Just over thirty years after the first printing press arrived in the New World from Spain, the first medical book was printed in Mexico City: Francisco Bravo’s Opera Medicinalia, published by Pedro Ocharte in 1570. While it is well within NLM’s mission to collect, preserve and give the world access to such a book, there is only one known copy of it, housed in La Biblioteca José María Lafragua at the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla in Mexico and we are all extremely fortunate that this sole copy has been digitized by the Primeros Libros project.
Decorative title page with Latin text presented with classical architectural features, dated 1549. Photography: Iván Pérez Pineda
The National Library of Medicine does have a copy of the text, however, in the form of a photostatic copy made in 1944. Long before the age of digitization, the only ways to make rare texts available at other libraries were by copying them by hand, reprinting them, microfilming, or making photocopies, all of which are extremely time-consuming and expensive for entire books. This copy was made from a photostatic copy at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, which in turn was made from a photostatic copy at the New York Public Library.
The copy in New York is described as a “facsimile reproduction of the original at the Library at the Universidad de Puebla, Mexico” where the only original copy is held. NLM has at least five other early printed books from the 1500s made using the old photostatic process from the Huntington’s copies. All of these are very rare medical books printed in England between the years 1502 and 1539: some of the earliest medical books printed in England, so scarce the NLM had little chance of ever obtaining originals.