Online Historical Medical Resources
If the historical novel you are writing has people in it, odds are you will need to research medical history for your characters’ era at some point in the writing process. Fortunately, there are lots of good (and free) websites that offer digitized primary source and other documents on medical history.
This collection of historical medical instruments was donated by Annette Cravens in memory of her father, who taught surgery at what is now the State University of New York at Buffalo between 1914 and 1931. The website lets you browse images by category or by function. Is your physician character recommending an ear trumpet for a hard-of-hearing patient? View a gold-colored ear trumpet on this site from 1860, so you can describe it properly in your novel. Is your character about to undergo a bloodletting? See what a 10-bladed scarificator looks like. The website doesn’t tell how the instruments were used, only providing minimal descriptions of the objects. But if you’ve never seen a scarificator before, this site could be immensely helpful.
The Yale University Cushing/Whitney Library’s digitized collections offers a large (over 1400 items) collection of antique medical devices. There are quite a few sets of instruments pictured in their original boxes/containers, so an author would be able to get an idea of what a doctor’s kit of instruments looked like. I could not find a way to search or sort the items by date, but the date is included in the item descriptions, if known. As with the McGuire collection above, information about how the devices were used is not included. The Cushing/Whitney also offers a collection of historical medical posters, on topics like condom use, hand washing, nutrition, and AIDS prevention.
If you are setting a novel in the U.S. South in the first half of the 20th century, especially among the poor, you should research the disease pellagra. This site’s description says pellagra was epidemic in the South among the poor in the early 20th century. Many subsisted on a diet of salt meat and cornmeal, making them susceptible to the disease, because the food lacked niacin. Sufferers endured dermatitis, diarrhea, mental confusion, and worse. This website gives access to documents written about the fight to discover the cause of pellagra in Alabama. So if you have a character with the disease in your novel set in, say, 1915, several of these documents discuss the medical treatment of the day.
The same University offers another collection, one of catalogs of medical devices from the late 19th/early 20th centuries.
If one of your characters is a dentist, this collection has several dental equipment catalogs with illustrations, so you can correctly describe what a period dental chair would look like, for example. Optical and surgical supply company catalogs are also listed.
The most interesting document on this Canadian website, I thought, was a digitized book called Historic Notes and Canadian Medical Lore, by the British Medical Association, published in 1906.
Scroll down to page 39 to view the section on “Indian Medical Lore.” Page 57 gives a list of “Aboriginal Materia Medica,” such as using milkweed for skin eruptions, and wild bergamot for stomach pains. If your novel is set among Indigenous Canadians or early pioneers, and illness is a factor in the plot, these remedies would be period-specific. The book also gives a history of Western medicine in Canada.
The same library offers a book called, Medical Guide for Flying Personnel, by Heinz Von Diringshofen, translated by Velyien Henderson. If your book’s main character is a World War II-era pilot, this resource discusses the current-of-the-day knowledge about aeronautical medicine. Topics covered: effects of air pressure on organs, altitude sickness, special clothing needed for cold, and the effects of centrifugal force on the body.
The Kellogg Library’s website contains additional medical history treasures as well, such as a study of tuberculosis in Nova Scotia, and a 1924 booklet about cholera.
Is your novel set in the U.S. around 1917/18? This website, hosted by the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine, “contain[s] the stories of the places, the people, and the organizations that battled the American influenza epidemic of 1918-1919.” The website says that 650,000 Americans lost their lives to the disease, so the epidemic had a huge impact on society in that decade. Do your characters live in Omaha or Spokane? The Encyclopedia offers articles, with footnotes on sources, about how the epidemic affected that particular city, and what city officials did to combat it. You can do a keyword search, or browse by people, organizations, or subjects, such as “fumigation” or “nursing shortage.” Clicking on one of those topics brings up a list of primary source documents to choose from. Those will display onscreen, and you can download the PDF of the document to make enlarging easier, because some of the originals are hard to read.
