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Hand-coloured woodcut showing an early alchemist from Hortus sanitatis, 1491 ;

St Thomas's Hospital Historical Collection

The St Thomas’s Historical Collection comprises the pre-1901 holdings of the St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School. These include, for the most part, the textbooks and periodicals which were used by medical students from the 18th century onwards. As many pre-20th century medical school teaching collections have been dispersed, its survival, along with those of Guy’s and King’s College Hospital, makes it very valuable.

View of St. Thomas's Hospital, London. Henry Curey, Transcript of a paper ..., 1871.

The collection was, from the early 18th century, formed through many donations and bequests. These have enhanced its value, as a significant number of eminent medical practitioners and surgeons were among the benefactors. Only from the mid-19th century did the library begin to shape an acquisitions policy which was not determined so heavily by gifts.

Although the origins of St Thomas’s can be traced back to 1173, when it was an infirmary attached to a priory, this religious foundation was dissolved in 1540 as part of Henry VIII’s general policy toward such organisations. The hospital can trace its continuous existence from its re-foundation in 1551.

Although there are no extant records concerning the date of the formation of the library, it seems probable that a library of some description existed by the 1740s. As medical education had been put on a formal footing in the late 17th century, such provision had become essential.

From the 1840s, the library began to be professionally managed. It is no coincidence that at this time the medical schools of St Thomas’ and Guy’s formally separated, and St Thomas’s began a prolonged period of re-organisation and self-examination. A catalogue, an acquisitions policy, and regular stock checks were introduced. The first salaried librarian was employed in 1842; fines began to be enforced from 1860. However, as the library was financed by subscription, and not by direct subvention from either the medical school or the hospital, it had to continue to rely heavily on bequests and donations. This fact has determined the character of the St Thomas’s Historical Collection.

The collection today

Since 2002, the St Thomas’s Historical Collection has been housed in the Foyle Special Collections Library. The collection comprises some 4,000 monographs and 2,000 volumes of journals. A number of items from the St Thomas’s Historical Collection have appeared in exhibitions at King’s in recent years, and are available to view on the online exhibitions page of the Special Collections web pages.

The strengths of the collection lie in clinical medicine, surgery, anatomy, therapeutics and pharmacology. Psychiatry, forensic medicine and dentistry are also included, although holdings in these areas are not extensive.

Using Library Search

Records from all collections are available through King's Library Search.

Being signed in to Library Search gives the best functionality for searching and the homepage gives advice on how to narrow down your searches by using scopes and by filtering searches you have made. For full instructions please see both the Library Search homepage and also our 'Catalogues' webpage, available by scrolling down to the menu on the Special Collections homepage.

Using scopes

You can limit your search to Foyle Special Collections Library items by using scopes.

If you select the ‘Library Resources’ scope, only the print and ebooks, audiovisual material and journals held by the campus libraries and Foyle Special Collections Library will be retrieved in your searches.

Using filters

For finding material related to specific collections or former owners, use the ‘Library Resources’ scope in the drop down menu and then filter by ‘Former owner’ in the Advanced search criteria to display records from a specific collection.

You can also use the Location drop down menu on the left hand side of the screen to identify items from specific named special collections.

Please do contact us for further advice on identifying material which will assist you with your studies.

The Tree of life woodcut from Hortus sanitatis (1491).

Noteworthy items in the collection

Anatomical works

The collection includes a number of visually striking anatomical works, including those of Vesalius, Ruysch and Cheselden. From the aesthetic perspective, Jacques Fabien Gautier d’Agoty’s Cours complet d’anatomie is particularly noteworthy, although not very anatomically correct.


As most of the collection of journals in the St Thomas’s Historical Collection was acquired after the medical schools of Guy’s and St Thomas’s separated, it attempted to provide a self-sufficient collection of medical periodicals, which reflected the importance of the periodical as a publication genre from the late 18th century onwards. The collection includes some comparatively rare runs, including the Sussex county asylum reports and The annals of medicine and surgery. Some journal runs in the collection date from the 17th century, such as the Journal des scavans (1664-90).

Hortus sanitatis

One of the two incunabula in the collection is the 1491 edition of Hortus sanitatis, a compilation of medieval knowledge and belief about the natural world. It is lavishly illustrated with hand-coloured plates with depictions of real and mythical flora and fauna.

It has an intellectual importance in addition to its aesthetic value: it was the last attempt to summarise knowledge of the natural world before the European conquest of the Americas and Renaissance attempts at taxonomy transformed knowledge of the natural world.

Cover of the Penny lancet.

Another item which is even rarer is The penny lancet, a journal which was published for a few months in 1832 (this periodical had nothing to do with The lancet, then in the 10th year of its publication).The St. Thomas’s Historical Collection holds the only recorded complete run of this journal.

Its publication took advantage of the popular disquiet which arose from the devastating outbreak of cholera in 1831 which had swept through Europe, and the extremely inadequate orthodox medical response to it. It sought a gullible audience among those who could not afford medical advice or (with good reason) were suspicious of it. It contains medical anecdotes and gossip, and anatomical information, much of which was plagiarised from medical and surgical textbooks. One piece of information which could not have been plagiarised is the advice to readers to perform a surgical operation on themselves!

