Category Archives: Libraries, Archives & Museums

William Hunter: Recipe Collector

By Anke Timmermann

Historical collections provide wonderful glimpses into the minds of exceptional individuals. Objects, once placed into collection contexts, silently embody the interests and personalities of their collectors. Their organisation within a collection demonstrates a certain, historical way of navigating the world of knowledge. And taken individually, each object taunts us with questions about its raison d’être: how did this get here, and what does it mean?

The Hunterian, Glasgow. Image by Anne (I like) on Flickr.
The Hunterian, Glasgow. Image by Anne (I like) on Flickr.

I recently decided to trace the ‘collective’ history of an alchemical manuscript featured in my previous blog post. GUL MS Hunter 110 escaped the fate of damage by water, fire or other destructive, if not alchemical, elements, thanks to William Hunter (1718-1783), Scottish anatomist and founder of what is now The Hunterian at Glasgow University. During a lifetime spent mostly in London (eventually eclipsed by his younger brother, surgeon John Hunter), with strong connections to Glasgow and Paris, Hunter became famous in medical circles for his work on the gravid (pregnant) uterus. He was also a teacher both brilliant and popular with medical students. Alongside his research, practice and teaching Hunter gathered thousands of books and objects relating to anatomy, natural history and art, from familiar and far-away lands, and dating from various periods of time. The mentioned alchemical volume is only one of ca. 650 Hunterian manuscripts.[1]

Despite their humble appearance, Hunter’s manuscripts may be the most intriguing part of his collections. Acquired at a time when manuscripts were cheap and generally unappreciated, they include Western and oriental items, medieval, Renaissance and contemporary treatises, and cover medical and chymical, historical and theological and linguistic themes. Some of them are likely to have come to him as part of bulk acquisitions at auctions. But what motivated Hunter’s hunt for manuscripts in general, and how did they merge with his other collections, a material lexicon of world knowledge?[2] The recipes in Hunter’s manuscripts throw some light onto these questions, especially those situated between the disciplines of medicine and chemistry.[3]

Among the various items related to materia medica, pharmacy and prescriptions in Hunter’s collections, those written by his mentor, anatomist and accoucheur (‘man-midwife’) James Douglas are noteworthy. In addition to treatises on surgical procedures Douglas also produced notes on medicinal plants including tea, a history of chocolate and bibliographical notes on authors on saffron, and a very interesting record of ‘Chymical potions made by my order at Mr Durhams Laboratory in Cheesewell Street London. 1723’.[4] All of these would have been of interest to Hunter on the page, in his professional life in London, and as a legacy of a beloved teacher and friend – they were in his possession before his thirtieth birthday, seven years after Douglas’s death.

William Hunter, The anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures (1774)
William Hunter, The anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures (1774)

In some ways, Douglas’s medico-pharmacological writings, then, represent the logical core of Hunter’s more wide-ranging interests in recipes, which extended back to the twelfth century.[5] Hunter’s fragmentary copy of the ‘Pharmacopoeia Londinensis’ of 1650 (and thus predating Hunter’s medical practice by a century and by several reviewed versions of the edict), may be considered within this context: it shows a merging of Douglas’s contemporary interests and Hunter’s investigation of the history of pharmacy and its practices.[6]

In this light Hunter’s copy of the ‘Cursus Chemicus’ of Christopher White, Professor of Chemistry at Oxford (d. 1696), too, emerges as more than a noteworthy excursion into medico-chemistry. Continued by White’s son or later descendant (up to 1755), it contains generations of recipe reception: ‘sets of receipts, medical and culinary’, ‘receipts for Cattle Distemper’ with newspaper clippings, an advertisement for the cinnabar/quicksilver mines of Almadén and for a cure ‘for the bite of a mad dog’, among other things.[7] This accumulation of materials appears as wondrous as that of Hunter’s collected objects.

Here and elsewhere, it seems that Hunter’s books and things, recipes and materials intersect in various ways. Indeed, the thought of a history of collections written through the history of recipes seems positively gravid with possibilities. Might an interdisciplinary study of Hunter’s collections give birth to a more integrated history of science?


[1] Hunter’s DNB biography was written by Helen Brock, who has also published extensively on the man and his collections. Information on Hunter’s life mentioned throughout this blog post is based on the DNB article.

[2] See e.g. this recent talk on Hunter’s book collections: Francesca Mackay, ‘Hunter’s Book Collection: The man and his time’. Manuscripts from the library of William Hunter are listed with the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections.

[3] Recipes have not been researched in detail for Hunter’s collections to date: Neil R. Ker, William Hunter as a collector of medieval manuscripts (Glasgow: 1983), which I was not able to access, does not seem to consider the recipe genre in itself. This older but more inclusive article merely mentions ‘some medical prescriptions’ among sundry items within the collections: Charles Illingworth, ‘William Hunter’s manuscripts and letters: the Glasgow collection’, Med Hist. 15 (1971), 181–186.

