Around the Table: Library Chat

Welcome to the latest Around the Table and return to the Recipes Project Library Chat! Today we travel to the Osler Library of the History of Medicine at McGill University in Montreal. I am delighted to speak with Dr. Mary Yearl, Head Librarian at Osler Library. Please note that you will soon find a version of this post on the McGill University Library News Blog, Library Matters.

1. The McGill Library has many items of interest to our readership, particularly in the Osler Library of the History of Medicine and the Cookbook and Menu Collection housed in Rare Books and Special Collections. Could you provide a brief overview of the library’s holdings and research strengths?

The Osler Library was designed by Percy Nobbs to house Sir William Osler’s books and his remains. Here one sees the library in the Strathcona Medical Building, where it opened in 1929. This room was reassembled in its current location in the McIntyre Medical Building in the mid-1960s.

The nucleus of the Osler Library of the History of Medicine is the collection of nearly 8,000 titles left to the McGill Medical Faculty by Sir William Osler when he died in December 1919. The holdings are mainly, but not exclusively, medical. The library is also home to editions of foundational works in the history of science and to a number of literary and theological books collected by Osler. The majority of our items are printed, but we also have sizeable collections of archival materials, artifacts, and some pieces of artwork.

B.O. 53, Assyrian Medical Tablet. Containing such advice as, “‘the emerald plant’ in best beer thou shalt give him to drink,” This Assyrian medical tablet from ca. 700 BCE provides recipes to treat an unnamed eye disease.

Osler’s own collecting with respect to recipes favoured works from England written or published in the 16th and 17th centuries. That said, there are also works in French, German, and Latin, and the earliest item is an 8th-century BCE Assyrian tablet on various treatments for an unspecified eye disease. Of the items that have been added more recently, the 19th and 20th centuries are well represented.

The real wealth of recipe-related items at McGill can be found outside of the Osler, within the Library’s division of Rare Books and Special Collections. The Cookbook and Menu Collection was established in the late 1960s and consists of over 3,800 titles. It is composed primarily of Canadian, American and British material. The bulk of the collection is from the twentieth century, though there are significant nineteenth-century holdings including a long run of editions and revisions of Mrs. Beaton’s Book of Household Management. In addition, there are some eighteenth-century books.

The collection includes a considerable number of ephemeral items containing recipes and produced by flourmills, sugar refiners and other food manufacturers. Cookbooks created by church organizations, women’s clubs, and other community groups form another significant part of the collection. In addition, there are a number of books devoted to home economics. Also within the Rare Books and Special Collections division is the recently-acquired Doncaster Recipes Collection, consisting of culinary and medicinal recipes mainly from the late-eighteenth through the first half of the nineteenth century.

2. Can you highlight a few of your favorite recipes-related items?

François II de Rohan. Medical Recipes and Health Regimens Including Receptes De Plusieurs Expers Medecins Consernantes Diverse Malladies and Other Texts. ca. 1515. Several of the recipes in this manuscript refer to a “Master Bernard,” whose identity is but one of many questions we hope to answer through scholarly research. Note the combination of fine artistic detail and practical medical information.

Without hesitation, our current favourite item is manuscript of medicinal recipes from ca. 1515, recently acquired with an eye towards honouring Sir William Osler as we commemorate the centenary of his death. We are in the early stages of planning a scholarly edition and are truly enthusiastic about the many directions we can go with this work. The work is marvellous aesthetically: it is a deluxe presentation copy with a velvet cover and fine illuminations, given by the Archbishop of Lyons François II de Rohan to his brother, Charles de Rohan-Gié. The manuscript bears clear signs of having been read, with marginal “nota” and the occasional “nota secretum” indicating that this work was not merely admired for its beauty, but was also appreciated for its contents.

Another interesting one is B.O. (Bibliotheca Osleriana) 7591, which in many ways is a standard late medieval recipe manuscript, a copy of John of Burgundy’s Practica phisicalia. This in itself is not remarkable, but in a blog post that appeared in the Osler Library’s former platform, De re medica, Patrick Outhwaite observed that B.O. 7591 had in common with Wellcome MS. 406 the removal of information about male sexuality.

Another local favourite is manuscript B.O. 7586, best known to us as “The Book of the Head,” which is the subject matter of the text bound with Nicholas of Lyra’s Postilla super librum Job. This 15th-century manuscript is part of a larger work that would have offered treatments for all sections of the body, but a deliberate choice was made in this case to include only recipes to treat ailments of the head.

Margaret Parnell, Manuscript commonplace book, rough account book and notebook in pencil and ink, including five pages of home abortion and contraception recipes. Ontario [various places], ca. 1908–1913. The abortifacient and contraceptive recipes recorded in this commonplace book from Ontario, ca. 1908–1913 contain many ingredients that were either identified as poisons (ergot) or which are known as such (sugar of lead), and also includes the curious, “gun powder + whiskey + take freely.”

