A Doctor’s Donations Make Medical History February 1, 2010 – Tags: books, Dr. John Hunter, Dr. Richard Travers, History of Medicine, Libraries, Marie Stopes, Monash University, Rare Books, Sir Louis Matheson Library
(Dr. Richard Travers is a direct descendant of the author.)
An instructional manual for a 1901 version of Viagra and a pamphlet denouncing it as a fraud, a banned play about female sexuality and the published love letters of the playwright, and a volume on venereal disease by a surgeon who may have deliberately infected himself with gonorrhea. These are just a few of the intriguing items found in an enormous collection of rare books and ephemera on the history of medicine recently donated to Melbourne, Australia’s Monash University.
The man who donated some 15,000 volumes to the school’s Sir Louis Matheson Library, Dr. Richard Travers, has curated an exhibition comprised of 92 of his favorite acquisitions in over 40 years of collecting. The exhibit, A Doctor’s Delights, will be on display in Melbourne through February 2010. Luckily for those of us outside of Oceania, a captivating virtual exhibition can be found on the Library’s website. Dr. Travers had a tough time selecting the best items for the show, but says ultimately he has “chosen those titles [he] was most pleased to find.” Brief descriptions of a few fascinating finds follow, but these are only the cream of a bumper crop.
Featured in a section of the show called “Scuttlebutt,” the over-the-top artwork on this Pepto-Bismol pink pamphlet extols the (dubious) virtues of a (literally) shocking belt which today would be sold as a “Viagrabrator.” Dr. McLaughlin’s cure for all masculine ills, from impotence to alcoholism, was widely advertised at the turn of the 20th century as a fountain of youth. A typical testimonial, from a “Mr. A. Crawford of Pokegama” states: “I was an old man of 70 before I got your Belt. Now after wearing it for for 3 months I feel like a young man of thirty-five.” One can only hope Mr. Crawford removed the device shortly after dashing off his endorsement: another three months of wear would logically return him to infancy.
Even circa 1900, there were skeptics who doubted that “Dr. McLaughlin’s Electric Belt” could in “a few weeks of wear assure you health and happiness for the rest of your life.” Hence the above item, by his fellow physicians Doctors Freeman and Wallace, denouncing the “iniquitous actions, deceptions, frauds, nefarious practices, and misleading advertisements” of their colleague. (And revealing that McLaughlin is selling the infernal device at a high-voltage 500% mark-up!) The printing of this scorching indictment on the same (shocking?) pink paper as the circular soft-soaping suckers into shelling out for the electrifying (electrocuting?) medical miracle is doubtless no coincidence.
(Sydney : Hal & Lew Parks, [1932?])
The “Sex Education” section of the exhibit begins with two books by pioneering feminist sexologist Marie Stopes. The “Dr. Ruth” of the early 20th century, Stopes wrote Vectia, the story of a woman in a sexless marriage, for production on the London stage. It was banned by the Lord Chamberlain due to its scandalous call for an end to female sexual ignorance through reading. (Stopes was not above using the play to plug her own publications. When our heroine Vectia’s prudish husband, William, discovers her scandalous books he rants: “What’s the meaning of all this beastliness? Ellis’s Sex Psychology! Stopes’s Married Love! Stopes’s Radiant Motherhood! Robie’s Sex Ethics! Ellis’s Sex Psychology, volume 2, volume 3, volume 4!”) He might well have become apoplectic if Vectia had purchased Stopes’s pseudonymous volume, Love Letters Of A Japanese.
Love Letters of a Japanese begins: “These letters are real. And like all real things they have a quality which no artificial counterpart can attain.” Published under the editorship of “G. N. Mortlake,” and documenting a love affair between “Mertyl Meredith” and “Kenrio Watanabe,” the letters were actual artifacts from a disastrous love affair between Marie Stopes and Japanese botanist, Kenjiro Fujii. When a disenchanted Fujii decided to end the romance once and for all, he feigned an incurable and highly contagious case of leprosy. This wildly inventive exit strategy did the trick, but in an act of revenge Marie transcribed her illicit lover’s letters word for word, and made them public under a veil thinner than see-through negligee. Marie’s biographer, Ruth Hall, wrote of the affair: “She never recovered from it, and all her subsequent endeavours can be seen as furious compensation claims for emotional injury.”
In a bizarre coda to the story, Marie Stopes presented a copy of her hot off the press billets-doux to her first husband, Reginald Ruggles Gates, shortly after their marriage. Perhaps deliberately ignoring his new wife’s indiscretion, Gates recalled: “My reaction to the ‘Love Letters of a Japanese,’ which I believe was the title, was one of mild shock, but I accepted it as one of the minor disabilities of being married to a literary woman.”
Another section of the exhibit features books by the great Scottish surgeon, John Hunter. Quite a complicated character, Hunter has been variously described as “kindly and generous” and “rude and repelling.” Bibliophiles will be happy to know that in addition to giving a break to the poor and clergymen, Dr. Hunter offered “professional authors and artists his services…without remuneration.” He was among the first medical men to apply scientific research methods to the study of dentistry, gunshot wounds, digestion and child development. Another area of the physician’s research was venereal disease, and it was here that he left an unfortunate legacy.
Hunter shared the belief of most physician’s in the late 18th century that gonorrhea and syphilis were caused by a single pathogen, and he was determined to prove it. According to some sources, following a common but incredibly dangerous research method of the era, Hunter inoculated himself with gonorrhoeal discharge from a patient. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to him, either the patient he chose also suffered from syphilis, or the needle he used was contaminated with the bacterium that causes it. In either case, as the story goes, when Hunter contracted both gonorrhea and syphilis, he wrongly concluded the theory they were caused by the same bacterium was correct. Dr. Hunter included that incorrect information in the treatise pictured above, and five long years passed before another physician, Benjamin Bell, proved the two diseases had separate causes.
The treatise makes no mention of Hunter’s rather bizarre self-experimentation, and some believe the entire tale is apocryphal. But the saga of a medical man with a reputation for both kindness and rudeness, and a willingness to be his own guinea pig, resonated with writer Robert Louis Stevenson. John Hunter was the inspiration for both mild-mannered Dr. Henry Jekyll and his alter-ego the villainous Edward Hyde. (Hunter’s reputed “Hyde-side” may also have originated from his dealings with grave robbers. He frequently consorted with such criminals to obtain the corpses necessary for anatomical study.)
The richness of the rare books and ephemeral oddities donated by Dr. Richard Travers to Monash University merit an entire afternoon on the library’s website, if not an excursion to the land down under. His tremendous generosity has allowed the entire collection to remain intact. It stands as a testament to the fine results of a lifetime of careful collecting in a single area of expertise. Dr. Travers is well aware of the dangers and delights in store for the passionate book buyer. In the introduction to his exhibition he paraphrases the famous words of John Dryden‘s play The Spanish Friar: “There is a pleasure sure in being mad which only madmen know.” Here it becomes: “There is a pleasure in collecting books, which none but collectors know.” Thanks for sharing the mad pleasures of a lifelong bibliophile with the world, Dr. Travers.