Treasures of the PI Nixon Library Blog

Treasures of the P.I. Nixon

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nterested in learning more about the history of medicine or health care? Ever wonder what remedies were used long ago to treat ailments? Subscribe to the Treasures of the P.I. Nixon blog and learn the fascinating truths about the history of the health sciences.  Last month’s post, Not Just Another Putti Face, features the mischievous, wingless toddler boys that pop up in art and illustration. Look closely inside our 1543 copy of Vesalius’ de Fabrica and you will find putti performing some quite gruesome tasks; the capital letter “I”, for example, depicts putti robbing a fresh grave by candlelight.

Read more about putti and other historical medical subjects in the Treasures blog.  Be sure to subscribe to the blog to receive updates about events, lectures, rare book viewings, and more!

Annual P.I. Nixon Dinner Draws a Crowd


The message to the 120 attendees of the 48th Annual Friends of the Nixon Medical Historical Library Dinner this year (on Friday October 26th) was that, yes, sugar is bad for you. Author Gary Taubes, award-winning science and health journalist, shared an historical account of the tracking of diabetes rates and made a convincing case that sugar is the tobacco of the new millennium. This did not, however, keep some of those in attendance from eating their dessert.

The subject, though lighthearted at times, bears undeniably serious considerations for the role of diet and nutrition in the health of our U.S. population as well as the health of our healthcare system. Outgoing President of the Friends, Eithan Kotkowski, was on hand to introduce Mr. Taubes and pass the gavel on to incoming Friends President, Dr. Anand Karnad. Mr. Kotkowski has also written a more detailed account of Mr. Taube’s work in an article for The Pipette Gazette.

July 2018 Historical Book of the Month


This month’s historical book selection is The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is, with all the kinds, causes, symptoms, prognostics & several cures of it. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically opened & cut up, by Robert Burton [Democritus Junior] (1576-1640).  Initially published in 1621, Burton edited and augmented four subsequent editions, and packed his psychological tome with a mix of humor, popular 17th century theory, and boundless lists of symptoms, causes, remedies, and  cures for the mysterious “black-hole”.

Robert Burton


Ironically, The Anatomy of Melancholy has its share of whimsy. Burton’s notable sense of humor is initially revealed by his choice of pen name, Democritus Junior. The first Democritus (c. 460 B.C.E. – c. 370 B.C.E.) is known as the laughing philosopher, and Burton’s comic wit is evident throughout his writing, especially in the satirical preface: Democritus to the Reader.

Burton himself was a vicar, mathematician, and philologist. He reportedly wrote to help sort through his own personal fight with melancholy. However, he “increased it to such a degree, that nothing could make him laugh, but going to the bridge-foot and hearing the ribaldry of the bargemen, which rarely failed to throw him into a violent fit of laughter”.

Burton’s work is heavily referenced with Latin, French, Greek, and biblical citations, eager to provide evidence for his ruminations. Within his myriad of divergent contemplations, he examines the relationship between depression and love, beauty, geography (including hot countries prone to jealousy), anatomy of the body and soul, bloodletting and the horse-leech, diet, digestion, drink, bad air, idleness, shame, disgrace, scholarly melancholy, and even cause from an undesirable wet nurse.


Frontispiece in 1632 edition

Visit the P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library to experience firsthand our treasured 1632 edition of this classic tour de force.  Get a closer look at the detailed frontispiece and read Burton’s interesting interpretations for each illustrated compartment in “The Argument of the Frontispiece”. If you would like to check out a facsimile of this hefty book, there is a copy in the circulating stacks on the fourth floor.

For more information on the collections of the P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library, contact us via email: special


Diane Fotinos, MLIS student




We Have a Winner!: The 2018 History of the Health Sciences Essay Award

On March 29, the winner of the Danny Jones History of the Health Sciences Essay Award, Farhan Ahmad, was presented with a check by Senior Director of Libraries Owen Ellard. Farhan won the 2018 competition with his essay, Knee History: From Early Developments to the Total Knee Replacement. The annual $500 award is sponsored by the Friends of the P.I Nixon Medical Historical Library.

Farhan will be giving a presentation on his essay on April 24 at 3:30 p.m. on the 5th floor of the Briscoe Library. The presentation will cap off activities during the UT Health Library Student Fiesta and will lead into the P.I. Nixon Library Fiesta Open House also happening on the 24th.