Many of the less explored recipes come from daybooks, journals, and other sources of vernacular medicine. I was recently reminded of a short section on recipes that appears in a notebook kept by a woman from Ontario in the early years of the 20th century, which we recently acquired but have not yet catalogued. “How to get rid of kids” is the start of a few pages of recipes on abortion and contraception. Fertility recipes are an important part of the history of medicinal recipes, and to see such a stark title is a somewhat ironic reminder of the utter humanity behind the pen. Despite the shock of the initial title, however, the recipes themselves are practical, if poisonous (e.g., a contraceptive douche that contains sugar of lead). Beyond these few pages, the commonplace book is as mundane (and interesting for this) as might be expected, also including household accounts, a list of books, and an inventory that includes a breast pump.

Other items we appreciate because they reflect our attempts to tell the history of medicine as practised locally. Some of our recipes come from patient notes. For instance, in a record book kept by Theodule Nepveu, who practised in a variety of towns around Quebec in the first half of the twentieth century, we find a “regime alimentaire” outlining permitted and prohibited foods for those with colitis. Nepveu’s record book is not spectacular in the way that the François II de Rohan illuminated gift is, but the information it contains is no less important. To start, one might examine a doctor’s comments about diet to draw conclusions about what foods were available, and which his patients were likely to have access to. Or, as with the commonplace book of the woman from Ontario, it is the ordinary practicality that makes the contents extraordinary.

3. What tips can you offer to help users find collection items with recipes via your catalogue or finding aids?

This is not intended to be a trick question, but at the moment it rather feels like one. At McGill, we have had two catalogues for quite some time. The “classic” catalogue is heavily used by those of us who work with rare materials, but it is going away on 1 May 2019 so we are all in the midst of a steep learning curve even as we are still waiting for some advanced features to be made available in the new WorldCat Discovery catalogue. For those who wish to search the original Osler catalogue, the Bibliotheca Osleriana is easily found online. For archival sources, there is now an integrated archival catalogue, through which one can search all archival holdings at McGill. Another place to find recipe-related items is in the McGill Library’s collections within the Internet Archive, discussed below. With regard to searching those resources, though, it is a good idea to click “search text contents” rather than only searching the metadata.

Even though most of our material is catalogued, we would advise anyone with questions to reach out to us (osler_[dot]_library_[at]_mcgill_[dot]_ca) to see if there might be more.

4. Does the McGill Library offer any digital resources to off-site researchers?

MS 251, Practicall Physick of Roger Lickbarrow, mid-18th century, contains medicinal remedies for a wide range of complaints. The contents are ordered by type of ailment. The page shown refers to “diseases of the belly” and has “French pox” as well as “nocturnal pollution” near the end. Other sections are devoted to “womens diseases” and “childrens diseases”.

We have a small number of items that have been digitized, but enough that we have created an Osler Library collection within the Internet Archive.

We are making an effort to increase the digital resources available to off-site researchers. In addition to highlighting items to prioritize for digitization, we are figuring out the best workflow for digitizing items straight from cataloguing where feasible. Finally, we do digitize materials on demand. There will be some delay depending upon the queue in the digitization lab, but we regard user requests as one way of making our materials available to a wider audience.

5. Does McGill offer any fellowships or travel grants for researchers who want to go to Montreal to use your materials?

The Osler Library offers three research grants and one artist residency. For those seeking to use materials within Rare Books and Special Collections, there are three available grants.

Thanks, Mary, for chatting with me! If you’d like to see your library or archive collection featured on the Around the Table Library Chat, please email Sarah Kernan.

How to cure a ‘headache’ in a Mesopotamian way?

Strahil V. Panayotov
(The BabMed, ERC-Project, Free University of Berlin)

In 7th century BC Nineveh, in an area located within today’s much-troubled Iraqi city of Mosul, an astonishing episode of human history occurred. Thousands of texts from all corners of the Assyrian empire were brought into the royal capital of Nineveh in order to create the first universal library in human history. The majority of the excavated tablets are now being kept in the British Museum, London.  (On these tablets, see this article and this post).

Among the texts transported to the Ashurbanipal library, there were works of literature such as the tale of Gilgamesh, written descriptions of rituals and prayers, litanies, explanatory works, and large collections of omens, or royal letters. Numerous collections of healing texts, magical and medical prescriptions, rituals and incantations also found their way into the archives of Nineveh (SAA 7, chapter 7). Among the thousands of manuscripts dealing with healing, one collection stood out. It was written down in cuneiform by highly educated scribes who carefully edited a handbook with medical prescriptions, incantations and rituals on behalf of king Assurbanipal. This handbook was arranged into distinctive series, addressing body parts in a sequential order from head to toe. Each series had its own name and chapter called simply ‘tablets’ in Akkadian. The majority of tablets in this handbook carried the same colophon (i.e. inscription at the end of a tablet with facts about its production):

Palace of Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of the land Assyria, to whom (the gods) Nabû and Tašmētu granted understanding, (who) acquired insight (and) a high level of scribal proficiency, that skill which among the kings, my predecessor(s) no one has acquired. I (i.e. Ashurbanipal) wrote, checked, and collated tablets with medical prescriptions from head to the (toe-) nail, non-canonical material, elaborate teaching(s) (and) the advanced healing art(s) of (the gods) Ninurta and Gula, as much as exists, (and) I placed (them) within my palace for my reading/reciting. (BAK, no. 329)

The colophon illustrates that this collection aimed to include all the existing healing knowledge and to thus create an encyclopaedic handbook that would serve as a reference source for the royal palace. We might imagine that such a precious collection could have been accessed and consulted only by royal or high-profile physicians.

