October 14, 2009

Map of Barbary, the Nigrita, and Guinea

As late as the Renaissance, European knowledge of Africa was largely limited to the Mediterranean and coastal areas. It was also still heavily influenced by classical sources. Between 1570 and 1670, the Dutch, who dominated European mapmaking at the time, began translating reports from Portuguese sea captains, as well as earlier North African sources, to expand their knowledge of the continent. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the French Royal Academy of Sciences gave new impetus to the mapping of Africa. This 18th-century map by Guillaume de l’Isle, one of the academy’s cartographers, is one of the most “scientific” portrayals of north and west Africa at the time. De l’Isle almost certainly drew upon the Dutch compilations of classical, Arabic, and Portuguese sources. He also tried to map information from more recent accounts by Jesuits and other missionaries onto grids measuring latitude and longitude. De l’Isle’s map thus provided a detailed rendering of both the coastal trading networks and the interior lands known as “Nigritia.” Cartography nevertheless remained a speculative enterprise, as can be seen in some of the remarks on the map, e.g., “Some believe that the Niger River is an arm of the Nile and for that reason call it the Nile of the Negroes.”

October 21, 2009

Henry Solomon Wellcome: three-quarter length. Oil painting by Hugh Goldwin Riviere, 1906.

Henry S. Wellcome was born in 1853 to a poor farm family in Almond, Wisconsin. Upon his death in 1936, the Wellcome Trust, a British charity, was created. Many years later, it became the most highly endowed charity in the world, with assets of 15 billion pounds. Wellcome owed this achievement to his success as a pharmaceutical manufacturer and salesman. After training as a pharmacist at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, he went to England in 1880 to join his college friend S. Mainville Burroughs in a new pharmaceutical company called Burroughs, Wellcome & Co. When Burroughs died in 1895, Wellcome became sole owner of the company. He used his wealth to fund many charitable projects, including libraries, laboratories, and museums. His own historical collection forms the nucleus of the present Wellcome Library in London, and in 1932 he built the Wellcome Building on London's Euston Road to display the collection. Wellcome bequeathed ownership of the pharmaceutical company to the Wellcome Trust, which owned it until 1986, after which the Trust gradually sold the company in order to diversify and stabilize its assets. Wellcome's will formed the founding document of the Wellcome Trust.

A Verger's Dream: Saints Cosmas and Damian Performing a Miraculous Cure by Transplantation of a Leg

Saints Cosmas and Damian were early Christian martyrs who, according to legend, practiced medicine without payment and therefore were represented to the public as medical ideals. In this Spanish altarpiece, the saints appear in a vision, dressed in the full finery of academic doctors as they perform the miracle of transplanting a leg. The vision is described in a book of 1275 by Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea (The golden legend). The vision was received in the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian, in Rome, by a verger who had a disease that was eating away the flesh of his leg. One night he dreamed that the two saints came and cut off his bad limb, and in its place transplanted the leg of a dead African who had just been buried in a nearby churchyard. When he awoke, the verger found that he had a healthy black leg, while it was discovered that the African's body now lacked a limb. The conclusion: "Then let us pray unto these holy martyrs to be our succor and help in all our hurts, wounds and sores, and that by their merits after this life we may come to everlasting bliss in heaven. Amen." The painting was probably once in the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Burgos, in northern Spain. The painter is called the Master of Los Balbases after a nearby town in which there is an altarpiece by him in the Church of Saint Stephen.

Sketch of the DNA Double Helix by Francis Crick

The iconic image of the double helix--the twisted ladder that carries the codes for earth's huge variety of life forms–goes back to 1953 and the homemade metal model created by the British scientist Francis Crick and his American collaborator, James Watson. Determined to solve the puzzle posed by the research evidence at the time, they obtained new insights by visualizing the structure of the complex molecule through a physical model. This pencil sketch of DNA was made by Crick and forms part of the extensive Crick Archive at the Wellcome Library. It illustrates several structural features of the double helix: it is right-handed, with the two strands running in opposite directions; the nucleotides, the building blocks of the strands, have a part that forms the backbone and a part (the base) that projects into the middle of the helix; and the internally projecting bases in one strand are aligned so that they can pair with a base from the opposite strand. This last feature is essential for DNA to be able to perform its function of passing genetic information from one generation to the next. It is not known whether Crick drew this sketch before or after he and Watson made the famous model, but the drawing demonstrates the role that simple illustrations can play in helping to conceptualize complex problems.

Wills Concerning the School in Gabrovo

The Gabrovo School was the first secular school in Bulgaria. Founded in 1835, it trained Bulgarian teachers and employed such notable Bulgarian scholars as Neofit Rilski. This work contains the wills of several men associated with the Gabrovo School, including one of its co-founders, V. E. Aprilov. The wills appear in Bulgarian with the corresponding Greek translation on opposite pages. Printed at the end of the book are illustrations of the grave monuments of Aprilov and the school's other co-founder, N.S. Palauzov.