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Discover Science at the British Library


We are the British Library Science Team; we provide access to world-leading scientific information resources, manage UK DataCite and run science events and exhibitions. This blog highlights a variety of the activities we are involved with. Follow us on Twitter: @ScienceBL. Read more

28 February 2019

A visit to the Joint Library of Ophthalmology at Moorfields Eye Hospital

Eye painting by an unknown artist from the Moorfields collection, digitised by UCL. Used under a CC-BY Creative Commons license.

Yesterday Philip went on a CILIP-sponsored visit to the Joint Library of Ophthalmology at Moorfields Eye Hospital.

The library is joint between the NHS trust responsible for Moorfields and the UCL Institute for Ophthalmology. The hospital was opened in 1805 in Charterhouse Square as the Dispensary for Curing Diseases of the Eye and Ear. The driving reason for this was the number of soldiers who were returning from the Napoleonic wars in North Africa with what was known as “Egyptian Ophthalmia”, now recognised as trachoma. The founders were John Cunningham Saunders and Dr. John Richard Farre. In 1810 a medical school was opened and alumni were responsible for opening ophthalmic hospitals in other parts of the world. In 1821 the hospital was moved to Lower Moorfields near what is now the Broadgate office complex and renamed the London Ophthalmic Infirmary, although it quickly became popularly known as “Moorfields”. In 1837 it achieved royal patronage and became known as the Royal London Ophthalmic Hospital. In 1897 the hospital moved to its current site in City Road after the Moorfields site became overcrowded. In 1947 the hospital merged with the Royal Westminster Ophthalmic Hospital and Central London Ophthalmic Hospital, and the name officially became Moorfields. A green line is painted on the pavement from Old Street tube station to the hospital main entrance, to help partially-sighted people find their way.

The Institute of Ophthalmology was founded in 1948, initially on the site of the former Central London Ophthalmic Hospital in Judd Street. It became part of UCL in 1995.

The library now includes items from all the predecessor organisations, and as it is considered a national subject collection no material is disposed of. Much of the journal collection was donated in exchange for the content being indexed in either the British Journal of Ophthalmology or Ophthalmic Literature. There are 7000 books, 63 currently subscribed journals, and 250 journals which are no longer published. There are over 280 CDs or DVDs. The library currently keeps paper subscriptions when possible due to concerns about loss of access due to subscription cancellation or technical obsolescence – many of the CDs or DVDs cannot be used due to outdated software requirements. Most of the material is on open shelf apart from the rarer collections. The rarer material consists of 1500 books and pamphlets, many of which have been digitised by the Wellcome Institute and are included in the Wellcome online digital library. There is also a unique collection of 1700 painted images of healthy and pathological eyes. Many of the earlier eye paintings were by the sisters Mary and Alicia Boole, who were daughters of George Boole of Boolean logic fame. They were mathematicians in their own right and many of their siblings and the following generation had notable achievements in science and art. Later twentieth century paintings were created by the talented medical artist Terry Tarrant. The paintings have been digitised by UCL .The rare books include copies of John Dalrymple’s 1834 “Anatomy of the Human Eye”, the first ophthalmic textbook in English, and the “Atlas of Ophthalmoscopy” by Richard Liebreich, inventor of the ophthalmoscope.

There is a photographic collection of patients and their conditions, often “before and after” treatment. This includes an interesting dimension in terms of Victorian attitudes to privacy and personal identification – many poorer patients had their full names given, while more middle or upper-class patients are identified only by given names or initials. There is also a collection of bound notes on patients back to 1877.

Finally, there is a “museum” collection of artifacts. Many of them are originally from the Institute of Ophthalmology. They include eye testing equipment, ophthalmoscopes, surgical instruments and microscopes. Particularly unusual exhibits include an ivory leech holder used to apply leeches to the area around the eye to treat glaucoma, and a pair of prism spectacles that redirect the vision downwards through ninety degrees, to allow patients forced to lie flat on their backs to read more easily.

The library still serves an audience of predominantly medical students and practitioners. They do a lot of training on databases and library inductions. They lend the majority of the material and there are self-service lending/returning terminals. They also do inter-library loan.

Other activities include doing systematic reviews and helping people with basic IT skills.

There are 32 satellite sites with electronic resources only.