The first series from the handbook was called ‘If a man’s cranium contains heat (fever).’ We will look at the first prescription and incantation of the third tablet (CDLI no. P365746):

Fig. 1, K 2566 +, photo courtesy of the author with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum.
Fig. 1, K 2566 +, photo courtesy of the author with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum.

The third tablet begins accordingly:

If a ‘headache’ due to ghost affliction (lit. ‘Hand of a ghost’) continuously persists in a man’s body and cannot be loosened, (nor) does it cease despite bandage(s) and incantation.

The beginning of this diagnostic part gave the name of the third tablet, since in Mesopotamia the first line of a certain text was used to designate the whole text.

‘Headache’ in its broadest sense is an interpretive translation of the Sumerian term SAG.KI.DAB.BA ‘seized forehead/temple/brow’. The suffering was caused by a ghost, which originated in a diseased person (Geller 2010: 154-55 and passim). The title of this tablet suggests that if a normal treatment with bandage(s) and an incantation were not helping in such a case, one needed special therapies, preserved on the tablet. It contains extraordinary prescriptions and incantations which were specifically designed to counteract a ‘headache’ from a tough ghosts’ afflictions. In the first prescription, directly following the diagnostic part, the healer had to sacrifice a bird, and mix some of its body parts in a resin of a plant. This mixture was then magically enriched with an incantation:

You slaughter a captured goose. You take its blood, its throat, its gullet, its fat, the rind of its gizzard. You char (them) over charcoal. You mix (them) within cedar ‘blood’, and then three times recite the incantation ‘Evil Finger of Mankind’. You repeatedly anoint his head, his hands and everything that affects him and he shall get better. The ‘headache’ will be eradicated. (modified after Scurlock 2006: no. 113)

The animal substances were charred, and subsequently mixed within cedar ‘blood’. The designation cedar ‘blood’ is a metaphor of the sometimes reddish appearance of cedar resin, which flows out of the tree like blood from a body.

Everything was thoroughly mixed and an ointment was created, over which the healer had to recite this incantation:

The pointing of the evil finger of mankind, the evil rumor of the people, the bitter curse of god and goddess, the transgression of the limits of the gods – in order to continually go around safely in the presence of the(se things), to loosen their curse . . . he is the god . . . the regions, [Enki, son] of the Abzu and his son Asalluhi, [gods … : Ea] and his son Marduk, [gods … ] I … have changed …‘hand’ of ghost . . .” (Scurlock 2006: 39, no. 114a; see also p. 113, fn. 389).

Thus, the magical power of the incantation was transferred into the ointment, creating a potent cure. The healer anointed first the head, then the hands and all affected body parts until the ‘headache’ was gone.

Beside the goose’s blood and the fat, body parts and organs connected to food intake and digestion were selected. This suggests a certain symbolic significance: the suffering had to disappear, like the goose digested its food. But, the cure was not only magical. The use of cedar resin implies natural oils with a pleasant smell. It might well be that the fatty ointment had a pleasant smell, which made the patient feel better especially by massaging it into the skin. Thus, magic, massage, and aromatherapy were all part of this prescription.

Similar texts, and possibly fragments belonging to the same tablet (fig. 1), are lying still in the soil of Iraq. We can only hope that the ancient Assyrian capital Nineveh, which now lies within occupied Mosul, will not be vandalized again, and blown into the air like Nimrud.


BAK = Hunger, H. 1968. Babylonische und assyrische Kolophone. Alter Orient und Altes Testament 2. Neukirchen-Vluyn.

SAA 7 = Fales, M. and Postgate, J. N. 1992. Imperial Administrative Records, Part I. State Archives of Assyria VII. Helsinki.

Scurlock, J. 2006. Magico-Medical Means of Treating Ghost-Induced Illnesses in Ancient Mesopotamia. Ancient Magic and Divination III. Leiden–Boston.

Geller, M. J. 2010. Ancient Babylonian Medicine. Theory and Practice. Chichester (GB)–Malden, Mass.

Further Readings:

Finkel, I. L. 2014. The Ark Before Noah. London, pp. 44-45; 60-65.

Le Journal des Médecines Cunéiformes (Link

Scurlock, J. 2014. Sourcebook for Ancient Mesopotamian Medicine. Writings from the Ancient World 36. Atlanta, Georgia.