History of Medicine Collections

Find out more about the history of medicine collections in the IHR Wohl Library. We collect historical sources, reference works and guides to finding and using sources. This page shows examples from the collections.


Like many fields of historical research, medical history has over the last fifty years, become a discipline which employs a growing variety of sources. Showcased here are some which are available in the IHR Library, ranging from published letters and diaries to newspapers and government papers. These include many sources by medical professions and institutions, and, in line with the central core of the social history of medicine, views of patients, long-term sufferers or primary carers.

Also listed here is a range of sources not primarily about medical history but which still yield copious amounts of relevant material. Shown below, for example, are ways in which newspapers reported the HIV/AIDs epidemic during the 1980s and how they chronicled the brief 1900 outbreak of bubonic plague in Glasgow.

The guide also includes several case studies which both showcase the relevant medical sources in the library's collections and general or unrelated works which the reader would need to 'excavate' to find relevant material, whether they are presidential papers, military diaries or travel accounts.

The guide also lists other relevant libraries and archives as well as other relevant collection guides of material one can find in the IHR Library.

Searching the Library

Collection Arrangement and Searches

You will find works on medical history across many of our collections. Our collections are arranged mostly geographically with some thematic collections. Searches can be done on the catalogue, both for items within the IHR library itself and for other libraries in the School of Advanced Study and Senate House Library.

You can find out more about collection locations and requesting items from the closed stacks here.

Further Help

Contact us if you would like help on finding or using our collections, or if you have any comments or suggestions about the content of this guide. We are happy to help.

You can also join the library and book a help session.

Primary Sources

Anthologies of Sources

Patients' Narratives

Amongst the large collections of published letters, diaries and autobiographical works, the library has collected several accounts of illness from the patients' perspective, some of which are listed below.

However relevant source material can also be found in more general sources, not specifically focused on medical history.

This day it is two years since it pleased God that I was cut of the stone at Mrs. Turner's in Salisbury-court. And did resolve while I live to keep it a festival, as I did the last year at my house, and for ever to have Mrs. Turner and her company with me. But now it pleases God that I am where I am and so am prevented to do it openly; only, within my soul I can and do rejoice and bless God, being at this time, blessed be his holy name, in as good health as ever I was in my life

This is from the entry for 26th March 1660 from Samuel Pepys' Diary and refers to his operation two years earlier of the removal of a rather large bladder stone. His diary shows he would hold these 'stone festivals' every year as thanks for surviving. This, however, is just one example of Pepys referring to health matters in his diary. Besides the famous description of the plague epidemic of 1665, there are hundreds of references to both his own health, and the myriad ways he was treated, as well as the health of his family, friends and associates.

Pepys is a well known example, but since health matters were a recurrent concern for many, sources such as diaries and published letter collections are worth checking for relevant material.

Another rich resource for researchers interested in the lives of those living in Britain in the twentieth century is Mass Observation. Accessible within the library, this massive online archive documents the lives of thousands of UK citizens, presenting their daily lives and their thoughts about the circumstances in which they lived. Researchers can search for specific search terms or use one of the popular searches such as 'Health', 'National Health Service' or 'Aneurin Bevan'.

Letters and Diaries : Medical Professionals

One of the library's strengths are its large holdings of published letters and diaries, including those from medical professionals, some of which are listed below. Encompassing the broad spectrum of professions these include works by physicians, surgeons, nurses, midwives, apothecaries and emergency workers.

Autobiographies, Memoirs and Interviews

Similar to its collection of letters and diaries, the library also has a large and growing collection of memoirs, autobiographies and published interviews. Listed below are some of the titles available in the library including accounts from nurses and doctors of their lives on the battle-field, biographical works of some of the first women doctors during the nineteenth century as well as the reflections of medical workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Institutional Records

Listed below are some of the published institutional records readers can find in the library's collections. Given the period in which they were published, some titles use terms that are no longer used.


Medical Societies

Sources on Public Health

Across many of the library collections are several works on the history of public health, especially in Britain and Italy.


Within the library readers can access several online collections of newspapers from the seventeenth to the twentieth-century. Given the range of subjects discussed in newspapers, they can prove useful for historians of medicine, not only charting specific events, such as the outbreak of a specific epidemic, but also, depending on their editorial bias, influence the way an event is viewed.

The Times and HIV and AIDS in the 1980s

Although the library does not currently have access to any tabloid titles from the 1980s, within The Times between 1980 and 1989 there are hundreds of articles on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. While many chart medical researchers' investigation of the virus during this period, some resemble the UK government's 'Don't Die of Ignorance' campaign of the 1980s with headlines like 'AIDS is here' (27th July 1983) and 'AIDS: the facts, the fears, the future' (6th March 1985). Other articles depict the disease and its sufferers as something other, to be feared: 'Lobbying fails to halt plans for new Aids hostel' (10th September 1986), 'Doctors seek right to stop treatment for AIDS carriers' (29th June 1987) and 'Middle-class girls get warning of AIDS risk from first sexual act' (24th August 1987). And with it being the 80s, questions of money were never far away: 'What will it cost to combat AIDS' (15th May 1987).

