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The Fifteeners: Incunabula at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine

The Countway Library of Medicine is embarking on an ambitious and long-needed project to describe and to catalog fully its holdings of incunabula and to make online descriptions of these items accessible to scholars and researchers for the first time. In conjunction with this project, an exhibit of the library's incunabula, which is entitled "The Fifteeners," opens on October 10. "The Fifteeners" highlights some of the extraordinary treasures in the Countway's incunabula collection and allows the public a glimpse of these rarest of printed medical works. Among the unusual items on display are: a description from Thucydides of the 5th-century plague at Athens; the first German edition of the lavishly illustrated Nuremberg Chronicle; a 1494 almanac predicting solar and lunar eclipses; the first full-length illustration of muscle dissection; the first printing of a medical treatise in Hebrew; and the first Latin edition of the Hippocratic Oath.

Incunabula or incunables are the very first examples of books, pamphlets, and broadsides printed with moveable type in Western Europe. The term "incunable" derives from the Latin word cunabula for "cradle" or "origin," hinting at their status as the earliest of all books. Incunabula are also sometimes referred to as "fifteeners" from their appearance in the fifteenth century.

Despite their European origins, incunabula can be found in library collections throughout the United States today. The Countway Library of Medicine, with over 800 items, holds the largest collection of medical incunabula in the country and one of the finest collections of this type in the world. Works by Avicenna, Albertus Magnus, Bernard of Gordon, Hieronymus Brunschwig, Guy de Chauliac, Michele Savonarola, and Johannes Trithemius, are all well represented in the collection, as are books on virtually every facet of medical knowledge. Works on pharmacy, botany, natural history, witchcraft, alchemy, astrology, poetry, and philosophy are also included. All of the books and woodcuts in the exhibit have been drawn from the collections of the Boston Medical Library and the Harvard Medical Library.

"The Fifteeners" will be on display in the L-2 display area of the Countway through March 2002. For further information, contact Jack Eckert, reference librarian, at 2-6207 or

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Last modified on Thursday, April 18, 2002.