The medical library of my alma mater, The University of Nottingham would sometimes give away books it didn’t need anymore.There’d be a shelf by the door with the unwanted books which students could just take for free. On one occasion, late at night just before the library closed up, I was on my way out when I came across these gems. Scientifically they’re not of much use, but as historical documents, showing how scientific perspectives on the brain, behaviour and the mind have changed, these are positively fascinating.
The oldest book I obtained, ‘On the Constitution of Man’ is pre-darwinian and pre-mendelian, and attempts to discuss the role of humans in nature based on recent advances in the understanding of natural laws. An interesting chapter in it is where it tries to tackle the notion of heredity. The author notes the flow of characteristics from parents, be they diseases (which we now know to be genetic diseases), or traits such as skin colour and body build. It is interesting how the author attempts to explain how this works, through the use of medical literature available to him and through his own observations and rationale. Though he somehow ends up at the conclusion that more hereditary influence comes from the father. I guess it’s just a sign of the times. We are talking 1820-1840’s here afterall. Another fascinating aspect of the book is how it reflects the struggle to reconcile the wealth of science regarding the fundamental laws which structure life and the universe, with religion. It talks about natural laws present in animals also applying to humans, yet it tries to put a theological spin on it. It is fascinating how around 30 years later this idea would change.
The book on physiognomy was a book on the science behind human expression. It was very interested in how expressions differ, or are similar across different races. This book was pretty far-out, even for the Victorian period, making some references to telepathy and other bogus notions. It was a rather racist book, though once again I imagine it is little more than a product of its’ time.
This collection of books, though thoroughly outdated (and somewhat unintentionally racist at times) is truly marvelous A brilliant insight into the evolution of science and the influence of culture during a time of great change in attitudes towards science. The book written in 1869 actually makes some reference to Darwin, showing how much of an immediate influence his landmark works on Evolution had. Thank you Nottingham for these gems.
Ooh la la.