‘Medical Treasures at Emory’ a rare treat

A class full of smartypants med school students is pretty much the last group you’d expect to find at a loss for words. About anything.

Enter the “Vesalius, Variant A.”

What sounds like an exotic new flu strain is actually a copy of “De humani corporis fabrica (On the structure of the human body),” an extremely rare book by the renowned 16th century Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius.

As few as 60 copies of the richly illustrated tome that upended the medical world in a good way are thought to exist today. “Variant A” — so called because it’s believed to have come out sometime between the first (1543) and second, final (1551) editions, with minor type and layout variations — is even rarer. Only five copies are known to exist worldwide.

And Emory University owns one of them.

“Even if they didn’t have it, I’d spend a great deal of time talking about it, it’s that significant,” said Dr. Robert P. Gaynes, an Emory University school of medicine professor who arranges a surprise unveiling of the book in the history of medicine course he teaches for seniors. “You can hear an audible gasp. Many say [seeing] it is a highlight of medical school.”

Luckily, you don’t have to go to med school to experience a similar thrill right now. The story of the “Vesalius” is a highlight of “Medical Treasures at Emory: A Display of Rare Medical Books, Letters and Artifacts,” which recently opened at the Woodruff Health Sciences Center Library at Emory University (WHSCL). And it’s hardly the only point of intrigue in the small yet select exhibition of artifacts, some of which now feel quaintly archaic. (For instance, The “Ladies guide” to health written by the late 19th century Corn Flakes scion and alternative medicine proponent, John Harvey Kellogg.) Yet others are enduringly important, such as a collection of documents proving that the first successful use of ether anaesthesia in surgery was peformed by Crawford Long in Georgia in 1842.

“There was this amazing kind of soap opera surrounding the question of who was first,” WHSCL senior resources management specialist Matt Miller said about the use of ether, widely considered to be the first great American contribution to medicine. “But Crawford Long turned out to be the dark horse candidate.”

Using books, artifacts and other materials from WHSCL’s historical collections, the exhibition brings to life the colorful characters, controversial ideas and once common tools of the trade (Civil War surgeons’ amputation knives, anyone?) thathelped create modern medicine.

“Medicine didn’t get here in anything resembling a straight line,” said Gaynes, who curated the exhibition along with Miller. “It has quite a storied and checkered history that even many doctors are not aware of.”

Case in point: Charles D. Meigs, whom Gaynes says was “probably the most famous obstetrician in the U.S. in the 19th century.” His influential 1849 book, “Obstetrics: The Science and the Art,” is displayed here — along with an exhibition note saying that Meigs rejected the introduction of sanitary practices during childbirth on the grounds that “Doctors are gentlemen and a gentleman’s hands are clean.”

Meanwhile, the Vesalius book ended up being so storied because it highlighted and corrected for the first time many misconceptions about human anatomy that had dominated Western medicine for 1300 years. Vesalius was one of the first anatomy professors to dissect actual human cadavers (previous anatomy specialists had used animal bodies). The resulting book was “very, very important to transforming our understanding of human anatomy,” said Miller.

Ironically, the “Variant A” is such a valuable treasure, it’s not actually in the “Medical Treasures” exhibition. While the original is available for viewing upon request at Emory’s Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Library (MARBL), the Woodruff exhibition contains full-sized reproductions of the book’s richly illustrated frontispiece and some of its plates of human figures.

The exhibition also details the irresistible story of how Emory managed to buy the book, now worth well into six figures, for a little under $500 in 1930.

The Depression was raging. The A.W. Calhoun Medical Library, as it was then known, was only six years old. And Myrtle Tye, the librarian who’d gotten a bead on the Vesalius through her network of bookselling contacts, had “no acquisitions budget to speak of,”exhibition text notes. Undaunted, Tye launched a fundraising campaign among the med school’s alumni, faculty and students. It’s hard not to be moved by seeing a reproduction of the faded, handwritten list of names and amounts donated, from $1 to $25, that ultimately raised the required sum.

“The story of how Emory acquired it is almost as important as the book itself,” Gaynes said.

“Medical Treasures” represents a coming out party of sorts for WHSCL, which provides services and collections to support the Schools of Medicine, Nursing and Public Health, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Winship Cancer Institute and other parts of the Emory community. It’s the first major exhibition for the library, according to director Sandra Franklin, who says the majority of items in the historical collection have been donated over time, including a fully equipped Civil War-era surgeon’s kit that belonged to John T. Lamar of Irwin County and the Georgia Regiment). Over 180 book titles from the library’s historical collection have been digitized and are available online as part of the Medical Heritage Library; meanwhile, a kiosk allows visitors to the exhibition to “page through” books by Florence Nightingale and several others.

“Medical Treasures” also features a small-scale model of the statue of Crawford Long that’s in the U.S. Capitol, as well as a display case filled with letters, witness testimonials and other materials stemming from that “soap opera”-esque dispute over the first use of ether anesthesia. Three Boston-area medical professionals separately tried to lay claim to the title in the late 1840s and ’50s, only to be eclipsed by the evidence that emerged pointing to Long’s successful use of inhaled ether to perform “painless” surgery way back in 1842.

In fact, the Madison County native and Crawford Long Hospital namesake (now Emory University Hospital Midtown) appears to have been the only one to have survived this colorful medical controversy unscathed.

“He was in no way interested in getting involved in this debate,” said Gaynes, explaining how Long’s friends pressed his claim even as the Boston trio eventually all came to ignoble ends (suicide, psychotic breaks, etc.). “Here was a means to end suffering, and yet three of the four major players involved suffered greatly themselves in trying to gain the credit.

“Only Crawford Long lived this long and peaceful life. Which was kind of the irony of this whole anaesthesia affair.”