Farhan is a first year medical student at the Long School of Medicine, and is interested in pursuing a career in Orthopaedic Surgery. He graduated from UTSA’s Honors College in the FAME B.S./M.D. program. His essay topic is a historical review of advancements in knee care from major time points in recorded human history.

“The knee,” Farhan explains, “when diseased or broken, is like any part of the body in that it tells a story. However, there is scarce documentation of medical history regarding knee injuries and developments. I found that many advancements in knee care (both operative and non-operative) contributed to and came from general advancements in the history of medicine. Some advancements were helpful to the patient while others may not have been. Ultimately, in every civilization across time, the knee was a universal concern and human curiosity pushed forth new ideas, which I aimed to capture in my essay. As the rates of knee osteoarthritis continue to increase in the U.S., my paper is a timely meditation on the progress we have made so far, as well as a reminder that there is much to discover.”

March 2018 Historical Book of the Month

This month’s book pick is The True Prophecies or Prognostications of Michael Nostradamus by Nostradamus, translated by Theophilus de Garencières 1672, 1st edition.

Nostradamus is the Latinized name of Michel de Nostredame, a French astrologer, physician, and prophet. He is famous for his prophecies in his publication Centuries, which was originally published in his native French in 1555.

The True Prophecies or Prognostications of Michael Nostradamus, or Centuries, is a collection of quatrains in groupings of a hundred which foretell events of all manner of calamity and historical/political resonance. However, the predictions are vague, do not follow chronological order, and were written in a mix of French, Greek, Latin, and Occitan, and critics argue that this lack of specificity allows them to be applied to multitudes of events. On the other hand, this absence of linguistic continuity and use of cryptic poetic verse to express his prophecies is seen by some scholars as his efforts to evade the Inquisition.

This first edition English edition was translated by Theophilus de Garencières, also a French apothecary and physician, who lived and practiced medicine in London, England.

It’s easy to see what drew Theophilus and so many others to Nostradamus’ book of prophecies. Anything from the age when medicine was “the healing arts” feels mystical and gives off major Hogwarts vibes. View a digitized copy through Google Books.

Title page of The True Prophecies or Prognostications of Michael Nostradamus. P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library.



Nostradamus. (2017, December 14). Retrieved December 19, 2017, from

Les Propheties. (2017, November 12). Retrieved December 19, 2017, from

Theophilus de Garencières. (2017, December 04). Retrieved December 19, 2017, from

Nostradamus, M. (1672). The True Prophecies or Prognostications of Michael Nostradamus (T. D. Garencières, Trans.). London: Ratcliffe.

Mikkelson, D. (Ed.). (2016, September 09). FALSE: Nostradamus and 9/11. Retrieved December 19, 2017, from


-Veronica Franco, Library Intern

Treasures from the P.I. Nixon Library: Gold Stemmed Pessaries



Check out the latest blog entry from the Treasures of the P.I. Nixon Library:  Gold Stemmed Pessaries: A Shadow of the Past

Gold Stemmed Pessaries: A Shadow of the Past


Although the above medical device appears to just be a thingamajig from the local hardware store, it is not. It is a spring-stem wishbone pessary first developed in Germany in the 1880s and used through the late 1930s. Generally, today’s medical pessaries are used for three types of issues: a supportive device for organ prolapse, a vaginal suppository for delivering pharmacologic preparations, and birth control. The type of spring-stem wishbone pessary found in the Nixon Library is described as a remedy for uterine malposition or bleeding complaints, yet it is also widely recognized as an early modern intrauterine device.

Stones and Goop

The word pessary derives from the Greek word pessόs, which means oval stone similar to ones used in ancient checkers.  Historically, stone pessaries were used to remedy organ prolapse, and women in New Zealand were noted to place pebbles in the uterus to foster sterility. Stories abound of small rocks inserted into the uteri of camels during long desert journeys to disrupt the uterine cavity and prevent pregnancy. Uterine stones could not have been at all comfortable for woman or beast (yikes!).

Along with stones, an understanding of barrier contraceptive methods have been documented for thousands of years. Inventive birth control mixtures, often combined with magic and ritual, might include viscous pastes of honey, rancid oil, animal dung, tree resin, dates, or fermented acadia leaves soaked with lint.

By the time the late 19th century rolled around, pessaries evolved to include metal cervico-uterine models.  Physician Carl Hollweg patented a wishbone pessary in 1902 designed to “support the uterus”, and specifically, “prevent excessive and abnormal bending of this organ and to obviate and break apart any abnormal growth of tissue. . . ”. Considering Hollweg’s description, it seems its role in birth control was an unintended discovery. During the cervico-uterine heyday, the most well known wishbone spring-stem pessary in the United States was the Ideal, also known as the brooch, the butterfly, or the wishbone stem.