Last year the library achieves Platinum status in the Green Impact scheme for environmentalism in libraries, based around recycling and saving energy.

The whole institution is intended to move in a few years time to a new site in the St Pancras area.

23 January 2019

Lab notebooks - handwriting at the core of science

McLaren notebook
Page from Anne McLaren's notebook (shelfmark Add MS 83844) covering embryo transfer experiments in mice, 1950s. (Copyright estate of Anne McLaren)

Today is World Handwriting Day, and we thought we’d pay our respects to the most important role handwriting plays in science, one which you might not have heard of if you aren’t a practicing scientist. This is the “lab notebook”, a scientist’s daily diary of all their experiments, thoughts, and other scientific activities. Until relatively recently, these were always handwritten, as they were meant to record what, in detail, someone was doing as they did it. Waiting to create them until work was finished caused too much risk of forgetting or distorting something.

Lab notebooks grew out of the personal diaries and notebooks of individual researchers. Some notebooks by well-known scientists have become Library treasures in their own right. One of the most famous works in our Treasures of the British Library exhibition is the Codex Arundel, a collection of notes written by Leonardo da Vinci (although probably not in the order they were bound) in the sixteenth century. At the other extreme of history, the Treasures Gallery currently displays the biologist Anne McLaren's lab book on embryo transfer in mice. Outside the BL, most of the lifelong field and theoretical notebook collections of Charles Darwin are digitised and available online, as are some of Albert Einstein's most significant theoretical notebooks. At the other end of accessibility, some of the lab notebooks of Marie and Pierre Curie, held by the National Library of France, are reported to still be so radioactive that they are not safe to handle without protective clothing.

Laboratory notebooks later became an even more important record of exactly what was done, as lone researchers were replaced by academic and private-sector research groups, science and technology became ever-more important to society, and scientists were expected to describe their methods in detail so that they could be replicated and turned into innovative technologies, materials and treatments. Additionally, until quite recently, American patent law worked on a “first to invent” basis whereby the person who could prove that they had the idea for an invention first, or their employer, had the right to a patent. Laboratory notebooks were the main source of evidence for this. In recent years, scientific misconduct has become a higher-profile issue, as scientists worry about a “replicability crisis” where too many uncertain or exaggerated results have been published. Lab books help prove that the work was done as the researchers claim, or the detail expected in them make discrepancies easier to recognise. And the notebooks of eminent scientists are a rich source for scientific historians.

By the latter part of the twentieth century, some organisations had very detailed instructions for how laboratory notebooks should be completed and stored. Lab books had to be written exactly as the work was carried out, or as soon as possible – no jotting notes on scraps of paper and writing them up at the end of the day. Notebooks were considered the property of the employer or the university, and could not be removed from the lab. And they had to be clearly paginated with no chance of pages being removed or replaced.

Many laboratories still use paper notebooks, due to the ease of simply writing notes down as you go. In many types of science, electronic devices are at risk of being exposed to spillages or damaging electromagnetic conditions, or are simply unwieldy. Some researchers also like to keep their detailed records to themselves instead of sharing them with a group. Some research groups and organisations are now moving to electronic recording, but the lifetime of electronic data can be questionable due to failure to back up and the lifespan of media. Specifically-designed electronic laboratory data systems are more secure. They are more common in industry than academia, as academics are more independent and less likely to respond to top-down orders, and academic institutions can be less able to afford the necessary software and hardware. The advantages of electronic research notes systems are that you can save large amounts of original data directly into the system without retyping or printing it, clone records from earlier experiments to save time, search your records more easily, share data within the group easily, and track the history of records. Now data is often electronically recorded and can be directly copied into a laboratory system without a transcription stage. It is possible to use general project and collaboration software packages such as Evernote, SharePoint, or GoogleDrive but specifically-designed software is now available. 

In 2011, Gregory Lang and David Botstein published a scanned copy of the entire lab notebook covering the research leading to a paper on yeast genetics, as an attachment to their e-journal article.

Modern lab books rarely find their way into the British Library collection, but our most famous example is the collection of Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin (also including records of earlier experiments by his mentor Sir Almroth Wright). As well as the material by Anne McLaren mentioned earlier, we also have some material from the photography pioneer Henry Fox Talbot, electrical inventor David Edward Hughes, and biologist Marilyn Monk.