Works on Medical Thought and Practice

Although not a primary focus of the library's collection policy, listed below are some of the titles the library has obtained on medical thought and practice.

Medical Notes and Casebooks

Secondary Sources

Bibliographies, Archive Catalogues and Guides to Sources

Listed below are several bibliographies, archive catalogues and guides to sources on specific aspects of medical history. When searching for relevant material it is worth checking general bibliographies and catalogues, such as the Bibliography of British and Irish History.


Archive, Manuscript and Incunabula Catalogues

Guides to Sources

Historiography and Methodology

The library has large historiography collections. Below are several titles specifically about historiography and methodology of medical history as well as some articles and essays which can be found in larger works or periodicals.

Chapters and Articles


The library subscribes to over 300 historical periodicals including titles such as Medical History and a run of the Social History of Medicine. Relevant articles can also be found in more general periodicals. Listed below are a selection of relevant articles. The catalogue indicates if a periodical is available online (usually accessible onsite only)

  • 'Corona, Care, and Political Masculinity : Gender-Critical Perspectives on Governing the COVID-19 Pandemic in Austria' in Historical Social Research (2021)
  • 'Medical practice, urban politics and patronage : the London 'commonalty' of physicians and surgeons of the 1420s' in English Historical Review (2015)
  • 'Le médecin qui voulut être roi Médecine coloniale et utopie au Cameroun' in Annales (2010)
  • 'The Plague Cures of Caspar Kegler : Print, Alchemy, and Medical Marketing in Sixteenth-Century Germany' in The Sixteenth Century Journal (2012)
  • 'Shadows and Pestilence : Health and Medicine during the Second Seminole War' in the Journal of Social History (2015)

Many journals are also increasingly available in an open-access format. The Directory of Open Access Journals is a useful tool to search these freely accessible online periodicals.

Case Studies

Treating Smallpox: Sources from the 18th and 19th Century

...many months before I met with any intimations of treating the smallpox with the method of inoculation anywhere in Europe, I had from a servant of my own, an account of its being practised in Africa. Inquiring with my Negro-man Onesimus...whether he ever had the smallpox, he answered, both yes and no; and then told me that he had undergone an operation which had given him something of the smallpox, and would forever preserve him from it, adding that it was often used among the Garamantese [Saharan people based in present day Libya], and whoever had the courage to use it was forever free from the fear of contagion

Letter to Dr John Woodward, 12th July 1716

Although Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's observations of variolation while living in Istanbul in 1717, Cotton Mather's letter shows, that Europeans and North American colonial settlers were noting, finally, practices which had been applied in Asia and North and West Africa for centuries.

Other eighteenth and early nineteenth century sources from the library's North American collections show further glimpses of the history of smallpox treatment in the British colonies and United States. In a letter to the physician and acting governor of New York colony, Cadwallader Colden, it is stated that, 'Inoculation of the Small pox has had Success beyond Expectation both on Long Island & round about Amboy.' Later, news of Edward Jenner's work soon spread across the Atlantic; infamously during the summer of 1801 Thomas Jefferson conducted experiments, using Jenner's new technique, to vaccinate his sons-in-law, several neighbours and many of the enslaved men, women and children working on his plantation, Monticello. Unlike the former, the latter did not have a choice to be included (The papers of Thomas Jefferson, vols. 34-35).

James Gillray [engraving] The cow-pock - or the wonderful effects of the new inoculation
Engraving by James Gillray. 'The Cow-Pock - or wonderful effects of the new inoculation [from the Library of Congress]

Although a number or lurid yet memorable engravings were produced, such as James Gillray's famous illustration, decrying Edward Jenner's cow-pox vaccine, articles in the press at the time were far more positive. On 5th November 1798, an article in The Times states, 'Inoculation, which has been found so highly beneficial in preserving the human species from the ravages of the Small pox, has been recently improved...The Cow Pox has been found to supply the infection in a most favourable way to those who are inoculated.', while the Ipswich Journal on the 1st March 1800 notes,

...of all the numerous discoveries with which the present age of enlightened enquiry has enriched the stock of medical science, the effects of the inoculation of cow-pox matter, introduced as a substitute for small-pox, by Dr Jenner of Gloucester, is by far the most interesting curiosity; and what is of still greater moment, ranks first in the reasonable prospect it holds forth, of providing eminently beneficial to mankind.

Of course scepticism and fear of vaccination continued. The physician William Woodville published his pamphlet, Reports of a series of inoculations for the variolae vaccine or cowpox in 1799, describing the success he had with a cohort of two hundred vaccinated patients, demonstrating the safety of the new vaccine. Vaccine scepticism did persist however and medical professionals continued to publish works trying to assuage the fears of the new treatment; in 1806 the surgeon William Blair published The vaccine contest: being an exact outline of the arguments...respecting cow-pox inoculation which takes the form of a dialogue between a concerned parent, a doctor and, towards the end of the dialogue, a surgeon, resulting in the parent being, 'fully convinced that, "mild Humanity, Reason, Religion, and Truth," unite in favour of Vaccination. 