Arrangements and Regrets

Proper placement of the wishbone spring-stem pessary required a visit to a physician. The two flexible arms were squeezed together to create a linear form and encased in a gelatinous material to facilitate entry into the uterus. After insertion, the pessary’s concave button rested against the the external os and the spring stem sat within the cervical canal. When the gel casing melted due to body temperature, the arms would spring out laterally and the oval tips maintained the device’s position within the uterine cavity. Due to infection concerns, a physician typically left the wishbone pessary in place for only two to three months before removal. Once the uterus was free from a foreign object for several months, the pessary was reinserted.

It eventually became clear that using a stem pessary, which left the uterus vulnerable to pathogens, could be dangerous. Wishbone stem pessaries fell out of favor as evidence of infection, uterine perforation, and death began to mount. Additionally, some women who used this type of pessary for bPerforated uterus due to spring-stem pessaryirth control experienced a level of unreliability resulting in unintended pregnancy. These multiple side effects prompted improved intrauterine designs similar to what we see today.

Out of the Shadows

The Nixon Library owns two examples of gold-filled wishbone spring-stem pessaries. One is stamped “14K”, is approximately 0.5 inches in in diameter, and 2.5 inches in length.  The other is marked “GOLD”, approximately 1.0 inch in diameter, and 2.5 inches in length.  A concave disc supports a coiled stem at which two thin metal arms with flat, oval tipped ends project into a “V” position.

It would be our pleasure to bring these pessaries out of the historical shadows for viewing.  If you would like to examine these golden pessaries in person, please contact Mellisa DeThorne at


Cooper, J. F. (1928). Technique of contraception. New York, NY: Day-Nichols

Himes, N. E. (1934). Medical history of contraception. The New England Journal of Medicine, 210(11), 576-581.

Hollweg, C. (1902). U.S. Patent No. 709675. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Retrieved August 2017 from:

Oliver, R., Thakar, R., & Sultan, A. H. (2011). The history and usage of the vaginal pessary: A review. European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, 156(2), 125-130.

Image sources:

Fotinos, D. (2017). Gold Spring-Stem Pessaries [Digital photograph].

Penetration of the uterus by gold stem pessary. [Online photograph]. Retrieved August 2017 from: doi:10.1001/jama.1933.27420190001008

[Untitled photograph of spring stem pessary with box]. Retrieved August 2017 from:

-Diane Fotinos, B.S., PA

August 2016 Historical Book of the Month

The August 2016 Historical Book of the Month highlights the oldest resource in the P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library, De Medicina, published in Milan in 1481.

Image of book: De Medicina by Celsus

Aulus Cornelius Celsus was a first-century Roman historian who compiled this set of treatises as a home health reference for wealthy Patrician families. It includes principles of good surgery, dental practices, proper diet, and herbal remedies. De Medicina was rediscovered in the late Middle Ages and chosen as one of the first medical texts to be set in type.

For more information on the collections of the P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library, contact Andrea Schorr, Head of Resource Management, at or 210-567-2403.

July 2016 Historical Book of the Month

Skeleton image from Osteographia by Cheselden

This month’s featured historical treasure is Osteographia, or The Anatomy of the Bones by William Cheselden. Published in London in 1753, this exquisite volume includes depictions of human and animal skeletons in interesting vignettes and in lifelike poses. His artists, Gerard van der Gucht and Jacob Schijnvoet, were the first to use the camera obscura to create more accurate engravings for book illustration.

For more information on the collections of the P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library, contact Andrea Schorr, Head of Resource Management, at or 210-567-2403.

June 2016 Historical Book of the Month

Image scanned from Charles Bell's Illustrations of the Great Operations of Surgery

The June 2016 Historical Book of the Month features the artistic masterpiece, Illustrations of the Great Operations  of Surgery: Trepan, Hernia, Amputation, Aneurism, and Lithotomy by Charles Bell published in London in 1821. Sir Charles Bell was a Scottish surgeon, neurologist, and anatomist and namesake of such structures and phenomena as Bell’s Nerve, Bell’s Palsy, and Bell’s Spasm. This classic work in the history of surgery includes 20 engraved plates of Charles Bell’s own drawings of operations he performed over the course of 20 years.

For more information on the collections of the P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library, contact Andrea Schorr, Head of Resource Management, at or 210-567-2403.