MTSU library peers into ‘The American Body,’ circa...

MTSU library peers into ‘The American Body,’ circa 19th century

A fascinating combination of tradition, superstition and science characterizes the medical profession in the fledgling years of this country.

American Body exhibit poster web“The American Body: Medicine, Malady, and Morality in 19th Century Print,” an exhibit on display in the fourth-floor special collections area of MTSU’s James E. Walker Library, contains rare books that offer a glimpse into that era.

The exhibit will remain on display from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday through this summer and into early fall.

“It’s probably one of the more ambitious exhibits that we’ve done,” said Dr. Alan Boehm, director of special collections.

Dr. Alan Boehm

Dr. Alan Boehm

The books range from those that espouse the philosophy of New Hampshire farmer Samuel Thompson, who advocated using herbs to promote healing, to eclectic medicine, a practice combining herbs with professional training and a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy and physiology.

Catherine Beecher, the sister of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” author Harriet Beecher Stowe, has two books included in the MTSU exhibit.

Her “Treatise on Domestic Economy,” published in 1847, outlined how a woman could run a healthy household. “Physiology and Calisthenics” advocated exercise, diet and less restrictive dress as ways to make women healthier — quite radical views when the book was published in 1858.

Books such as “Gunn’s Domestic Medicine or the Poor Man’s Friend” (1837) and “Medical Advisor” (1860), a how-to book by Nashville physician Rezin Thompson, emphasized self-reliance and disdain of leaving medicine to “elitists.”

Overlapping page leaves show the reader different layers of the human skull in “Outlines of Anatomy and Physiology," a 19th century book on exhibit now at MTSU's James E. Walker Library.

A pop-up style page lets the reader look inside the human torso in “Outlines of Anatomy and Physiology,” a 19th century book on exhibit now at MTSU’s James E. Walker Library.

Physician Frederick Hollick used a diagram that opened to different views of the body’s internal organs as the reader turned back different leaves in the 1847 “Outlines of Anatomy and Physiology,” shown at left. Hollick’s teachings on sexual health were so blunt for the time that he was tried twice — but not convicted — on obscenity charges.

Emma Edwards claimed to have masqueraded as a Union soldier while nursing injured troops in “Nurse and Spy in the Union Army” (1865), although historians doubt her claims of convincing other soldiers that she was a man.

Edwards’ account, however, illustrated the desperate need for progress in the medical field during the Civil War, when more men died from disease and poor hygiene and sanitation than of war wounds.

“An awful lot of what was practiced was simply not evidence-based,” Boehm said.

logo for MTSU's James E. Walker LibrarySome books were printed on hand presses and with letterpresses, but others were printed by placing a plate on a repeating press, said Boehm. All materials must be kept cool in climate-controlled conditions to preserve them.

“You’re dealing with scarce materials,” Boehm said. “It’s not like there’s a marketplace out there where these objects are always on sale. You have to wait, and you build it slowly.”

The library is beginning to fashion more special-collections exhibits based on the way they fit into a theme or a narrative rather than calling attention to their physical features, Boehm said.

“We’re beginning to get a critical mass where we can actually tell stories,” he added.

For more information, contact Special Collections at 615-904-8501 or go to

Gina K. Logue (