William Hunter’s Library: Latin Scientific Poetry

Blog post by Dr David McOmish, Project Assistant, William Hunter’s Library: A Transcription of the Early Catalogues. David will be speaking on ‘Teaching the Scientific Revolution in verse: when poetry ruled the cosmos’ at the Wellcome Library at a workshop on ‘Finding lost science in early modern poetry’ on 22 November 2017. Details here.

Even before the scientific advances of the 16th century, Latin had been the main mode of communication for cultural discourse in Europe more broadly for a millennium. It was still the primary language of medical education in Edinburgh when William Hunter was a student (Lawrence, 162). This is reflected in Hunter’s collection. Before the rediscovery and proliferation of print copies of Greek texts in the early modern period, Latin translations and abridgements of Greek texts provided the literary and intellectual conduit through which Greek natural science was passed. This was often further filtered through Latin translations of Arabic abridgements and translations of those Greek works. Gerard of Cremona was a significant figure in this process. Hunter owned early editions of Gerard’s translations of Arabic abridgements of Greek medical writer Galen (see under Avicenna below), the astronomer and mathematician Ptolemy (Sp Coll Hunterian R.3.4), and the Arabic writer Avicenna/Ibn Sina (Hunter owned nineteen copies of Avicenna’s various works translated into Latin. 15th-century copy at: Sp Coll Hunterian Bw.3.24). Avicenna’s work includes a verse rendering of some medical precepts from Greek and other eastern writers called the Cantica Avicennae. Many of Avicenna’s works in the Hunter collection contain this poem – an interesting stand-alone version with commentary here: Sp Coll Hunterian W.3.10. It was intended for use in the schools, containing as it does many of the precepts of Galen and Hippocrates in verse; in a memorable, digestible form. In schools like Salerno that used this text in the Latin west, there developed a Latin literary tradition of instruction in verse (for helpful overview of this text in an educational setting: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3963335/). A collection of educational poems called the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum produced by the Salernan medical school became popular as an elementary text, with mnemonic verses to help students remember the basics. Hunter owned several copies of this late medieval text, all in Latin (a 1486 edition at: Sp Coll Hunterian Bx.3.46), despite the availability of celebrated vernacular copies, such as the historically significant translation of Sir John Harington (created for the young Prince Henry Stuart’s education; Glasgow University Library has a copy in its Ferguson collection: Sp Coll Ferguson Af-e.63).

The absence of Harington’s translation from Hunter’s collections is interesting. It perhaps shows that Hunter was not simply an assembler of knowledge that just happened to be in Latin. When an edition of a vernacular translation of a text is available, even extremely popular (collectible) and well-used (particularly amongst the well-read), Hunter invariably has the Latin edition. This is true in the verses of the Regimen and Harington’s translation, but it is also true of the prose works of several significant authors. Hunter owned a 1614 (Edinburgh) copy of John Napier’s seminal mathematical work, Mirifici logarithmorum canonis descriptio (Sp Coll Hunterian R.7.20). Edward Wright had translated this work in 1616, not long after the original publication, but Hunter did not own any copies (Glasgow has two copies of Wright’s translation at: Sp Coll Mu54-h.15 and Sp Coll Bi3-l.3). So too with the vernacular translation of a historically-important publication called Fasciculus Medicinae, a collection of medical text from the medieval period edited in the early modern period and printed for the first time in Venice in 1491. It was reprinted in Italian in 1493 (fascimile at Sp Coll g4-b.5-6) with woodcuts containing classicising pictorial representations to ‘illustrate’ the medical treatises. Hunter owned two Latin editions of this text, both  printed in Venice one in 1500 (Sp Coll Hunterian Ds.2.2) and the other in 1522 (Sp Coll Hunterian Z.3.19). Both editions include the 1491-3 images, which were the first printed pictures of anatomy and the body.


A classical contrapposto pose. The first printed anatomical images appeared in Fasciculus Medicinae in 1491. They were reproduced in Hunter’s copy of 1522.

