military machinery, plants of the New World, and a fascinating 1568 volume with more than 130 woodcuts by Jöst Amman depicting trades and professions of the day, from the Pope and King down to the physician, bookbinder, clockmaker, brewer and barber.

The Wellcome is the fourth major library to participate in ProQuest’s groundbreaking project to expand and preserve access to primary sources of European history. ProQuest launched the project with the Danish Royal Library, Copenhagen and the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze in Italy, and has already made these rich national collections available to all Danish and Italian citizens, while a third digitization operation is currently starting up at the National Library of the Netherlands. In all cases, ProQuest sets up a scanning studio on site at the library and uses state-of-the-art technology to create high-definition color images of every page, including lavish bindings and covers.

Through the Early European Books project, ProQuest is building an increasingly comprehensive survey of printing in Europe to 1700 by digitizing and bringing together the holdings of major rare book libraries. To learn more visit

About the Wellcome Library (
The Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation, is dedicated to improving human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust’s breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests.

The Wellcome Library is based on the collections created by the Trust’s founder, Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936). The Wellcome Library holds books, manuscripts, archives, films and pictures on the history of medicine from the earliest times to the present day. In August 2010 the Wellcome Library launched a £3.9m project to digitize its collections and make them available to a worldwide audience, providing a global resource for the study of the history of medicine and modern bioscience.

About ProQuest (
ProQuest connects people with vetted, reliable information. Key to serious research, the company has forged a 70-year reputation as a gateway to the world's knowledge — from dissertations to governmental and cultural archives to news, in all its forms. Its role is essential to libraries and other organizations whose missions depend on the delivery of complete, trustworthy information.

ProQuest's massive information pool is accessible through the all-new ProQuest® platform, which moves beyond navigation to empower researchers to use, create, and share content—accelerating research productivity.

This energetic, fast-growing organization includes the Summon web-scale discovery service, the new ProQuest Dialog service, and business units ebrary®, Serials Solutions®, RefWorks-COS, and Bowker®.

29 November 2011

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