Thursday, June 05, 2014

[617] MTSU library peers into ‘The American Body’ as viewed in 19th century

MURFREESBORO — A fascinating combination of tradition, superstition and science characterizes the medical profession in the fledgling years of this country.

“The American Body: Medicine, Malady, and Morality in 19th Century Print,” an exhibit on display in the fourth-floor Special Collections area of MTSU’s James E. Walker Library, contains rare books that offer a glimpse into that era.

The exhibit will remain on display from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday throughout the summer and into early fall.

“It’s probably one of the more ambitious exhibits that we’ve done,” said Dr. Alan Boehm, director of special collections.

The books range from those that espouse the philosophy of New Hampshire farmer Samuel Thompson, an advocate of herbs to promote healing, to eclectic medicine, a practice combining herbs with professional training and a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy and physiology.

Catherine Beecher, the sister of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” author Harriet Beecher Stowe, has two books on display. “Physiology and Calisthenics” advocated exercise, diet and less restrictive dress as ways to make women healthier, radical views in its publishing year of 1858.

“Treatise on Domestic Economy,” also by Beecher and published in 1847, outlined how a woman could run a healthy household.

Self-reliance and disdain of leaving medicine to “elitists” were emphasized by books such as “Gunn’s Domestic Medicine or the Poor Man’s Friend” (1837) and “Medical Advisor” (1860), a how-to book by Nashville physician Rezin Thompson.

Frederick Hollick used a diagram that opened to different views of the body’s internal organs as the reader turned back different leaves in “Outlines of Anatomy and Physiology” (1847). Hollick’s teachings on sexual health were so blunt for the time that he was tried twice on obscenity charges. He was not convicted.

Emma Edwards claimed to have masqueraded as a Union soldier while nursing injured troops in “Nurse and Spy in the Union Army” (1865), although historians doubt her claims of convincing other soldiers that she was a man.

However, Edwards’ account illustrated the desperate need for progress in the medical field during the Civil War, when more men died of disease and poor hygiene and sanitation than of war wounds.

“An awful lot of what was practiced was simply not evidence-based,” Boehm said.

Some books were printed on hand presses and with letterpress printing, but others were printed by placing a plate on a repeating press, said Boehm. All materials must be kept in cool temperatures in climate-controlled conditions.

“You’re dealing with scarce materials,” Boehm said. “It’s not like there’s a marketplace out there where these objects are always on sale. You have to wait and you build it slowly.”

Special Collections is beginning to fashion more exhibits based on the way they fit into a theme or a narrative rather than calling attention to their physical features.

“We’re beginning to get a critical mass where we can actually tell stories,” said Boehm.

For more information, contact Special Collections at 615-904-8501 or go to

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