From the Archives: On Finding Rare Books - Waxing Poetic

hippocrates-aphorismsIt is a very small book, just 14cm in length and 7.5 cm wide and 4 cm thick. It is the 1638 edition of Hippocratis coi Aphorismi. It is a marvel to behold and an amazing thing to hold. The soft, yellowed vellum binding is cool to the touch and completely unembellished, while the text-block edges are rough cut and stained tea brown. The cover of the spine is slightly separated revealing the narrow leather thong holding the stiff cover to the text block. In hand lettering, it reads: Hippocrates Heurnio. The paper has a slightly sandy texture and nary is a page torn. Hippocrates wrote Aphorisms in 400 B.C.E.

And how did it happen to come to us… this valuable and rare edition? There are only two clues left to us. Revealing the tiny manuscript's custodial history are two bookplates glued to the endpapers. One bookplate displays a coat-of-arms and a banner which reads: Prodess Quam Conspici, below in a lovely script is the name Peter Nouaille, Greatnefs. This I have learned is Peter Nouaille of Greatness, Kent, England, a breeder of silk worms who had built a silk mill on a tributary of the River Thames at Seven Oaks. "This mill was built in 1761. Peter came into the possession of the manorial watermill on marrying Elizabeth de la Mare of Greatness. Nouaille went bankrupt in 1778 but recovered, employing 100 people when he retired in 1800. It closed down after Nouaille's death c1828." The mills on the river's tributaries were immortalized in the poem Ode on the Silk Mills at Greatness by Joseph Harrison.

How Peter Nouaille came into possession of this charming little book, and how dear Peter was divested of it, we shall most assuredly never know. But on an auspicious (for us) but obscure date, another custodian came into possession; when and how we cannot divine. But we do know his name because we find the second clue… a book plate belonging to the Medical School Library with the inscription: "Presented by J. Ettelson, M.D."

Jesse Ettelson, MD, was born in Sprague, Washington in 1885, the son of Washington pioneers. He graduated from the Washington State University and the University of Illinois, gaining his Doctorate of Medicine from Rush Medical School in 1910. He went on to graduate studies at the Vanderhill Clinic in New York, where he studied dermatology, and studied also at the University of Vienna in Austria. He came to Portland and served his internship at Good Samaritan Hospital and was one of the first dermatology specialists in Portland. He taught for a number of years at the University of Oregon Medical School and practiced in Portland until his retirement in 1941. He died at his home on a Thursday in 1968.

How then can we imagine Ettelson coming upon this book? Was he strolling along the street of some city in Europe, or in New York or even in Portland?  Had he entered a small dim book store and found the small volume of interest? Did he pick it up, examine it and found it as lovely as I have on this dark and rainy day? Perhaps.

You can find the lovely poetic work in translation from the Latin and the Greek  You can see other copies that have been scanned at Google Books. But the real thrill to be found is beyond its content and lies within the context of the object and its history. Oh! The joy of rare book collections.


Written by: Karen Lea Anderson Peterson, Archivist - Assistant Professor, Historical Collections & Archives