Natural history is the star of Special Collections' scientific collection, but we hold important texts in many other areas as well, including chemistry, physics, mathematics, medicine, engineering, and technology. These rare books not only mark scientific advances, but they also show how these advances reflect the culture of their time. Even more, these texts illumine how and why new understandings of our world emerged throughout the centuries.
Please click on the tabs above to learn more. Of related interest is the online exhibition Occult Science and Philosophy in the Renaissance, which features alchemy as a fascinating movement in the history of science.
These pages and the linked exhibition represent only a small sampling of science-related texts in Special Collections. Please come explore the collections to discover primary texts related to your expertise or interests. Ask a librarian today!
Special Collections holds a number of important texts and atlases in the early science of cosmography, which attempted to map the position of earth relative to the other heavenly bodies. When these books are viewed together, they dramatize the changing conception of the cosmos throughout the centuries. Below is a list of selected works, including early editions of Pierre Gassendi and Alexander von Humboldt, as well as more recent contributions to the field.
See also the related list of Early Maps & Atlases in the "History of Books and Printing" tab of this guide.
Chemistry & Physics
Our holdings in these interconnected fields begin with Sir Robert Boyle (1627-1691), cross the Atlantic with Benjamin Franklin's accounts of his inventions, and cover many other major advances in the subsequent centuries. But the highlight of this list is a rare and exciting first edition of Sir Isaac Newton's Opticks (1704).
Known as the father of geometry, Euclid was a Greek scholar active during the reign of Ptolemy I (323-283 BCE). His book Elements served as the main textbook for teaching mathematics into the twentieth century. His work deducing theorems from a small set of axioms is now known as Euclidean geometry.
Below is a small sampling of editions of Euclid's work, spanning several centuries:
Roman Technology and Engineering
Piranesi Views of Rome: Six Fine Prints Ready for Framing (originally 18th century) by Giovanni Piranesi. Piranesi traveled to Rome in 1740 as a draftsman to the Venetian ambassador and soon developed his distinctive etching style that produced thousands of beautiful copper engravings of Roman antiquities. In this series of prints, his most famous work, he was able to capture the architectural and engineering marvels of the ancient Romans.
M. Vitruvii Pollionis De Architectura Libri Decem: Ad Optimas Editiones Collati Praemittitur Notitia Literaria Studiis Societatis Bipontinae (1807) by Pollio Vitruvius. This handbook based on Greek architecture by Roman engineer Vitruvius is one of the few original Roman works of this type to survive.
Technology Through the Centuries
Gutenberg Bible by Johann Gutenberg (originally 15th century). Facsimile of the Gutenberg Bible, the first work printed on the movable type printing press.
Encyclopédie; ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-65) by Denis Diderot. Creator of the first modern encyclopedia, Diderot preserved contemporary technologies through detailed diagrams and descriptions.
The Works of the Late Dr. Benjamin Franklin: Consisting of His Life Written by Himself: Together with Essays Humorous, Moral, and Literary, Chiefly in the Manner of the Spectator. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin was a major figure in the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. Special Collections' copy is one of a number of early American editions of Franklin's Autobiography that descend from the first French edition (1791), by way of an English translation printed in London in 1793.
The Steam Engine: Comprising an Account of Its Invention and Progressive Improvement (1827) by Thomas Tredgold, English engineer and author, known for his early work on railroad construction. His definition of civil engineering formed the basis of the charter of the Institution of Civil Engineers.
Authorship of the practical electric telegraph of Great Britain : or, The Brunel award vindicated, in VII letters containing extracts from the arbitration evidence of 1841, edited in assertion of his brother's rights by Thomas Fothergill Cooke (1868). Sir Wiliam Cooke co-invented the electric telegraph with Charles Wheatstone, but the two went to court in 1841 over priority of invention. This account by William Cooke's brother Thomas was published the same year that William himself was knighted; this edition is inscribed by the author.
Lectures on the Mechanical Theory of Heat, and the Steam Engine (1872) by R.S. McCulloh. An early edition produced from the lecture notes of McCulloh, a civil engineer and professor of mechanics and thermodynamics at the Washington and Lee University. In 1876, this collection of notes was first published as a book.
Early medical knowledge is solidly represented in Special Collections. Come for the wide range of 16th-19th century treatises, and stay for the elaborate reproductions of medieval texts!
Facsimiles of Early Medical Texts
Medicine Through the Centuries
Hippodratous Aphorismoi, Hippocratis Aphorismi, ad fidem veterum monimentorum castigati, latine versi (1779). The Aphorisms of Hippocrates (c. 460 – c. 370 BC), a long series of propositions concerning the symptoms and diagnosis of disease and the art of healing and medicine.
A Cornelii Celsi de re medica. Libri octo (1772). By Aulus Cornelius Celsus (c. 25 BC – c. 50 AD). Celsus was a Roman encyclopaedist, known for his extant medical work, De Medicina, which is believed to be the only surviving section of a much larger encyclopedia. The De Medicina is considered one of the best sources concerning medical knowledge in the Roman world.
Sylva Sylvarum: Or a Naturall Historie in Ten Centuries (1627) by Francis Bacon. An anthology of one thousand paragraphs consisting of extracts from many books, mostly from antiquity, and Bacon's own experiments and observations. Numerous passages deal with medical treatments for the prolongation of life and the preservation of flesh.
An Essay on Diseases Incidental to Europeans in Hot Climates: With the Method of Preventing Their Fatal Consequences (1792) by James Lind. Lind is considered the "founder of naval hygiene in England" and is remembered for his application of citrus juice to overcome the severe problem of scurvy. Originally published 1771.
Contagious and Infectious Diseases: Measures for Their Prevention and Arrest ; Small Pox (variola) ; Modified Small Pox (varioloid) ; Chicken Pox (varicella) ; Cow Pox (variolæ Vaccinaæ) ; Vaccination, Spurious Vaccination : Prepared for the Guidance of the Quarantine Officers and Sanitary Inspectors (1884) by Joseph Jones, professor of Chemistry at University of Louisiana and President of the Board of Health of Louisiana. He was first to discover the plasmodium of malarial fever. Pairs well with 19th-century diaries chronicling personal experiences of epidemics and quarantines (see the Louisiana & Lower Mississippi Valley Collections).
Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex (1940) by Ivan Pavlov. A groundbreaking work on the development of the conditioned reflex in animals.
In addition to the works above, Special Collections holds a collection of books donated by Isidore Cohn, a prominent New Orleans surgeon and medical educator.