Sources and further reading:
Barker, K, At the bench: a laboratory navigator, Cold Spring Harbor: Cold Spring Harbor Press, 2005. pp. 89-99. Shelfmark YK.2005.b.1888
Baykoucheva, S. Managing scientific information and research data, Oxford: Chandos Publishing, 2015. Available electronically in British Library reading rooms.
Bird, CL, Willoughby, C and Frey JG, "Laboratory notebooks in the digital era: the role of ELNs in record keeping for chemistry and other sciences", Chemical Society reviews, 2013, 42(20), pp. 8157-8175. Shelfmark (P) JB 00-E(105) or 3151.550000.
Elliott, CA, "Experimental data as a source for the history of science", The American archivist, 1974, 37(1), pp. 27-35. Shelfmark Ac. 1668 or 0810.390000, also available electronically in British Library reading rooms.
Holmes, FL, "Laboratory notebooks: can the daily record illuminate the broader picture", Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 1990, 134(4), pp.349-366. Shelfmark Ac. 1830 or 6630.500000, also available electronically in British Library reading rooms.
Stanley, JT and Lewandowski, HJ, "Lab notebooks as scientific communication: investigating development from undergraduate courses to graduate research", Physical review: physics education research, 2016, 12, 020129, freely available online at
Williams, M, Bozyczko-Coyne, D, Dorsey, B and Larsen, S, "Appendix 2: Laboratory notebooks and data storage", in Gallager, SR and Wiley, EA, Eds. Current protocols essential laboratory techniques, Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2008. Shelfmark YK.2008.b.6299 or m09/.30081

18 December 2018

Arabic science manuscripts from the British Library

Kitab al sirah
The beginning of Kitāb al-sīrah al-falsafīyah, an autobiographical treatise by the physician and philosopher Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakarīyā al-Rāzī (Add MS 7473, f. 1v)

Today is World Arabic Language Day, so here's a reminder of the scientific content in our Qatar Digital Library digitisation project. Our friends on the Asian and African Studies blog created two lists of major scientific works digitised in the collection, including Arabic versions of classical scientific texts, some of which were lost from Western European culture until the Renaissance, and original works by great early scientists of the Arabic-speaking world, such as Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī, Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), Ibn Haytham (Alhazen), and Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakarīyā al-Rāzī (Rhazes).

27 November 2018

Cats in science

Cat image
At the end of last week, our free exhibition "Cats on the Page" opened, covering cats in all their roles in fiction and art. Here are a few examples of the roles that cats have played in science.

The most famous cat in science, of course, is the notorious Schrödinger's Cat thought experiment, put forward by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935 to express what he thought were the truly bizarre implications of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics. In this morally questionable experiment, a cat is sealed in a box with an apparatus that has a predictable probability, within a set time, of releasing cyanide gas and killing it, analogous to a subatomic particle which, until it interacts with another object, may be in one of a number of states with known probabilities. According to Schrödinger, when the probability of the cat being dead reaches 50%, it can be considered, so long as the box is not opened, to be simultaneously alive and dead. Schrödinger actually put this forward as a self-evidently ludicrous demonstation of how silly he thought that the Copenhagen interpretation was, but many physicists since have taken it entirely seriously, and single atoms or subatomic particles have been demonstrated in real-world experiments to behave as if they are in two states simultaneously.

There has been at least one recorded case of a cat being credited writer on a peer-reviewed scientific paper. In 1975, the physicist and mathematician Jack H Hethrington was irritated when a peer reviewer for Physical Review Letters pointed out that he had used "we" consistently in a manuscript on which he was the only credited author, and that the journal style guide would require this to be corrected to "I" throughout. Rather than rewrite the paper, Hethrington credited his cat, Chester, as the second author "F D C Willard", the "FD" coming from Felis domesticus and Willard from the name of Chester's father. In 1980 he published a popular science article under the name of Willard alone. In this case, it was reportedly motivated by disagreements between him and some co-authors, leading to them not wanting to credit it to any real person.

That example was not motivated by hostility, but stings based on exposing questionable degrees or dubious professional organisations by having animals "earn" qualifications have a long history. The first case seems to have taken place in 1967 when a Television Wales team investigating a bogus "English Association of Estate Agents and Valuers" successfully got them to appoint a cat named "Oliver Greenhalgh" as a fellow. British science writer Ben Goldacre has exposed the dubious nature of certain "nutritionist" qualifications by getting his cat a professional certification. To rub salt in, the cat had been dead for some time.

