Walker Library

Current Exhibits


Medicine, Malady, and Morality in Nineteenth Century Print

On display now

Special Collections Reading Room

In nineteenth-century America, the body was the focal point of diverse and often competing notions of medicine and health.  There were “professionals”—doctors, trained in medical schools or apprenticeships, whose knowledge typically consisted of some anatomy and rather more received wisdom, and whose pills and purgatives often did more harm than good.  The 1830s saw the rise of what has been described as the “popular health movement,” which involved a rejection of professional authority and, instead, emphasized that anyone could minister to the needs of the sick by acquiring a knowledge of curative roots and herbs.

Notions of health and healing based on assertion and tradition, rather than scientific evidence, characterized much of nineteenth-century American medical thinking.  It is not Exhibitsurprising, then, that outright quackery, bizarre but useless medical technology, and ineffective and often toxic patent medicines flourished. Yet it was also a time of growing awareness about sanitation, hygiene, and other measures to improve public health, which arose from repeated experiences with epidemics and from the Civil War—a war in which mortality was more often due to infection and disease than combat.  Meanwhile, in Europe and North America, scientists and physicians began acquiring a rudimentary understanding of pathology, bacteriology, antisepsis, and anesthesia.  Their efforts laid the foundation for the medical discoveries of the 20th century.

The rare-book holdings of Walker Library’s Special Collections department encompass numerous nineteenth-century Tennessee and other American editions that reflect these circumstances.  They offer a glimpse of medicine as it was practiced by trained physicians as well as the self-taught lay person.   Some of the titles on display were enormously popular, published all over the United States as well as in England and France; others are extremely rare and very few copies survive.