Tuesday, 3 April 2018

“Mortal remains: life, death and the medical community of York in the early nineteenth century”

Ruth Elder (Collections Management Specialist) writes ... One of the pleasures of working in the University of York library is the opportunity to explore our historic library and archive collections. Items are by necessity labelled as attached to distinct collections (within the limits of the buildings and catalogues). The University of York is fortunate to hold a rich range of local medical collections including those of the Retreat, York Health Archives, and York Medical Society. What individual collections can sometimes fail to reveal explicitly is the complex web of relationships and narratives which link across the collections. Such relationships have become apparent to me as I have delved into the history of York County Hospital Medical Library (YCHML).

The hospital opened in 1740 on Monkgate, before moving to a site adjacent to Monk Bar in 1746, leading to the eventual opening of a Medical Library in 1810. Research into the history and development of the Hospital Library suggests that it grew and expanded in parallel to the development of an increasingly organised and formalised medical community in York.

In February 1832 a number of physicians and surgeons became founder members of the York Medical Society which was conceived as a space for the purpose of “promoting and diffusing medical knowledge”; a philosophy which the Society retains to the present day. From its inception, the Medical Society took an active role in the affairs of York’s key medical institutions, particularly the County Hospital. In addition it was involved in the management of the Medical Library, working to enhance the Library’s value as an educational resource and depositing books at its own expense.

Hospital, 1830.  Photograph by Paul Shields
York Minster Library holds what appears to be the only surviving copy of any YCHML catalogue and this has provided a valuable resource from which to identify the extent of the surviving holdings of the Medical Library as listed in 1830.

Original in the Borthwick Institute,  University of York, RET/8/6 under
Creative Commons licence (CC-BY-NC)
As I searched for information associated with YCHML I stumbled (digitally) across the “Table of Mortality” shown here. Minutes of York Medical Society record that on 1st February 1840 a Quaker surgeon suggested publishing weekly returns of deaths and their causes in York, with the objective of advancing knowledge and medical science. The York Superintendent Registrar agreed to supply information and weekly reports were placed for consultation in the Reading Room of the Medical Library, and in the council room of the Yorkshire Museum.

This copy of the form has been adapted to give totals for the year ending 1st January 1841, listing causes of death in York and the surrounding areas (broken down by age group.) The vulnerability of child health at this time is reflected in the single greatest cause of death reported as Scarlatina (Scarlet Fever), with 187 of the 192 fatalities occurring in children. Convulsions proved fatal for 132 children. Consumption (Tuberculosis) was the main cause of death in adults (134), with 146 reported to have had the good fortune to survive past 60 before yielding to a death of “Old age or Natural Decay”.

The Mortality table (preserved within the Retreat Collection), was initiated by members of the York Medical Society, who were instrumental in both the growth and preservation of the YCHML. The 667 book titles listed in the 1830 YCHML catalogue reflects resources available to the local medical community in York as they confronted the range of illnesses and conditions endured by the local community. In association with the Mortality Table, the Medical Library gives an engaging and colourful insight to the historical, social and cultural understanding of illness and health in York in the early nineteenth century.
Title page of Eight chirurgical treatises.  
Photograph by Paul Shields

Of the 667 titles listed in the 1830 catalogue, 568 have now been identified as held in the York Medical Society collection, which is now maintained within the University of York Library Rare Books collection. An exhibition titled “Buried treasure: rediscovering the York County Hospital Medical Library” is on display in the Harry Fairhurst corridor at the University of York Library between 3rd April - 30th June, and all of the collections mentioned are available for consultation through the University of York Library and Archives.

To arrange to view an item in the Rare Books Collection, please contact the Borthwick Institute

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