150K dollar medical book

by Akhperjan on October 22, 2016 - 12:11pm

Empirical observations

During our visit to the Osler Library of History of Medicine, I was lucky enough to get to analyse, according to the librarian, a 150-thousand-dollar book: Osteaographia or the Anatomy of the Bones by William Cheselden. The book was a big, heavy, beautiful piece of medicine knowledge and art at the same time. Published in 1733, and weighing about 20 to 25 pounds, the book presented all the bones in the human body as well as some skeletons of reptiles. Besides individual bones, it had human skeletons in praying positions, thinking, and even a baby skeleton holding an adult’s femur. But the most intriguing pictures for me were the pictures of the broken and diseased bones. Another thing you notice, is the letter s is written like the letter f, which was common in that period.

 Each chapter’s initial was surrounded by an original picture with angelic looking babies in it. The book was intaglio printed with very rigorously carved copper sheets. Curiously, it had a section with images of bones indicated by letters which were found in the legend on the previous page, but also another section that was just the same images with nothing on them. The cover was red surrounded by gold designs. The sides of the pages were also painted gold. The inside of the cover was a colorful abstract mosaic. The binding was reconstructed.


The meticulous artistic designs and the sheer size of this book suggested that it was meant for libraries or rich people’s houses. Cheselden was the first person to use the camera obscura for images used in a book. This combined with the collaboration of the physician and artists to capture every single detail meant that this book was going to cost a fortune.  In fact, it was a financial failure. The book just sold a few dozens of copies, and Cheselden was forced to sell each picture individually.  

Obviously, this elegant book had a lot of unexpected aspects for a medical book. In fact, it would compare more to just a section of a general knowledge encyclopedia today. But even then, we do not print skeletons doing actions in todays books.  And of course, todays physicians do not study images with beautiful city view backgrounds. Moreover, our biology books do not contain fancy artistic decorations and their sides are not painted in gold. Finally, the images we use today are not made by hand, it will either be made by computers, taken by camera or be images taken by x-rays or scans.

This book also has some similarities with todays books. The main one is the fact that each part is denoted with a letter which corresponds to an explanation on the page next to it, just like our biology books.


This book demonstrates the change in medical practice and knowledge in the early modern period. The book itself was possible to make because of dissection and empirical evidence. This is vastly different from the physicians understanding of the body in the 16th century. In the introduction, Cheselden explains that the bones are there to support the muscles and ligaments and even talks about cartilages and how there found in particular areas. It also describes and compares the shape and solidity of human and animal bones. Later on, Cheselden presents his findings of bones of diseased humans with various diseases. He also mentions his theories as to what caused the changes in the bones. Overall, this all shows the change in the mentality of explaining the human body rationally, with knowledge that we have, to actually observing what is physically going on in the body. Cook puts it this way: “The naturel philosophical foundations of physic had become less like a learned debate about the cause of things, as in the early sixteenth century, and more like an active and close description of the materiel world” (Cook, 48). And we have been doing it since then.


Works cited

Cook, Harold J. “Medicine.”, 345-101-MQ Early Modern Knowledge, edited by Sarah Waurechen, Eastman Systems, 2016, pp. 47-61