Early ophthalmology text turns 500 this year

First page of treatise "De oculis" from Champier's _Speculum Galeni_

The PI Nixon Medical Historical Library is celebrating the 500th birthday of one of its treasures, an edition of Symphorien Champier’s Speculum Galeni.  The book includes one of the first treatises on ophthalmology ever printed.

Symphorien Champier (1472-1539) was an early French humanist and physician to Charles VIII, Louis XII, and the Duke of Lorraine.  He settled in Lyon, where he established the College of the Doctors of Lyon and studied Greek and Arab scholars as well as medicinal science, composing a great number of historical works.   He was also an admirer of Galen, the great second-century Greek physician and philosopher.  Champier set out to expand his contemporary colleagues’ knowledge of Galen by using a powerful new tool: the printing press.  

Speculum Galeni, printed in Lyon in 1512, begins with Champier’s own biography of Galen and a list of Galenic works.  It continues with Champier’s careful compilation of Latin translations of key works that were (at that time) attributed to Galen, to form a complete Treatise of Medicine.  Included in the compilation is “De oculis,” a treatise on the eyes, the first page of which appears in the photo above. According to later historians, “De oculis” may not have been Galen’s at all – it is only known today from this Latin translation, and no Greek original has ever been found.  Nonetheless, its inclusion in Champier’s compilation makes it one of the first printed works on the subject of ophthalmology. Photo of cover of our copy of Champier's book

Our copy of Speculum Galeni is bound together with another work of Champier called Practica nova in medicina which was probably printed several years earlier, around 1509. The beautiful binding was also created around the same time; it is stamped pigskin over wooden boards with metal clasp closures, and the whole volume is in beautiful condition.  We know from the stamps and inscriptions in the book that it once belonged to the Strahov Monastery Library in Prague.

The book came to the PI Nixon Medical Historical Library as part of the Andrew A Sandor Ophthalmology collection, a group of some 400 rare and historical books that the library acquired in 1988. We invite you to come and see this historical treasure, along with many other treasures on the history of ophthalmology such as Georg Bartisch’s Ophthalmodouleia (1583) and Samuel Thomas Sommering’s Abbildungen des menschlichen Auges (1801).

The P. I. Nixon Medical Historical Library Reading Room is located on the fifth floor of the Briscoe Library and is open Monday-Friday, 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. In order to view books in the collection, it is best to schedule an appointment prior to visiting by calling 567-2470.

– Luke Rosenberger, Director of Library Technology & Historical Collections

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