[4] Presumably Chiswell St. GUL MS Hunter 624.

[5] Early relevant items are, in roughly chronological order, GUL MSS Hunter 64, 435, 190, 95, 117, and others.

[6] GUL MS Hunter 243 (Pharmacopoeia Londinensis and anonymous medical notes). See also, for example, GUL MS Hunter 626, for which one of Douglas’s children is listed as an amanuensis, entitled Catalogus Pharmacorum (with a section dedicated to a Catalogus Chymicum).

Victorian Recipes and Public History: My Visit to the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion

By: Michelle DiMeo

As an active academic scholar who recently started working for a cultural institution, I’ve become increasingly interested in how the sources I use for professional historical research can be recast for a wider public audience. Recipe books tend to be an easy genre for public history and outreach: off hand, I can think of more public books than scholarly books about historical recipes. That said, not all of these are done well, and I particularly appreciate public histories that include thoughtful reflection on the original historical context, and those which can integrate museum and library collections to provide a more complete look at how the texts were actually used.

An event I recently attended at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion – a 17-room Victorian mansion in Philadelphia –  offered a creative, interactive way for guests to learn about historical recipes. Upstairs Downstairs Celebration was the opening event for the Mansion’s new interpretive tour focusing on the challenges and enjoyments of Victorian women across all socio-economic levels. Recipes were not the focus of the event, but were instead integrated into a much larger program. Guests entered the Mansion and were taken into an elaborate dining room, where we were invited to choose a pin featuring a Victorian woman’s portrait. Everyone from suffragists to recipe book writers, and from prostitutes to medical doctors, were represented. (As a medical humanist, it seemed appropriate that I chose Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to receive an MD, though I did seriously consider Philadelphian Eliza Leslie, who wrote nine cookbooks between 1827 and 1857!) Connected to the dining room was the well-preserved nineteenth-century kitchen, where the imposing black iron stove and over-sized kitchen utensils caught my eye before spotting the free champagne and Victorian finger-foods on the table. Guests wandered between the kitchen and dining room, exploring historical artifacts and textual reproductions that served as good conversation-starters.

Victorian Stove, Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion
Victorian Stove – Image courtesy of the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion

Becky Diamond, author of Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School, was available to answer questions and share interesting facts about the objects the guests viewed. In the kitchen, we could smell the rosewater and fresh nutmeg that Diamond used in the jumbles she baked, which we would later be given as a parting gift (along with her modernized version of the Victorian recipe, adapted from Mrs. Goodfellow’s original). Diamond has recently begun experimenting with the recipes she studies, and she was able to explain the changes in oven temperature, egg size, and available resources today versus the late-nineteenth century. The dining room also contained engaging reproductions of Victorian household guidance books. Who can resist smiling at Mrs. Henderson’s suggestions for a 7-course breakfast party (which, she argued,  were “very fashionable, being less expensive than dinners, and just as satisfactory to guests”) or Mrs. Beeton’s  suggested Bill of Fare for a picnic of 40 people? Of course, reading prescriptive texts in isolation does not give us a completely accurate account of what many Victorian women were actually doing or how they were adapting the guidelines. As such, I appreciated seeing that the Executive Director of the Mansion, Diane Richardson, provided some critical commentary and supplementary images, including an 1881 invitation to a lunch party that Philadelphia socialite Minnie Campbell Wilson (neé Harris) saved in her scrapbook, and a photo of a smaller dinner picnic that was held in the woods of New Jersey in 1888.

Victorian Picnic
Dinner Picnic in New Jersey woods, 1888.  The Library Company of Philadelphia

As I began this post by saying, the event was not explicitly about recipes, and I think this is what I liked most about it. Guests were lured in by a range of other activities broadly related to the history of Victorian women, including the opportunity to do a self-guided tour of the Mansion. We then gathered in the parlor to hear Cordelia Frances Biddle offer an overview of the social and political challenges faced by nineteenth-century American women and to watch actress Megan Edelman read Susan B. Anthony’s Declaration of the Rights of Women of the United States (which Anthony read on July 4, 1876 on the front steps of Independence Hall , Philadelphia). This kick-off event, and the guided tours that will continue on the first Friday evening of every month, will primarily appeal to those with an interest in women’s history and the history of Philadelphia, but it would also interest history-lovers more broadly.

Victorian lunch party invitation
Lunch party invitation, 1881. The Library Company of Philadelphia.

Most people will not attend the Upstairs Downstairs tour to learn specifically about American culinary history, but they will walk away knowing a bit more about it. For me, this was a good example of how a niche sub-field I study as an academic can be intelligently worked into a broader public history event – one providing enough information to encourage critical reflection and engagement with material culture, but not too much information to alienate or overwhelm the non-specialist.

Thank you to Diane Richardson, Becky Diamond and Nicole Joniec for sharing their research materials with me and answering my questions.