And finally, cats may some day have a role in protecting post-apocalyptic humans from our darker legacies if our technological civilisation collapses. A serious proposal has been made to genetically engineer cats to change colour or glow if they encounter radioactivity, and create a legend that they can detect evil, in order to prevent far-future peoples from unknowingly digging up still-hazardous nuclear waste dumps.

Posted by Philip Eagle (Subject Librarian - STM)

24 November 2018

Psychology Resources and Research Methods Workshop for Scholars


Image source: British Library Press Images

London is blessed with a rich seam of psychology research collections represented by the British Library and the London Psychology Librarians’ Group institutions.

Together curators, reference subject specialists and psychology librarians support students, researchers and professionals in advancing our understanding the the mind, brain and behavior.

You are warmly welcome to a free workshop on Monday 3 rd December at the British Library in the afternoon, focusing on psychology research resources in London.

Monday 3 December (14.00-17.00)

This workshop, for registered Readers (and those who would find it useful to register as readers for their research needs) takes place in the Eliot Training Room in the Library’s Knowledge Centre. The workshop programme is:

Part 1: Welcome to the Library and introduction to the London Psychology Librarians Group:

  • Qualitative methods in psychology research; Christine Ozolins, Neuroscience researcher, Birkbeck College
  • Psychology collections: the London Landscape; Mura Ghosh, Research Librarian, Senate House Library

14.50-15.30 Tea break (Tea provided)

Part 2 British Library Psychology Resources and Information Literacy:

  • Information literacy for psychology research; James Soderman/Paula Funnell, Liaison Librarians, Queen Mary College
  • The post graduate psychology student voice; Holly Walton, Psychology post graduate representative
  • Psychology resources in the British Library; Paul Allchin, British Library, Reference specialist,

16.30-17.00: Question & answer session.

To find out more or to book a place, please email us at: or speak to a member of staff at the Science Reference Desk.

The speakers will share their expertise on the what, where, and how of psychology research in London based libraries and the research needs of students and researchers generally.

BL flickr 11004937825

Image source:

Posted by Paul Allchin - Reference Specialist, Science.

14 November 2018

Light in the Dark Ages: Anglo-Saxon Medicine

The Anglo-Saxons and medicine (in the modern scientific sense of the word) do at first glance seem to be separated by a huge chasm of science and reason. No doctor today would recommend the use of cow dung in any circumstances! Yet, when one looks more closely, we can see that the Anglo-Saxons idea of medicine (or perhaps “healing” would be a more appropriate term) is based not just on superstition but classical teachings, folklore and practical observation. In particular, the Anglo-Saxon’s were no different from other people of the distant past in that they held on to an ancient desire to harness the healing power of plants and the world around them.

Early managed plant life, and later gardens, were for culinary and healing purposes, rather than leisure or aesthetic reasons. This is evidence from the long history of Herbals, or, in effect, botanical encyclopaedias. One of the oldest extant examples of an Herbal and healing / medical book is Bald’s Leechbook (shelfmark Royal MS 12 D XVII). One recipe from Bald’s Leechbook involves mixing wine, leek and garlic to vanquish an infected eyelash follicle, more commonly known as styes. Freya Harrison, a microbiologist, and Christina Lee, an Anglo-Saxon scholar, decided to test this Anglo-Saxon potion in laboratory conditions. The potion was tested on skin samples infected with Staphycloccus aureus which is a version of the bacteria that causes styes and the MRSA superbug. Amazingly, the potion killed 90% of the bacteria of this antibiotic-resistant superbug (C. Wilson. New Scientist, 2015). This demonstrates the Anglo-Saxons were not just blindly throwing around different ingredients in the hope of finding a cure, but were applying various potions and then noting the effects. In this case, they would have noticed what we know today as the antibacterial qualities of garlic and leek.

