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Vol. LXIV, No. 16
August 3, 2012

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‘Hidden Treasure’ Celebrates Richness of NLM’s Collection

On the front page...

Pictures of two dolls.
The papers of pioneering NIH scientist Dr. Marshall Nirenberg (1927-2010); dolls that help tell the story of nurse-midwives (shown at right); and a mimeographed medical report of the bombing of Hiroshima are among the items featured in a new book, Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine.

Dr. Michael Sappol, a curator-historian in NLM’s History of Medicine Division, edited the book, which was created to celebrate the library’s 175th anniversary (1836-2011). Two years in the making, Hidden Treasure showcases the world’s largest medical library and its unique collection.


“It was a wonderful, collaborative project,” Sappol says, giving credit to more than 100 people inside and outside NLM whose time and expertise went into the volume.

Rather than developing an anniversary book of milestones, Sappol wanted to show off the richness of the library’s collection, and the curiosities it contains, in order to distinguish NLM from other libraries. A list of more than 400 possible entries for the book was eventually narrowed down to 83 objects chosen for their significance and visual interest. Each object is accompanied by artful photography and a mini-essay by a contributing scholar explaining the significance of the work.

Cover of Hidden Treasure
Cover of Hidden Treasure

While NLM is a medical collection, Sappol notes it is a historical collection that can be used by scholars studying not just the history of medicine, but also art, anatomy, culture, women’s studies, African-American studies and the military, for example. “In showing off these many different kinds of objects, we are reaching out to people who might use our historical collections and saying ‘Here’s stuff you might not know about.’” It’s also an invitation to the public to peruse the collection.

“Through this book, readers will learn about the remarkable depth and breadth of NLM’s historical collections, as well as the rich history of the library itself,” says Dr. Jeffrey S. Reznick, head of the History of Medicine Division. A social and cultural historian of medicine and war, he contributed an essay on the in-house magazines produced by U.S. military hospitals in World War I to distract soldiers from their war wounds.

Sappol, a historian of medical illustration and anatomy, contributed three mini-essays. One describes White’s Physiological Manikin (1886), which is one of three life-size manikins in the library’s collection. Selling for $35 back in the day, the cardboard manikin filled with fold-and-flaps was used for classroom instruction.

Photographing the manikin was a special, yet fun, challenge for NLM conservator Holly Herro. She and colleague Kristi Wright-Davenport assisted photographer Arne Svenson on the photo shoots. Their job was to help Svenson execute his vision for the photograph by setting up the objects without damaging them.

AWhite’s Physiological Manikin (1886)

White’s Physiological Manikin (1886)—The manikin’s flaps correspond to lecture topics such as the circulatory system, the brain and nervous system, the skeleton and muscles, venereal disease and the physiology of reproduction (male and female), first aid and the dangers of corseting.

Photos: Arne Svenson

“We were crawling all over the floor on hands and knees, up and down on ladders, all over the library looking for places to shoot,” says Herro. Svenson photographed the 19th century manikin sitting on the floor of the library lobby, next to a modern chair. Herro says in order to keep the manikin’s flaps open for the photograph, she and Wright-Davenport used polyester film to devise support structures to stuff inside the flaps to keep them in place.

“The project became an opportunity for me to poke around in odd corners of the library and say ‘What’s that?’” says Sappol. In doing so, he uncovered “a great find,” the St. Elizabeths Magic Lantern Slide Collection (1855-1890s), uncatalogued because of a backlog. The slide projections were used in the 19th century as part of treatment for patients with mental illnesses at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C.

“Some things are charming and entertaining. Others are disturbing to look at or document terrible things,” Sappol says. “There’s a lot in the book. In some cases it’s a document of human suffering, showing the diseases and afflictions people have. In other cases, it’s a document of ingenuity and coming up with treatments.”

Hidden Treasure is a hardback book with nearly 240 pages and 450 full-color illustrations.

“This book was really a labor of love,” Sappol says. “People went above and beyond the call of duty.”

Hidden Treasure is available as a free download from NLM’s Digital Collections at The book is also available from its publisher, Blast Books, and major online booksellers.

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