Hunter had an awareness of Latin’s literary and linguistic evolution and its role in the next stage in the history of intellectual culture in the early modern period. In his published anatomy lectures, he speaks of the ‘new’ Latin culture that he believed emerged in Italy from the revival of Greek culture in Italy. He states that this new Latin culture played a large part in initiating ‘the first great revolution in the learning of modern times.’ (Hunter, Lectures, 51) Hunter believed that a Latin literary culture developed by Italians, under the influence of Greek thought, had laid the foundations for an improvement or clearing-up in understanding and expression that helped to articulate new ‘important doctrines, unknown to the ancients’ (Hunter, Lectures, 51). Hunter possessed some very rare copies of two ‘new’ Latin translations by Federic Morel, Regius Professor of Rhetoric at Paris, of two Greek didactic poems, one from Late Antiquity by Paulus Silentiarius, on the curative powers of baths and waters (of which Hunter owned two copies: In Thermas Pythias et Auquarum mircula Carmen, Paris 1598: Sp Coll Hunterian I.8.24 and I.8.31), and another, a fragment, from the first century by Marcellus of Side on medicinal compounds and fish, which was also translated and versified by Morel, (De Remediis ex Picisbus, Paris, 1598: Sp Coll Hunterian I.8.29). He also has two copies of one of the most important new Latin poems on medicine: Italian doctor and poet Giralomo Fracastoro’s ground-breaking didactic poem published in Verona in 1530, entitled Syphilis sive de Morbo Gallico. This poem represents the first detailed account of the sexually transmitted disease syphilis (a term Fracastoro coined). Hunter owned four copies, including a Verona 1530 copy (Sp Coll Hunterian Ab.6.8) and a relatively recent edition printed in London in 1720 (Sp Coll Hunterian Em.1.9). It is noteworthy that these seemingly eccentric poems are on two subjects that are close to Hunter’s heart: curative properties of waters and syphilis. The ubiquity in Hunter’s library of work on waters can be seen in our electronic edition of MR3 here. Also, that Fracastoro’s poem is bound together with a series of prose treatise on syphilis, testifies to the fact that the Syphilis poem was given parity of intellectual esteem with prose works.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider Hunter’s own words when considering the value he must have placed on his significant collection of scientific Latin poetry. Hunter singles out Leonardo da Vinci as ‘the best Anatomist, at that time, in the world’ (Hunter, Lectures, 39). The rigour and precision that Leonardo rendered his subjects is what convinced Hunter of this, and he reveals his admiration for ‘what pains he has taken upon every part of the body…his particular excellence in mechanics and hydraulics, and the attention with which such a man would fully examine and see objects which he was to draw’ (Ibid.). Hunter forcefully affirms the educational potential for the type of finely-wrought, minutely-detailed representation of the body he sees in Leonardo through his discussion on the wax artwork in his own time. After scorning ‘incorrect’ and ‘careless’ wax-works which ‘appear ridiculous to the Anatomist’ (Hunter, Lectures, 56), Hunter affirms that detailed reproductions of the minutiae in waxworks and taxidermy ‘are of infinite service to the art; especially in the hands of teachers’. (Ibid., 57). The rare edition of the Fasciculus and the various editions of didactic poems inhabit the same educational space. They are foundational texts that encourage exploration and the medical mapping of the anatomical universe – an astronomical analogy that Hunter articulates in the opening to his second lecture (Hunter, Lectures, 63). This is science as art. Its audience need to be connoisseurs, versed in the basics, have an eye for detail, and an ability to apprehend systems.

So Hunter’s Latin scientific collections reflects his own specialist interests, and his desire to approach it with rigour, observation, and clear-sighted understanding. The new, arresting (and visually memorable) means to impart elementary medical knowledge, such as wax had fused art and science, and had bridged the gap between theory and reality. The sciences were no longer maxims to be remembered and schools of thought to be digested, but increasingly complex systems to be observed, detailed mechanisms to be apprehended. This perhaps offers another reason for the decline of Latin as the language of science and culture at this time (see McLean, 264-284). The Latin commentary and mnemonic verse traditions, which reflected countless iterations of the age-old battle between prescriptive and descriptive philosophical discourse (especially stoic and epicurean), had run its course. Scientia, the old wisdom of the ancients handed down, was replaced by what we now call science. There is no better way to chart the rise of science than by looking at the setting of Scientia. William Hunter’s library offers a wonderful vantage point to watch the culmination of this colourful parade. Sic transit gloria mundi…


Hunter, William, Two introductory lectures, delivered by Dr. William Hunter, to his last course of anatomical lectures, at his theatre in Windmill-Street: As they were left corrected for the press by himself. To which are added, some Papers relating to Dr. Hunter’s intended plan, for establishing a museum in London, for the improvement of anatomy, Surgery, and Physic. London, 1784. Available at https://dlcs.io/pdf/wellcome/pdf-item/b21441145/0

Lawrence, Christopher, ‘Ornate Physicians and Learned Artisans: Edinburgh Medical Men’ in William Hunter and the Eighteenth-Century Medical World, ed. W. F. Bynum and R. Porter (Cambridge, 2002), 153-176.

McLean, Ralph: ‘The Decline of Latin in the Scottish Universities’ in Neo-Latin Literature and Literary Culture in Early Modern Scotland, ed. Steven J. Reid and David McOmish, Brill Studies in Intellectual History (Leiden, 2016), 264-284.

Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library, Special Collections

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2 replies

  1. A very thoughtful essay.


  1. William Hunter’s Library: Project Launch and Team Blog Posts – Karen Baston

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