Bald's Leechbook

Text page from BL Royal 12 D XVII, f. 7v, Bald's Leechbook

Bald’s Leechbook also suggests that the Anglo-Saxons were aware of a longer medical tradition going back to antiquity. This can be glimpsed from a linguistic study of the text. The vernacular material provides insightful readings of Latin technical vocabulary, and also shows a knowledge of technical terms of Greek origin. However, this limited knowledge of the ancient world does create what Cayton describes as “an uneasy fusion of Classical doctrines such as the four humours, and pagan Teutonic ideas such as the worm and elfshot as carriers of disease.” (Cayton, 1977)

As the exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War makes clear, the Anglo-Saxons were much more than just a bunch of inward looking Dark Age warriors who had no knowledge of the wider world, and whose only medical experimentation involved using leeches and cow dung to solve their ailments. We can see from Bald’s Leechbook alone, that the Anglo-Saxons were involved in rudimentary observational science and had a knowledge of Latin and Greek texts.

To add a light hearted note, I should also say that the Anglo-Saxons believed in the Doctrine of Signature. This is the belief that herbs and plants that resembled parts of the body could be used to treat ailments for the corresponding body parts. I think there could be plenty of material here for a new Carry On film about the Anglo-Saxons!


Selected Bibliography

Wilson. C, (2015). ‘Anglo-Saxon remedy kills hospital superbug MRSA’. New Scientist

Cayton. H. M, (1977). Anglo-Saxon Medicine within its Social Context (University of Durham). Link to ETHOS;jsessionid=728405D3CDE4BC17210EE440A7856171?

Meaney. A. L, (1992). ‘The Anglo-Saxon View of the Causes of Illness.’ Health and Disease and Healing in Medieval Culture. Ed. Campbell. S et al (Macmillan). British Library shelf mark YK.1992.a.2007



By Ian Moore - Science Reference Team

13 November 2018

The centenary of the 1918 flu pandemic

2 Nov Contagion
A dancer in "Contagion", a piece memorialising the pandemic presented at the British Library earlier in November

This November sees not just the centenary of the end of the First World War, but the centenary of the peak of the influenza epidemic that came at its end. The 1918 flu epidemic may have killed fifty million people or more worldwide, over three times the number of people killed in the war. It is thought to have been the third worst disease epidemic ever in Europe, after the fourteenth-century Black Death and the sixth-century Plague of Justinian. 228,000 people died in the UK, with as many as a third of the population infected, although the death rate among those who fell ill was around 2.5%. 1918 was the first year since official records began that deaths in Britain outnumbered births. Epidemiological studies have shown that children whose mothers suffered flu during pregnancy suffered lifelong negative effects on their health and employment histories.

 The flu is still sometimes known as the Spanish Flu, although this is a misnomer that, even at the time, seriously upset the Spaniards. It was associated with Spain because Spain, being neutral in the war, had less media censorship than other European countries, so that the epidemic was more honestly reported. The first unambiguous cases of the pandemic broke out at a US Army base in Kansas in March 1918. The first worldwide wave continued through the spring and summer, but appeared to be no more problematic than ordinary flu. The second, far more lethal wave, occurred in September to December 1918, while a third, less serious wave took place in the first half of 1919.

However, some people have suggested that earlier outbreaks of disease may have been unrecognised early stages of the flu pandemic. Particular suspicion has been cast on an outbreak of a lung disease called at the time "purulent bronchities" which struck the Allied Powers' huge military camp at Etaples in France in early 1917, and a lethal epidemic of lung infection which hit the region of Shansi in China in the winter of 1917-8, although that was believed by local authorities at the time, and many scientists to this day, to have been pneumonic plague.

A major question, especially given the possibility of further flu pandemics in the future, is what made the 1918 virus so lethal. As well as the sheer number of fatalities, it was unusual in killing young and healthy people in large numbers, rather than those who were elderly or frail. Some people have blamed the physical and psychological stresses of the war, and in particular the long-term effects of chemical warfare, for this, but young people also died in countries which were barely affected by the war. It has been suggested that healthy people died because of a phenomenon known as "cytokine storm", where the influenza infection causes the immune system to go into such a state of extreme activity that it itself causes fatal damage to the lungs. This is more likely to happen in people with healthier immune systems, although recent work has suggested that it might be more likely in people with a specific genetic condition in which the first stage of immune response, involving the production of interferon, is unusually weak.

In 2005, the genetic code of the 1918 virus was sequenced from samples taken from the body of a woman buried in Alaska, which had been partly preserved by the cold climate. This indicated that the 1918 virus was a member of the "H1" type of flue virii. That gave rise to a new theory about the higher death rate among young people - for the previous thirty years the majority of influenza circulating worldwide had been of the "H3" type, so older people may have been more likely to have encountered H1 influenza before and had more immunity to it.

