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Rare Books

History of Science


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 Renaissancewhich 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).

Optiks 1 CroppedOptiks 4 Cropped

Euclidean Texts

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:Oliver Byrne, The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid (1847)


Famous Mathematicians

Roman Technology and Engineering

Technology Through the Centuries


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

  • Herbolarium et Materia Medica (originally 9th century). A medical anthology commissioned by Charlemagne, concerning the world of plants and animals as well as the healing arts of the Early Middle Ages. The manuscript is a compilation of Latin texts from multiple sources, including "Curae herbarum" derived from Dioscorides’s De materia medica.
  • Medicina y Farmacia de Federico II (originally 13th century). This Mid-Byzantine style manuscript depicts not only plants and animals, but also curative measures, doctors and their patients, and often the places where these cures were administered.
  • Libro de los Medicamentos Simples (originally 12th-15th century). The core of this manuscript text is a Middle French translation of a widely-disseminated 12th-century Latin compendium attributed to Matthaeus Platearius, a physician from Salerno, Italy. The work is a compendium of classical knowledge related to the use of animal, vegetable and mineral substances to cure or relieve disease. Of interest are annotations by 16th-century physicians, voicing their distaste for some of the vernacular terms in the codex and replacing them with Greek and Latin words.
  • Andreas Vesalius (originally 1545). Vesalius was author of one of the most influential books on human anatomy, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body). It is considered the first accurate anatomy of the human body, based on his own dissections of human cadavers. This facsimile reproduces Thomas Geminus’s superb illustrations for Vesalius's work.


Medicine Through the Centuries

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.

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