Antique Medical Books as Collectibles

Updated November 29, 2021
Doctor writing scientific work with antique anatomical book

From the four humors to the healing properties of bloodletting, antique medical books tell the story of the human mind as it attempted to achieve the impossible - absolute health. Always seeking to find new and more lasting recoveries for illness and injury, you can leaf through the musty pages of these books to get a glimpse into the past and, with a greater appreciation for the present that you live in now.

Medicine Gets Recorded for the First Time

Historic medicine, in the traditional sense, has been being performed since humans evolved to walk on two legs. However, the oldest preserved medical text, Papyrus Ebers, dates to approximately 1550 BCE. This Egyptian scroll, containing 110 pages, includes 700 remedies and formulas, chapters on many aspects of the human body, and a description of the circulatory system that is fairly accurate. Some historians propose that the Papyrus Ebers may actually be a copy of the works of Thoth, said to be the father of Egyptian medicine, alchemy, and pharmacy, dating to around 3,000 BCE.

Similarly, The Canon of Medicine is an Islamic compendium of medical knowledge circa 1025 written by Muslim physician Avicenna. Unlike the previous text, this collection of knowledge laid the foundation for medicinal practices for hundreds of years following its publication. Finding a full text or a later edition of this book is a wonderfully unusual, though treasured, find.

The Canon of Medicine

While finding a copy of these texts, or something from earlier in human history, would be considered the holy grail to rare book collectors, there're many copies of subsequent texts from both antiquity, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and later that are much more attainable to find around the world.

Gray's Anatomy Revolutionizes Medical Texts

One of the most well-known antique medical books is the classic Gray's Anatomy of the Human Body written by Dr. Henry Gray and Dr. Henry Vandyke Carter, though you probably know it better as the titular inspiration for the hit medical drama series, Grey's Anatomy. Originally published in England in 1858 under the title Gray's Anatomy, Descriptive and Surgical, this historic text has since been expanded, edited, and revised many times, resulting in 40+ editions.

Old Gray's Anatomy textbook

Copies of this antique text range in value based on the edition of the book and its condition. For example, the following volumes listed on Abe Books include:

Medical Books From Years Past

Throughout the centuries, there have been many medical books written that are highly sought after by collectors. While many of these antiquarian works are very rare and thus, difficult to find, there're also many, less valuable, that are easier to hunt down.

Old medicine book from Qing Dynasty

These are a few examples of the multitude of titles that rare book dealers like to buy and sell:

  • The 1892 publication, Principles and Practice of Medicine Designed for the Use of Practitioners and Students of Medicine by William Osler.
  • The 1771 publication, The Natural History of the Human Teeth: Explaining Their Structure, Use, Formation, Growth, and Diseases Bound Together with A Practical Treatise on the Diseases of the Teeth, Intended as a Supplement to the Natural History of Those Parts by John Hunter.
  • The 1776 publication, A Discourse Upon some Late Improvements of the Means for Preserving the Health of Mariners by James Cook.
  • The 1970 publication, Psychosocial Factors in Relation to the Onset of Myocardial Infarction and to Some Metabolic Variables - A Pilot Study by Tores Theorell.
  • The 1877 publication, Text-Book of Physiology by Michael Foster.
  • The 1838 publication, Mental Maladies: A Treatise on Insanity by Jean Esquirol.
  • The 1846 publication, Insensibility During Surgical Operations Produced by Inhalation by Henry Bigelow.
  • The 1798 publication, An Inquiry Into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, a Disease discovered in some of the Western Counties of England, particularly Gloucestershire, and known by the name of the Cow Pox, by Edward Jenner.

Places to Find Antique Medical Books

There are some places to check to find authentic antique medical books.

  • Old South Books - Established in 1975, Old South Books focuses on buying and selling antiquarian books relating to the medical world.
  • AbeBooks - Well-known for its collection of used and rare books, AbeBooks is a great place to start a search if you've got a definite idea of which titles you're interested in.
  • Biblio - Biblio is very similar to AbeBooks in its interface and the type of books that it sells; it's also a great place to look for rather specific texts and offers a wide selection of vintage books for your perusal.
  • American Civil War Medical and Surgical Antiques - Dr. Michael Echols' research website includes an extensive section on Civil War medical books and surgical manuals consisting of more than 900 pages and 9,862 photos.
  • eBay - As always, eBay is one of the easiest, user-friendly places on the internet to look for antiques and vintage items. Of course, it continues to be a wonderful resource even for antiquarian medical texts.

Unique Ways to Display Your Antique Medical Books

If you're already a (or an aspiring) medical professional, then you probably don't have much use for an 18th century text on the topic of cavities. However, your antiques should never spend time collecting dust in a storage bin somewhere. Rather, you should take a couple of minutes to incorporate these dignified, scholastic tools into your current decor.

  • Display them on a floating shelf - Use a floating shelf to artfully display all of your leather-bound medical books. Keeping them out of reach of kids and pets means that they shouldn't be in any danger of disrepair.
  • Turn them into false books - If you've purchased a medical text for particularly cheap and were only drawn to its binding, then you can always cut out the interior pages and turn it into a secret compartment for things like spare keys, money, and documents.
  • Put the books in a display case or cloche - If you really want to up the sophistication factor, you can lean into these books' aesthetic by setting them up under a glass display case or cloche. Not only will this make your room 10x fancier than it already is, but you also get to protect your books from years of dust and grime.

Dissect These Delightful Medical Texts

On top of looking cool on a bookshelf, antique medical books provide you with the knowledge of how much progress doctors, researchers, and scientists have made throughout the years as they continue to investigate and refine their understanding and treatment of the human body. From Gray's Anatomy to the DCSM-5, the medical world may have changed drastically, but the bound pages and ink spilling all of its secrets haven't at all.

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Antique Medical Books as Collectibles