First Monday Library Chat: University of Glasgow Library

Welcome back to First Monday Library Chat. This month, we travel to Scotland to chat with Sarah Hepworth, Assistant Librarian of Special Collections at the University of Glasgow Library.

As a recipe enthusiast, John Ferguson’s Bibliographical Notes on Books of Inventions and Books of Secrets is a well-thumbed volume on my book shelf. The Ferguson collection is a key collection at the University of Glasgow Library, could you share some more details with your readers?

John Ferguson (1838-1916), was a bibliographer and Regius Professor of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow from 1874 to 1915. He was an excellent teacher by all accounts, though his caustic sense of humour may have accounted for his nickname ‘Soda’. Ferguson was fascinated by the history of science and his writings and collecting reflect that. We hold some 7,500 volumes from his library and the main strengths are in alchemy, chemistry and related topics such as ‘books of secrets’. So, a mix of medical and culinary recipes, and the ‘magic’ of turning base metals into gold.

An-y.10 38r
Sp Coll Ferguson An-y.10 from the Ferguson collection (Image courtesy of University of Glasgow Library)

The Ferguson collection includes over 300 manuscripts and over 100 incunabula (books printed before 1501). In fact, the current Ingenious Impressions exhibition showcasing the Library’s 15th century books, includes some of his acquisitions. One of these, Summa perfectionis magisterii, (Rome: 1486-90), is a book on alchemy to which an early owner has added extensive handwritten notes including an index and illustrations of apparatus, which suggests the text may have been put to practical use. (Sp Coll Ferguson An-y.10)

The collection includes well-known 17th century publications such as The Mysteries of Nature and Art by John Bate and books on household management by Hannah Woolley including The ladies directory. The manuscript works date from the 15th to the 18th centuries. Many of these are anonymous but some have named authors, including ‘Mary Harrison her Book 1692’ (MS Ferguson 61). Among the recipes Harrison has noted down are a cure for the plague and a formula for ‘Stuff to rub mens shoes & bouts with to prevent soking in water’

For historians of medicine, it is almost impossible to talk about the University of Glasgow Library without thinking about the Hunterian collection. Could you give us an idea of the scope of the recipe texts within the Hunterian collection? What kinds of knowledge are represented?

William Hunter (1718-1783), anatomist, physician and teacher of medicine, collected over 10,000 printed books and over 650 manuscripts. Around a third of his library relates to medicine, both contemporary 18th century texts and many historical works. Within this vast resource are alchemical volumes, a number of anonymous books of ‘receipts’ and major works including illustrated manuscript copies of medical treatises by the renowned 14th century surgeon John of Arderne (MS Hunter 112 and MS Hunter 251) These include examples of plants and herbs to be used in making curative recipes.

The anonymous works date from the 14th cent onwards and include ‘An excellente Black Salve for Wounds Staines or Bruises (MS Hunter 95) and a Case-book for Ward Patients in St Thomas’s Hospital, 1745 (MS Hunter 494).

Aside from the Ferguson and Hunterian collections, are there other gems to which you might like to draw our readers’ attention?

Yes, there are a number of fascinating works in our general manuscript collection, which have been acquired from various sources. These include 5th century medical recipes written on papyrus ‘for a purge, for curing strangury and wounds’ (MS Gen 1026/16) and an anonymous 17th century compilation of medical cures and recipes. This contains over 270 cures with subjects ranging from relatively minor matters, such as nose bleeds, through cures ‘For the Bite of a Mad Dog’ and, more seriously, ‘To know if a wounded man shall live or die’. Some ailments are listed under astrological signs and there are examples of more unusual ingredients such as the lungs of a fox for a cure for shortness of breath. (MS Gen 575).

Recipes crop up in other collections too, notably a handwritten cookbook by Anna Whistler (1804-1881), whose artist son, James McNeill Whistler, was very appreciative of her cooking. One of her cake recipes was recently put to the test by one of my Special Collections colleagues and described on our Library blog.

Finally, for those of us who living afar, could you tell us a little about we might be able to consult your rich holdings both via digitization schemes and via virtual exhibitions?

Links to our digitised books and manuscripts are available here. You can find our virtual exhibitions here.

Can you give us a few highlights from your collection? OR Can you highlight one or two of your favourite items?

I love the mysterious and vibrant illustrations for The Crowning of Nature, which shows alchemical work taking place in flasks. We have a number of copies and this fiery serpent is from MS Ferguson 230, dated to the 1630s.

MS Ferguson 230 from the Ferguson collection (Image courtesy of University of Glasgow Library)

More unexpectedly, but another great find, is a brief recipe for making a ‘fountain firework’, written into a notebook belonging to the artist and writer Alasdair Gray (b 1934), which contains drafts for his groundbreaking novel Lanark (published 1981).

What tips can you offer to help users find them via your catalog or finding aids? or Do you have some tips for how we might search the catalogues?

For manuscripts, searching for the keyword ‘recipe’ (with optional date and language limits) will return useful results from our online manuscripts search (link here).

For Rare books, a subject search for ‘materia medica’ will return a variety of relevant results (link here).

Keyword searches for ‘recipe’ or ‘recipes’ or ‘receipts’ may return further items not covered by a subject search.

If an item from the Hunterian or Ferguson collections catches your eye, it may be worth looking at items with adjacent call numbers, as similar material is often grouped together.

The following Collection/Subject pages may also be useful:

Ferguson collection

Hunterian collection


Thanks Sarah! Next month Amanda Herbert will be talking to Alan Jutzi and Shelley Kresan at the Huntington Library. Stay tuned for more from the First Monday Library Chat team.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Elaine Leong (April 13, 2015). First Monday Library Chat: University of Glasgow Library. The Recipes Project. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from

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