The audience it sought, gullible or not, was more elusive than the publisher had assumed, and the periodical had ceased publication by the end of 1832.

After the demise of his journal after only three months, the publisher, George Berger, bound unsold volumes of this periodical into slender volumes. One of these editions was purchased a century later by the orthopaedic surgeon Walter Rowley Bristow who at his death in 1947 bequeathed it to St. Thomas’s.

Portrait of Edward Jenner (1749-1823).

Jenner and Snow

There are three extremely important provenances which deserve special mention. One is a volume of tracts on smallpox vaccination by Edward Jenner (1749-1823), pictured right.

The title page of the first of these tracts – An inquiry into the causes and effects of the variolae vaccinae (1798) is inscribed by the author and dedicated to the St Thomas’s surgeon Henry Cline, who did much to bring Jenner’s innovation to the attention of the wider medical world.

The anaesthetist and epidemiologist John Snow (1813-58), who did so much to revolutionise our understanding of the causes of cholera and, in so doing, to establish a methodology for epidemiology, is represented by his pathbreaking On the mode of communication of cholera (1855). This copy is inscribed by the author to the St. Thomas’s physician Charles Murchison, who undertook research on typhus and typhoid fever.

The second item by John Snow, which touches on his other important contribution to medicine, that of the use of chloroform for anaesthesia is On chloroform and other anaesthetics (1858) and has a poignant association. It contains a tipped-in letter from Snow’s brother, William, to Charles Murchison, thanking him for his care during Snow’s last illness.

Florence Nightingale

The collection holds a number of items with Florence Nightingale’s inscription: she had a close association with St Thomas’s which arose from her having founded her nursing school there. Perhaps the most remarkable book with her provenance in the collection is A contribution to the sanitary history of the British army during the late war with Russia (1859). This copy, which bears Nightingale’s inscription, was one of only a limited number which were printed. They were published privately, and distributed to influential members of the political establishment. Nightingale was extremely well educated, and, as this book demonstrates, knew how to use and to present statistics. This book is one of the earliest publications to present statistical information in graphic form.

Although in this case her purpose was to convince her readers that soldiers were dying from preventable infections in military hospitals rather than on the battlefield, her methods had many other applications. This book is as important a contribution to epidemiology and to the development of medical research methods as Snow’s research on cholera was.

Bookplate of Elizabeth Blackwell.

Elizabeth Blackwell and Somerset Maugham

These two items are not very representative of the collection as a whole, but are nevertheless important and interesting. Although the collection reflects the world of orthodox medical practice, which, throughout this period was dominated by male practitioners, there are a few items which do reflect another very important part of medical history during this period. Apart from the works inscribed by Nightingale, the copy of Elizabeth Blackwell’s Essays in medical sociology (1899), which was presented to the library at St Thomas’s by the author, is noteworthy.

Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) was the first female to acquire medical qualifications in the United States, and the first female to be registered as a doctor in Great Britain by the General Medical Council. After organising the nursing services during the American Civil War, she became a writer and polemicist on medical and social matters, campaigning against the anti-female bias of the Contagious Diseases Act, and against certain aspects of what she saw as the materialist bias of the medical profession, such as vivisection and bacteriology. Her friend, Florence Nightingale, was her connection to St Thomas’.

Fiction does not feature much in the collection, but there is an exception which must be mentioned. The novelist and playwright William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was a medical student at St Thomas’s, where he acquired his medical qualifications in 1897. Although he never practised as a doctor, his first novel Liza of Lambeth (1897) in which a young, pregnant woman dies of puerperal fever after being beaten by the wife of the man with whom she had an affair – is based on the stories which Maugham probably heard when delivering babies in the slums of south London as part of his medical course.

The collection holds a copy of the 50th anniversary edition (which had a print run of 1,000), which was presented to the library at St Thomas’s by the author and inscribed by him. In his autobiographical novel Of human bondage, his experience as a medical student is drawn on directly as material for his fiction. His knowledge of disease features more generally in later novels, such as The moon and sixpence and The painted veil. Liza of Lambeth is the sole work by Maugham in the St Thomas’s Historical Collection.

Resources for the history of St Thomas's Hospital and its library

King's College London Archives hold a significant amount of material relating to the history of St Thomas's Hospital and its medical school as does the London Metropolitan Archives.

Further reading

David T Bird. Catalogue of the printed books and manuscripts (1491-1900) in the library of St Thomas's Hospital Medical School. London: St. Thomas's Hospital Medical School, 1984. [Special Collections Reference Z921. S7 B5 ]

CL Feltoe (ed.) Memorials of John Flint South. London: John Murray, 1884. [St. Thomas's Historical Collection R489.S7 A2]

Brian Hurwitz and Ruth Richardson. 'The Penny lancet'. The lancet, 364, December 18, 2004, 2224-2228

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