Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones!

Modern Books and Manuscripts 2013-04-12

This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the newly acquired Santo Domingo collection.

Joel Dorman Steele, Ph.D. was the author of a series of textbooks in late 19th-century America including Hygienic physiology : with special reference to the use of alcoholic drinks and narcotics.  It was meant to be used not for medical students but to inform young people in the principles that underlie the preservation of health and to form good physical habits.  Steele and his wife, Esther, were both educators who believed that traditional textbooks of the time were self-indulgently long.  Their solution was to write a series of textbooks meant for fourteen week courses on a range of subjects such as history, chemistry, zoology, astronomy, and of course physiology.  Hygenic Physiology explains the various systems of the human body because as the author states, “Habits are often formed in youth which entail weakness and poverty upon manhood, and are a cause of life-long regret… use of a strained limb may permanently damage it.  A thoughtless hour of reading by twilight may impair the sight for life...”  What is fascinating is that some of these ideas, particularly the reading with dim light are still commonly believed as true even though medical study has refuted the claim.

The volume contains beautifully illustrated depictions of the various systems and operations in the body including the skeleton, muscles, circulation, the nervous system, and others.

The information contained in Hygenic Physiology is particularly interesting when one notes that it was published just before the idea of germ theory.  It is a fascinating window into the prevailing wisdom of the day and a stark example of just how far medical technology has taken us.  Another interesting aspect of the book are the “Practical Questions” at the end of each chapter which reveal a great deal about the typical worries of the general public, some of which seem not quite so medically important…

Have you ever wondered what causes hair to “stand on end” when we are fightened?

What is meant by a “furred” tounge?

When a law of health and a law of fashion conflict, which should we obey?

Is the blacksmith’s right arm healthier than the left?

Regardless of the modern relevance of these questions it is certain that the book popularized the subject of physiology, thus enriching understanding of the human body during this time.  Hygienic physiology : with special reference to the use of alcoholic drinks and narcotics /by Joel Dorman Steele. Enl. ed. with selected readings. New York : American Book Co., c1888. QP36 .S81 1888 and many other interesting medical texts can be found at the Countway Library at the Harvard Medical School in Longwood.

Thanks to Alison Harris, Santo Domingo Project Manager and Joan Thomas, Rare Book Cataloger at Countway for contributing this post.