Medicine Meets Monsters in ProQuest’s Digital Version of Wellcome Library’s Early Book Collection

Share Article

From groundbreaking anatomical texts to witches’ brews, early science books made available online

News Image
In all, more than 15,000 rare books published between 1485 and 1700 are being digitized, including many of the first authoritative works of modern science.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein becomes inspired in his search for the “elixir of life” after turning his back on modern scientific theory and instead studying the “wild fancies” of three ancient authors: Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, the 16th-century German occult philosopher, Paracelsus, a 16th-century Swiss physician and alchemist, and Albertus Magnus, a 13th-century Bavarian bishop who, according to legend, created an automaton that could answer questions put to it. The works of these three authors, together with many more in the areas of alchemy, astrology, demonology and pseudo-science, are all held in the Wellcome Library’s holdings of rare books related to the history of medicine. The world-renowned collection is now being digitized by ProQuest -- an information company central to research -- and, beginning this month, is freely available to all users in the U.K.

In all, more than 15,000 rare books published between 1485 and 1700 are being digitized. This period saw the publication of many of the first authoritative works of modern science, such as illustrated works of anatomy by Andreas Vesalius, Salomon Alberti and Caspar Bartholin, and groundbreaking texts such as Jean Beguin’s 1615 book Les elemens de Chymie, which contained the first ever chemical equation. But it was also a period in which modern scientific methods based on precise observation, classification and experiment happily co-existed with folk wisdom and fantasy. For example, the 11-volume Historia animalum by Ulisse Aldrovandi, one of the founders of modern zoology, is an encyclopedic work full of realistic illustrations of animals and plants drawn from life, in which mythical creatures such as dragons, hydras and centaurs appear alongside their real-life counterparts.

The first batch of 400 books which are now available also includes numerous examples of the “Book of Secrets,” such as The Secrets of Alexis of Piedmont (1555). Alexis was the pseudonym of an Italian physician and alchemist whose book was a compendium of recipes for medicines, household remedies, perfumes, dyes and experiments. Among them is a witch’s brew for the cure of gout, which involves boiling the whole carcass of a red-haired dog. These books were extremely popular and frequently translated and reprinted, as were books of prodigies such as Pierre Boaistuau’s Histoires prodigieuses (1568), an illustrated catalog of monsters, demons, deformities, natural disasters and miraculous events. Other illustrated works include books on falconry, military machinery, plants of the New World, and a fascinating 1568 volume with more than 130 woodcuts by Jöst Amman depicting trades and professions of the day, from the Pope and King down to the physician, bookbinder, clockmaker, brewer and barber.

The Wellcome is the fourth major library to participate in ProQuest’s groundbreaking project to expand and preserve access to primary sources of European history. ProQuest launched the project with the Danish Royal Library, Copenhagen and the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze in Italy, and has already made these rich national collections available to all Danish and Italian citizens, while a third digitization operation has recently started at the National Library of the Netherlands. In all cases, ProQuest sets up a scanning studio on site at the library and uses state-of-the-art technology to create high-definition color images of every page, including bindings and fold-outs.

Through the Early European Books project, ProQuest is building an increasingly comprehensive survey of printing in Europe to 1700 by digitizing and bringing together the holdings of major rare book libraries. To learn more visit

About ProQuest (
ProQuest connects people with vetted, reliable information. Key to serious research, the company has forged a 70-year reputation as a gateway to the world’s knowledge – from dissertations to governmental and cultural archives to news, in all its forms. Its role is essential to libraries and other organizations whose missions depend on the management and delivery of complete, trustworthy information.

ProQuest’s massive information pool is made accessible in research environments that accelerate productivity, empowering users to discover, create, and share knowledge.

An energetic, fast-growing organization, ProQuest includes the Bowker®, Dialog®, ebrary®, and Serials Solutions® businesses and notable research tools such as RefWorks™, Pivot™, and the Summon™ service. The company is headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with offices around the world.



Share article on social media or email:

View article via:

Pdf Print

Contact Author

Beth Dempsey
Email >
Visit website