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Aristotle’s Masterpiece featured at NYAM’s Annual Friends of the Rare Book Room Lecture

“Something borrowed, something blue” is the perfect theme for a springtime wedding.

But in this instance, the theme centers around one of the most important popular medical books in the English language: Aristotle's Masterpiece, first published in 1684. Mary Fissell, PhD provided an extensive review of the book, which offers advice to women about pregnancy and childbirth, spiced up with a racy poem and sensational images of monster babies, among other notable themes. Dr. Fissell was speaker at The Annual Friends of the Rare Book Room Lecture at NYAM, which took place on Thursday, April 5, 2012 in the building’s ornate Periodical Room.

In her remarks, Dr. Fissell noted that Aristotle's Masterpiece had been a primer for childbirth handed down through the centuries since first being published, with information passed from mother to daughter, doctor to patient.

“The book was still being published well into the 1930s,” Dr. Fissell said. “If your great-grandmother had a book on making babies, it was probably this book. It pops up in the historical record like no other book of its kind.”

According to historian James Edmonson of the Dittrick Museum of Medical History at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Aristotle did not write this book, but the author thought using the name of the Greek philosopher would lend the work authority and prestige. It, as Dr. Fissell noted, became the book spawning multiple versions of itself. In fact, the book itself was published every 250 years – a great sign of sustainability. And, she said, the book would ultimately evolve into a sordid tale of sexual exploits for men.

“The book spoke to both men and women, offering a glimpse of sexual knowledge as well as serving as a practical guide to pregnancy and reproduction,” Dr. Fissell said.

There was an unfortunate dark side to the book in that it contained graphic illustrations of severally deformed children, or “monsters” as described by the book’s author. Dr. Fissell attributes the pictures to the idea that women who cheated on their husbands, or hinted at the mere idea of another man while bedding their own spouse, would produce such offspring as punishment for their misdeeds.

In the end, Dr. Fissell describes Aristotle’s Masterpiece as a work that takes on varied ideas and commonly held beliefs during the time of its writing, adding that “the book represents many forms of entertainment, shame, and, finally, biological knowledge.”

Mary E. Fissell is Professor in the Department of the History of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University, where she also co-edits the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. She received her BA and PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. Her scholarly work focuses on how ordinary people in the past understood health, healing, and the natural world. She is the author of two books and many articles, and has won a range of grants and fellowships, including NIH, the Davis Center at Princeton, and ACLS. She is currently writing a social and cultural history of Aristotle's Masterpiece.

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Posted on April 10, 2012

Contact:
Gina Ravosa
Director of Marketing & Communications
The New York Academy of Medicine
1216 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10029
(212) 822-7285
gravosa@nyam.org

 

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