The Wellcome is “one of the world’s major resources for the study of medical history,” according to its website. The U.K. Library has made a large collection of digitized material available on this page of its site. Browsing categories include: medieval manuscripts, mental healthcare, recipe books (both culinary and medical), and sexology. Click on the category title to browse documents. In the mental health section for example, you can view papers from various hospitals which cared for the mentally ill, such as The Retreat, St. Luke’s, or Manor House. The website has a keyword search box, but I could not get it to find documents I knew existed which I saw when browsing. Brush up on your ability to read antique handwritten scripts and other languages like Latin or French, if you want to browse the medieval manuscripts. The ones I spot-checked did not come with English transcripts.
If you are researching the Medieval and Renaissance eras and the previous Wellcome entry disappointed you because you can’t read another language, try this source. It is “a compilation of medical remedies that the friars of the Order of Saint Jerome used to cure the sick and to care for the human body in the 16th Century and earlier,” and has been translated into modern English while still allowing you to view the original page. The page offering a remedy for “bad breath caused by the stomach” recommends cooking cinnamon and ginger in strong vinegar and rinsing the mouth frequently. Or, drinking a glass of one’s own urine every morning, followed by a chaser of mint cooked in vinegar. Click on the thumbnail image of the original page to bring up a larger version.
Do you need to know what a particular historical hospital looked like so you can describe it in your novel? This site offers “hundreds of hospital postcards from the United States and throughout the world,” collected by a former librarian. You can browse the whole collection, or limit by city or state, or do a keyword search. I did not spot very many from outside the U.S., however. The backs of the postcards where messages were written have also been digitized, yielding some interesting social history.
This site offers documents on the history of women physicians associated with the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, later merged with Drexel University. While the site offers a wealth of information, I don’t care for the way the software wants the user to browse by subject: you have to choose one of 6 broad categories. However, the keyword search works well. Type in “cholera” and you will find documents on graduates’ experiences with cholera in India and Korea. “Prejudice” will bring up documents containing that word, and the display highlights the particular page(s) in the document you need to click on to find your search term. If your novel has a woman doctor or midwife character in the 19th-20th centuries, this will be a valuable resource.
This website is “a digital curation collaborative among some of the world’s leading medical libraries, promotes free and open access to quality historical resources in medicine.” It’s difficult to browse the documents, but the keyword search feature works well. If you need a period source describing the then-current treatment of a disease, enter “milk sickness” in the box and you’ll retrieve 13 documents between 1833 and 1969. When you click on a thumbnail to view the document, you can then click on the page and click to go forward or backwards through the document. A search on “ague” brings up 25 documents from 1699-2016. Read Dr. Colbatch’s discussion of treating ague in 1733, such as what foods to avoid: no smoked meats, pork, cucumbers, melon, or grapes. The page has a toolbar that will let you sort your search results by date published, title, creator, or number of views.
I hesitate to recommend this Australian website, because the images of many documents/objects in the collection will not display for me. It may be that only users in Australia may view some of the images; the website’s “about” information did not specify why so many images are unavailable. But other users may be luckier than I and the image you want may be viewable. If you have a scene in your novel set in a 19th-century pharmacy, you can view pharmacy objects in the “Pharmaceutical History” section of the collection. A “Medicine in Society” collection reproduces post-WWII tuberculosis campaign posters, asking people to refrain from coughing and sneezing onto other people, and from spitting on the ground. A keyword search feature is available. The descriptions of the objects of the ones I spot-checked are on the spare side.
The National Library of Medicine offers a wealth of material online, but this particular section of their website offers “click to turn the page” images of historic early medical books, such as a 17th-century BCE Egyptian papyrus on surgery, an early Japanese illustrated surgery book, and Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), the first book to provide illustrations of objects as seen through microscopes.
NLM’s digital collections webpage is also worth visiting. Its collections include medical incunabula, medical issues in World Wars I and II, nearly 550 19th-century documents on cholera, films on tropical diseases, and history of medicine in the Americas from 1610.
About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.