Another mystery is why the 1918 pandemic had so little apparent cultural impact at the time. The most famous deaths from the virus were the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, the artist Egon Schiele (along with his wife Edith, who was pregnant with their first child), and John McCrae, author of one of the most famous poems of WWI remembrance, "In Flanders Fields". It also had a wider historical impact. Some military historians argue that the last major German offensive in 1918 failed only because of flu among the soldiers. The British prime minister David Lloyd George nearly died, although this was covered up at the time. The Versailles Treaty might potentially have been less harsh on Germany, reducing the chances of WWII, if the US President, Woodrow Wilson, had not been incapacitated with the flu during the later part of the negotiations. And the death of the leading USSR politician and administrator Yakov Sverdlov has been said to have opened up an opportunity for Josef Stalin to begin his rise to power. Some suggest that the influenza was not seen by people in general as a separate catastrophe from the war, while others have argued that, despite the death toll, it was seen as "just the flu" in an era when death from infectious disease was still much more common than it is today.

Further reading:

Honigsbaum, M. Living with Enza. London: Macmillan: 2009. Shelfmark YC.2009.a.3229 or m08/.36952
Johnson, N. Britain and the 1918-19 influenza pandemic (Routledge studies in the social history of medicine no. 23). Abingdon: Routledge, 2006. Shelfmark YC.2007.a.11206 or 8026.519925 no. 23
Ministry of Health. Report of the pandemic of influenza 1918-19, Reports on public health and medical subjects, 1920, No. 4. Shelfmarks B.S. 17/1, (P) HF 00-E(18), or 7665.590000
Spinney, L. Pale rider. London: Jonathan Cape, 2017. Shelfmark YC.2018.a.7038, or available in British Library Reading Rooms as Legal Deposit e-Book.

Posted by Philip Eagle

12 November 2018

New psychology and nature databases on trial at the BL

Starting today, users in the British Library Reading Rooms can use two new databases from Alexander Street, which are on trial until mid-January 2019. The usage figures in the next two months will determine whether we take the databases permanently.

Psychological Experiments Online has information on some of the most famous (or notorious, given the dark conclusions of some of them) experiments in psychology since 1900, with articles, archive material, sound or video interviews with researchers and participants, and even recordings of the experiments themselves when available.

The BBC Landmark Video Collection has complete episodes of some of the BBC's most significant nature documentary series from the last fifteen years. All of them have full subtitles and searchable transcripts.

Note that to use these databases you will have to use our desk PCs within the Reading Rooms. For the full effect of sound and video material, you will need to use a PC with headphones, although most of those in the Science reading rooms are now fitted with them.

Please can you give any feedback to the enquiry desk staff, or to

Posted by Philip Eagle, Subject Librarian - STM

15 October 2018

Stephen Hawking - the last publications

Hawking Brief Answers
Philip represented the Library at the launch of Professor Stephen Hawking's last, posthumous, popular work, Brief Answers to the Big Questions. The book, which Hawking was writing at the time of his death, includes ten essays summarising his views on the ten questions which he was most frequently asked in interviews or at public events, such as "Is there a god?", "Is time travel possible?", and "Will we survive on Earth?".

Additionally, the launch saw discussion of Hawking's last published scholarly work, a paper dealing with the so-called "Information Paradox of Black Holes", the fact that Hawking's model of black holes, in which all information is lost when matter is sucked into a black hole contradicts a major principle of quantum mechanics, that information about a system cannot be permanently lost. Malcolm Perry and Andrew Strominger, two of Hawking's collaborators on the paper, also took part in the discussion.

A preprint of this paper is currently available on ARXIV at, meaning that both extremes of Hawking's career are free to read online, his PhD thesis being available on the University of Cambridge's Apollo scholarly repository, at

Posted by Philip Eagle, Subject Librarian - STM

10 October 2018

Andreas Vesalius - The most famous Belgian you have never heard of

This week, the episode of Sky Arts’ Treasures of the British Library featuring the actor Jim Carter, who you might remember as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey or, if you are a bit older, Philip Marlow’s father in The Singing Detective, was broadcast. One section covered Jim’s interest in anatomy, and among the items we showed him was one of our copies of Andreas Vesalius’s paradigm-shifting anatomy textbook, Atlas of the Human Body, the first truly scientific anatomical work. The copy shown in the programme is our copy of the book's first edition, which was owned by Hans Sloane, a famous eighteenth-century doctor and collector whose collections of books, antiques and curiosities formed the original core of both the British Museum and the British Library. I showed the book to Jim in the programme, and here is some more information on Vesalius.

