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Views & Reviews Between the Lines

Doing the books

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 15 July 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b2806
  1. Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

    The stage of life at which I desired more possessions is, thank goodness, now long past. On the whole I am content to be rather than to have—with one notable exception.

    Antiquarian booksellers now send me their catalogues through the post, and last week I received two such. One was a joint production of two Parisian dealers and was itself a book of rare beauty. As soon as I opened it I realised that I had wasted my life completely and should have spent it in the singleminded pursuit of money so that I could have bought these wonderful medical books of the 15th and 16th centuries.

    For example, there was Magnus Hundt’s Anthropologium de Hominis Dignitate, Natura et Proprietatibus, published in “Liptzick” (Leipzig) in 1501, with wonderful woodcuts of the pre-Vesalian notions of human anatomy—for £70 000 (€80 000; $115 000); or the first printed book of anatomy, Mundinus’s Anathomia, 5th edition 1493, also published in Leipzig, for only £30 000. If anyone, having bought Hundt or Mundinus, doubted that the Renaissance really did bring a revolution in human knowledge, they could compare those books with Andreas Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica of 1543, against the description of which were delicately affixed the letters P.s.d. (Prix sur demande, or price on application). If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

    Reluctantly acknowledging that I was out of my financial depth, I turned to the other catalogue, where I was much tempted by Thomas Frognall Dibdin’s Bibliomania, or Book-madness (2nd edition 1811), a condition that he describes as a disease that “has almost uniformly confined its attacks to the male sex, and, among these, to people in the higher and middling classes of society, while the artificer, labourer, and peasant have escaped wholly uninjured” (a fine early example of early epidemiological thought); and also by William Henry Ireland’s Stultifera Navis (1807), “of fools who collect old books or prints:”

    Is it to read this dolt doth buy,

    Of books so large a quantity,

    Which he can’t comprehend:

    Of classics prime editions rare,

    No stain, no wormhole—title fair,

    And margin without end?

    I phoned the bookseller: both titles had been sold, having been “very popular.”

    Of course, doctors have often been bibliomanes. By the mechanism of the association of ideas, a person came to mind with whom I once had some slight contact: the man formerly known as His Excellency the Life President, Ngwazi Dr H Kamuzu Banda. He was the doctor who practised for several years in north London before becoming the first president of Malawi.

    When he was a student in America, Dr Banda spent all his money on rare books, often going without food to buy such items as a first edition of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (which now you couldn’t buy even if you starved yourself to death). He accumulated a rare and valuable library.

    My first contact with Dr Banda was at several removes. Arriving at my hotel on my first night in the country, I was handed a cyclostyled piece of tourist information. It said: “The people of Malawi so love their Kamuzu, His Excellency the Life President, that if any foreigner has come to overthrow him, they will cut him up and throw him to the crocodiles.”

    My second contact was also at several removes. On hiring a car, the contract specified that I must stop, get out, and stand to attention if the presidential cavalcade went by.

    In those days, of course, people had proper respect for doctors.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b2806

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