Medicine and Natural History Exhibition in the Russell Library for Maynooth University Library Publications Festival

by Mary Robinson, Special Collection & Archives

As part of the annual Maynooth University Library Publications Festival, the Russell Library is hosting a one day exhibition entitled Medicine and Natural History, showcasing some of the Library’s oldest works relating to the sciences. Here is a brief history of some of the items on display which include The Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle vol. IV which Boyle bloodcontains Memoirs for the Natural History of Human Blood (1744). This was once praised as ‘the most important of Boyle’s medical writings’ but upon publication the general reception was less enthusiastic suggesting Boyle presented findings that were outdated and already published. Born in Lismore, Co Waterford in 1627, Boyle was the 7th son of the Earl of Cork and one of Ireland’s most important scientists. He is most known for devising Boyle’s Law and many experiments with air and discovering the necessity of it for combustion and the transmission of sound.


Also on display is the appendix to Sir John Sinclair’s pamphlet The Code of Health and Longevity which describes, with images, eight very elderly persons

Petratsch Zortan lived to 185

from the age of 112 to 185 years. Petratsch Zortan, at 185 years, had ‘…little sight and his hair and beard were of a greenish white colour, like mouldy bread…’ The secret to his long life involved ‘Being a Greek by religion, the old man was a strict observer of fasts, and never used any food but milk and cakes…together with a good glass of brandy’.  An Irishwoman, Catherine the Countess of Desmond, apparently lived over 140 years, dying in the reign of King James I.

Countess of Desmond lived for over 140 years

She ‘retained her full vigour in a very advanced period of life’ having ‘…twice or trice renewed her teeth’.



Continuing the theme of longevity, the 1683 text by Francis Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum or A Natural History in Ten Centuries, discusses ‘the history, natural and experimental of life and death or the prolongation of life’. Among the chapter headings include Length and Shortness of Life in Man, Medicines for Long Life, the Operation upon the Bowels for the Extrusion of Aliment and The Porches of Death. Bacon proposes ‘Islanders are, for the most part, longer-liv’d than those that live in Continents: for they live not to [sic] long in Russia as in the Orcades…and the Japonians [sic] are longer-liv’d than the Chinese…’ He goes on to suggest ‘the countries which have been observed to produce long-livers are: Arcadia, ᴁtolia…Brazil, Britain, Ireland, with the islands of the Orcades and Hebrides.’ If one would appreciate a long life, one thing to do is look after the stomach ‘which as they say is the master of the house…’

Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

The stomach should be ‘clean, not surcharged with foul humours and yet not altogether empty or hungry: …it is to be kept ever in appetite, because appetite sharpens digestion’. However, a long life can be shortened by sudden death with a list of possible culprits including, not surprisingly ‘…a great blow on the head induceth sudden death, the Spirits being frightened within the ventricles of the brain….also extreme drunkenness or extreme feeding sometimes cause sudden death…’ and ‘…joys, excessive and sudden have bereft many of their lives’.

Among the natural history titles on display is Giovanni Alfonso Borelli’s  De Motu Animalium or On the Movement of Animals which was first published posthumously in 1685. Borelli was an Italian physiologist and physicist acquainted with Galleo Galilei. While in the post of Head of Mathematics at the University of Pisa, Borelli met the Italian anatomist Marcello Malpighi and in 1657 they co-founded the short-lived Accademia del Cimento, a scientific academy. At this time Borelli began a fascination with the science of animal movement or biomechanics, eventually earning him the title the Father of Biomechanics. In De Moto Animalium, Borelli compares animals to machines and employs mathematics to prove his theories. The anatomists of the 17th century were the first to suggest the contractile movement of muscles. Borelli, however, was the first to suggest that ‘muscles do not exercise vital movement otherwise than by contracting’. Borelli recognised that forward motion entailed movement of a body’s centre of gravity forward, which was then followed by the swinging of its limbs in order to maintain balance. His studies extended beyond muscle and locomotion. In particular he likened the action of the heart to that of a piston. For this to work properly he derived the idea that the arteries have to be elastic. Forced into exile in 1668, for suspected involvement in political conspiracies, Borelli lived his remaining years in poverty, teaching basic mathematics at a convent school.

The exhibition includes many more treasures on medicine and natural history. The oldest on show is Principia Philosophiae by René Descartes. Printed in 1650. It includes 4 of Descartes works including the essay Dioptrices. In it Descartes uses various models to understand the properties of light. It was his greatest contribution to optics.

The exhibition will run on Wednesday 27th January from 10am to 1pm and from 2pm to 5pm. A guided tour will be held at 12pm.



  1. Hunter and H. Knight (eds), Unpublished Material Relating to Robert Boyle’s Memoirs for the Natural History of Human Blood


One thought on “Medicine and Natural History Exhibition in the Russell Library for Maynooth University Library Publications Festival

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s