Aristotle's complete master-piece (1766): the first American illustrated medical text, from a woman's library

Aristotle's complete master-piece (1766): the first American illustrated medical text, from a woman's library

Aristotle's complete master-piece, in three parts; displaying the secrets of nature in the generation of man. Regularly digested into chapters and sections, rendering it far more useful and easy than any yet extant. To which is added, A treasure of health, or The family physician; being choice and approved remedies for all the several distempers incident to human bodies. -- The thirtieth edition. London [i.e., Boston]: Printed for and sold by Zechariah Feeling [i.e., Zechariah Fowle]., MDCCLXVI. [1766]. First American edition [?]. viii, [1], 10-140 p. : ill. ; 16 cm (8vo). Signatures: [A]⁴ B-R⁴ S² ([A]1 recto blank). A remarkably fine, unsophisticated copy in original calf; there are several spots of wear to spine but the binding is tight. Housed in a custom clamshell case. Not in Evans, Austin, or Hamilton. ESTC W6206.

Inscribed by a previous owner: "Rebekah Hoskins / Her Book given her / By a friend 1769."

First published in London in 1684, this anonymous gynecological manual that Mary Fissell calls "a mash-up of earlier works on midwifery and natural philosophy," served as a source both of medical information and erotic titillation. Reprinted in hundreds of editions in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the book's sexual content lead many publishers to issue it under false imprints. A British edition that circulated among young people in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1744 led Jonathan Edwards to launch an investigation to root out bad books among his parishioners. Thus the prominent Boston publisher Zechariah Fowle, working in the wake of the evangelical fervor of the Great Awakening, masked his identity. The claim on the title page that this is the "thirtieth edition" is equally spurious, intended to swaddle this scandalous publication with the respectable mantle of tradition.

     This version of Aristotle's masterpiece combined medical information with smutty observations in equal measure, which is why the text is enumerated both in Robert B. Austen's Early American Medical Imprints 1668-1820 and Marcus A. McCorison's bibliography of risqué literature published in America before 1877.  As Marcia D. Nichols notes, the relative scarcity of medical professional among a dispersed population created a real demand for domestic health manuals, and there are other versions of the text that served as important guides for women's health.

     The Fowle edition, however, followed is suffused with the libertine spirit of the Restoration, and includes poetic doggerel that owes more to Lord Rochester than to Galen:

And thus Man's nobler parts describ'd we see,
For such the parts of Generation be;
And they that carefully surveys will find,
Each part is fitted for the Use design’d.
The purest blood we find, if well we heed,
Is in the Testicles turn’d into Seed,
Which by most proper Channels is transmitted,
Into the Place by Nature for it fittest:
With highest Sense of Pleasure to excite
In amorous Combatants the more Delight.
For Nature in this great Work design
Profit and Pleasure, in one Act to join.

     Jeremy Norman has suggested that Fowle's edition, which features a woodcut frontispiece and nine interior illustrations (one repeated), is likely the first illustrated medical book published in America. There are several other early editions cited in Austen's Early American Medical Imprints 1668-1820, but as Norman points out, these bear no publication information and it is impossible to tells whether they were really printed in the American colonies. The Fowle edition is indisputable, and several of the illustrations -- all original to this text -- were reused in later publications by Fowle and his colleague, Nathaniel Coverly. At least two of the illustrations were by Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831), who was indentured as an apprentice to Fowle. In 1795, Thomas would publish his own edition of Aristotle's Masterpiece.

     As several scholars have demonstrated, the illustrations to this text merit careful study. Fowle's edition recapitulates the frontispiece of the earliest edition of the text (Fissell's Masterpiece I), a simple depiction of two monstrous prodigies, a hairy woman and a black child born to white parents. Other illustrations include two further curiosities of birth (conjoined twins and a hairy cyclops), an astrological Man of Signs, and perhaps most scandalously, a woman's torso, genitalia exposed, dissected to reveal the placement of the fetus.

     Nichols notes that the version of Aristotle's Masterpiece published by Fowle ("Version C") is less medically insightful than a similarly-named text more narrowly focused on women's health that would first be circulated in America in the 1780s ("Version B"). This makes the ownership inscription on the present copy all the more intriguing.

     Uneven spelling in the genealogical record has made precise determination difficult, but we have provisionally identified the owner:  Rebekah Hoskins (1744-1838) spent her entire life in Taunton, Massachusetts. In 1765, when she was 21, she married Nathan Hack (1733-1809).  It was Hack's second marriage. He married his first wife, Katherine Lincoln (1743-1767), in 1760 when he was 27 and she was 17, and one presumes that the union ended in divorce -- further research in local records may prove fruitful. Hoskins bore her husband six children between 1766 and 1787, a 20-year span. The fact that she received this volume from a friend, and that she inscribed her name in it are both highly suggestive about female agency and the transmission with respect to medical knowledge among women in colonial Massachusetts.

     Whether or not Fowle's edition is indeed the first printed in America, it is very rare. Only three other copies have been recorded, at the AAS, Duke, and Yale. The provenance makes this a very important copy indeed.

Selected References

  • Beall, Otho T. “Aristotle's Master Piece in America: A Landmark in the Folklore of Medicine.” William and Mary Quarterly 20 (1963) 207–222 
  • Bullough, Vern L. “An Early American Sex Manual, or, Aristotle Who?” Early American Literature, vol. 7 (1973) 236–246.
  • Chamberlain, Ava. “The Immaculate Ovum: Jonathan Edwards and the Construction of the Female Body.” William and Mary Quarterly, 57 (2000) 289–322 
  • Fissell, Mary E. “Hairy Women and Naked Truths: Gender and the Politics of Knowledge in ‘Aristotle's Masterpiece.’” William and Mary Quarterly, 60 (2003) 43–74.  
  • -----. "Making a Masterpiece: The Aristotle texts in vernacular medical culture," in Right Living: an Anglo-American tradition of self-help medicine, ed. Charles E. Rosenberg (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 59-87.
  • Nichols, Marcia D. "The Aristotle texts, sex, and the American woman," in The Secrets of Generation: Reproduction in the Long Eighteenth Century, ed. Raymond Stephanson and Darren N. Wagner (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015), pp. 417-438.
  • Norman, Jeremy. "Aristotle's Complete Masterpiece: Probably the Earliest Illustrated Medical Book Published in the American Colonies."

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    Aristotle's complete master-piece (1766): the first American illustrated medical text, from a woman's library