Public Health and the Third Plague Pandemic

Works and references to the third plague pandemic of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century can be found across several of the library's collection. Alexandre Yersin's recollections, published fifty years after the initial outbreak in Hong Kong, relate his work in isolating and identifying the plague bacillus which would eventually bear his name, Yersinia pestis.

Yersin was not the only one working in the field at that time. In a series of essays, the Japanese bacteriologist Kitasato Shibasaburō simultaneously discovered the plague bacillus and, among other works, recounts his work and memories of the time in a series of essays. Further medical sources can by found in A Documentary History of Public Health in Hong Kong.

Outbreaks of the plague would spread across the globe, often being first detected in major ports. As relevant legislation was enacted, government papers would sometimes mark the spread of the pandemic. Accessible within the library, U.K. Parliamentary Papers includes many reports charting the spread of the plague in specific areas like Hong Kong and India, as well as overall summaries of the global pandemic, such as R. Bruce Low's Reports and papers on Bubonic Plague (1902): for more details about the library's UK Parliamentary sources see the respective collection guide.

Similarly within the Congressional Record, there are accounts of the plague outbreaks which affected California and Hawaii and the disastrous way in which the authorities attempted to deal with the outbreak in Honolulu:

...Mr President, the condition of the affairs now in Hawaii is most deplorable. Unfortunately for those people, they are now seriously afflicted and scourged by what is know as the bubonic plague. It broke out there some time ago in what was called Chinatown, and the authorities and people of the islands have been compelled to destroy some 30 acres of the city. The portion destroyed was thickly settled by Chinese, Japanese and possibly some other nationalities. The whole tract was burnt, not perhaps entirely by order of the authorities, but in attempting to burn a portion of it the fire got beyond their control and the whole 30 acres was swept away.

(Congressional Record - Senate February 20th 1900)

Similarly newspapers are also a fruitful seam of relevant source material. For example within 19th century British Library Newspapers - also accessible within the library - one can chart the outbreak of plague in Glasgow in the autumn of 1900, from the twenty-nine word brief note in the Sheffield Independent from the 28th August to the flurry of newspapers articles produced until early November when the city was declared plague-free.

Military Medicine

The library's military history collection has extensive holdings of letters, diaries, memoirs and works of contemporary journalism centred upon military conflicts from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century, with particular large sub-collections on the First and Second World Wars. Among this collection a range of testimonies have been collected, some of which are from medical workers, ranging from doctors and nurses on the battlefield to those that stayed on the home front.

This includes the correspondence of Ralph and Joan Barlow, the former training as an ambulance driver, later becoming an executive and then deputy director of the Friends Ambulance Unit. Starting in east London, he outlines his training and and then his work and impressions of the various places he was sent to including North Africa, the Middle East and Bengal during the famine of 1943. Other medical perspectives on warfare can be found in famous works by Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale, established eighteenth century army physicians such as John Buchanan, as well as the testimonies of nurses during the Vietnam War, outlining how the precarious needs of their situation would give them, 'responsibilities only doctors had in the States. Vietnam would change the future of nursing.'

Useful testimony can also be found within works more general in scope. William C. Bennett was wounded several times during the First World War and his diaries, among other things, describe his injuries, and the good natured care he received. Accounts from Sikh soldiers recovering in hospitals present a different impression:

They do not let me go outside this hospital at all, nor do they allow even the men of one's own village to come in to see one. There are British soldiers posted as sentries all round the hospital who neither permit us to go out nor outsiders come in. That is the kind of hospital we are in.

There are also several works of reportage in the collection, with John Hersey's Hiroshima being one of the most well-known:

Dr Sasaki and his colleagues at the Red Cross Hospital watched the unprecedented disease unfold and at last evolved a theory about its nature. It has, they decided, three stages. The first stage has been all over before the doctors even knew they were dealing with a new sickness; it was the direct reaction of the bombardment of the body, at the moment the bomb went off, by neutrons, beta particles and gamma rays. The apparently uninjured people who had died so mysteriously in the first few hours or days had succumbed to this first stage...The second stage set in ten or fifteen days after the bombing...Twenty-five to thirty days after the explosion, blood disorders appeared, gums bled, the white-blood-cell count dropped sharply and petechiae appeared on the skin and mucous membranes...The third stage was the reaction that came when the body struggled to compensate for its ills...In this stage many patients died of complications, such as infections within the chest cavity. Most burns healed with deep layers of pink, rubbery scar tissue, known as keloid tumours.

Among his impressions of the city, provided here was some of the earliest descriptions of the radiation sickness.

Other Collections

Many library and archive collections hold useful information for medical history researchers. Listed below are just a few which can be found in London, however, for a survey of the UK and Ireland one can consult the Directory of rare book and special collections in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, or for specific works Library Hub Discover. Archive material can be found via the National Archive's catalogue, which includes catalogue records from the NA and an additional 2,500 UK archives.

Although not specialist medical libraries, collections found in other School of Advanced Study institutes are also relevant. The collections of the Institute of Classical Studies hold many works on medicine in the Greek and Roman worlds, while the Warburg Institute has many works on medieval and early modern medicine.

Moreover found within the vast collections of Senate House Library one can find extensive holdings on the history of both science and medicine.