It is a standing joke, much to the annoyance of Belgians, that it is difficult to name great descendants of their proud kingdom in Western Europe. Mentions of Tintin and Poirot (fictional characters) or Jean Claude Van Damme (The muscles from Brussels) may just accentuate their irritancy. However, one of their greatest sons, one Andreas Van Wiesel, who would adopt the more impressive Latinised name of Vesalius, changed anatomy and medicine forever and he really did know about muscles. His magnum opus De Humani Corporis Fabrica, published in 1543, was both a paradigm shift for the study of human anatomy and also a work of the finest aesthetic beauty.

Vesalius compressed
Andreas Vesalius, a portrait included in "De Humani Corporis Fabrica"

 Vesalius chooses his parents well and is born into a family of physicians in 1514 in Brussels, then part of the Holy Roman Empire. Initially studying at the University of Louvain, he completes his doctorate in Padua in 1537 and becomes the chair of anatomy and surgery at the tender age of 23; however, this was not considered an especially important branch of medicine compared to the more exciting emerging areas of lotions and potions.

His big break comes when a local judge, impressed with his work, permits use of corpses of executed criminals thus enabling him to perform comparative dissection of the human form. Such opportunity was denied to the great Galen of the second century who despite being physician to the stars such as the gladiators and emperors, only ever worked on animals due to the religious dogma of the time.

Vesalius quickly realised that Galen had simply extrapolated his findings to humans and consequently had made a huge number of glaringly embarrassing assumptions and errors.

Most notably Galen thought that blood was made in the liver and then used for fuelling muscles, and he also thought there were holes in the septum, allowing blood flow from one side of the heart to the other. Galen incorrectly described the human jawbone as being made of two bones, like that of a canine and he was completely wrong about the shape of the human liver. Vesalius was also able to demonstrate that males and females have identical numbers of ribs, the biblical orthodoxy was that men had one less because God made Eve from Adam’s rib.

The frontispiece of the book, showing Vesalius dissecting a body in allegorical surroundings


Vesalius then pulls another masterstroke as he goes about publishing this great work, which is essentially the human anatomy in seven books. He employs an artist out of the school of Titian to do the illustrations. These stunningly beautiful drawings of figures striking theatrical poses in classical landscapes grab the limelight, and they will be for ever be known as the muscle men. Vesalius stock rises and he becomes physician at the imperial court of Charles V and later to his son Philip II of Spain. Vesalius is aged 29 and at the height of his powers, 1543 is his annus mirabilis.

Muscle Man 1
One of the "muscle man" images from the book

The frontispiece of De Fabrica shows Vesalius performing a dissection, centre stage playing to a packed house; it is literally standing room only and an entirely allegorical scene. Three large robed figures loom imposingly at the front, surely a nod to the ancient wisdom of Galen, Socrates and Hippocrates. Right at the epicentre stands Vesalius one hand on the corpse and the other pointing towards the heavens, a good move to be acknowledging God is on his team also.

Then in 1564, he has his annus horribilis and for the man with the surgical Midas touch, it all appears to go wrong. One story suggests he dissected a corpse who wasn’t quite as dead as he might have been and possibly as a form of penance he was advised to do a tour of the Holy Land; a journey from which he would never return. A second possibility is that he fell foul of the Inquisition, causing this empirical man of science to find making the pilgrimage a good idea.

He dies in the same year aged 50 in mysterious circumstances on the Greek island of Zakynthos, his burial site and grave remain unknown. Unlike his working life, which is referenced with earth shattering evidence based medicine; his final year is shrouded in mystery. No monument or memorial depicts his final resting place. Perhaps the only epitaph needed is de humani corporis fabrica. Anatomy and medicine changed forever, his legacy lives even if his name and accomplishments have been lost to most.

By Matt Hunt, Head of Research User Services