Treasures of the P.I. Nixon Library

By Joe Michael Feist

Tucked away on the fifth floor of the Dolph Briscoe Jr. Library, the collective wisdom of thousands of years of medical exploration lies waiting to be discovered anew.

The treasures of the P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library reveal the evolution of medicine and the methodical untangling of many a mystery. Included are some of the rarest and most beautiful medical texts ever created.

The Nixon library, a part of the overall Briscoe library, is named for Patrick Ireland Nixon, an early 20th-century San Antonio physician and book collector who in 1919 founded the Bexar County Medical Library Association. Through the years, with Dr. Nixon overseeing the library and purchasing many books himself, the association acquired thousands of priceless works on medicine and health. In 1970, some 6,000 books from the association were donated to UT Health San Antonio, forming the core of the Nixon library.

“Any student at UT Health San Antonio can benefit from the early books in health care, which are basically the origin of the fields they’re going into,” said Andrea Schorr, the Briscoe library’s head of resource management. “It gives them perspective as to what has been done historically and what is happening now.”

Mellisa DeThorne, special collections assistant, said the Nixon library contains works on general medicine, most specialties, dentistry, nursing and many other aspects of health care. But the books transcend medicine, she added. “Anyone who has an appreciation for art can appreciate the books in the Nixon library, because they are works of art.”

In addition to the core collection of books, the Nixon library also includes some 200 medical devices, photographs, artifacts and other historical items.


Here are a few gems from the Nixon collection

De Medicina, by Aulus Aurelius Cornelius Celsus (c. 25 B.C.–c. 50 A.D.)

Milan, 1481, second edition

Significance: The Latin De Medicina is the oldest book in the Nixon library collection. The work, consisting of accounts of medicine in Roman times, is the only remaining portion of a much larger encyclopedia by Celsus and is generally considered among the greatest medical classics.

Worth knowing: Hippocrates used the Greek word carcinos, meaning crab or crayfish, to refer to malignant tumors. It was Celsus who translated the Greek term into the Latin cancer, also meaning crab.

Tables of the Skeleton and Muscles of the Human Body, by Bernhard Siegfried Albinus (1697–1770)

London, 1749

Significance: Albinus, a German anatomist, along with his artist Jan Wandelaar, is highly regarded for this work of magnificent engravings. Aiming for absolute precision and scientific accuracy, they used a unique grid pattern technique for copying the anatomical specimens.

Worth knowing: The work is almost as well known for its lush, whimsical backgrounds of nature and, especially, Clara the rhinoceros. Albinus did this “in order to relieve the harshness of the figures,” Schorr said. “He decided to create the illusion of three-dimensionality in his illustrations.”

Cupples Casebooks, by Dr. George Cupples (1815–1895)

Significance: Fascinating tales of Texas frontier medicine fill these two, beautifully hand-written volumes of casebooks by pioneer physician George Cupples. Dr. Cupples was a Scottish-born surgeon who moved to Texas in 1844 in the hopes the climate would revitalize his ailing wife’s health. He subsequently served as surgeon for the Texas Rangers in the Mexican War and then for the Confederate Army. The cases, which cover the period from 1850 to 1877, include detailed accounts of everything from a gunshot wound and amputation, to a penetrating knife wound to the heart, to opioid addiction, to a 60-hour labor and delivery complicated by a cervical tumor.

Worth knowing: Dr. Cupples was renowned as an innovative surgeon and is believed to be the first physician in Texas to use anesthesia.


De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (The Fabrica), by Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564)

Basel, 1543, first edition 

Significance: The Fabrica is the rarest and most valuable book in the Nixon library. It’s also the most viewed. “It was Vesalius who first dissected a human body and described what he found in great detail, and therefore had a far better understanding of the way our bodies work than [Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher in the Roman Empire] Galen,” DeThorne said. “Vesalius is the father of modern anatomy.”

Worth knowing: When it was purchased by Dr. Nixon in 1939 from Yale University for $765, it was said to be one of only 16 copies in the United States and fewer than 200 in the world.

Ophthalmodouleia, by Georg Bartisch (1535–1606)

Dresden, 1583, first edition

Significance: Bartisch established ophthalmology as a separate medical specialty and his Ophthalmodouleia was a landmark publication. His descriptions and illustrations of eye surgeries and the anatomy of the eyes were striking and revolutionary.

Worth knowing: In German, Ophthalmodouleia was one of the first medical books to be written in the vernacular rather than Greek or Latin.


Canonis libri V, by Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina (known in the West as Avicenna) (980–1037)

Venice, 1486 

Significance: The book in the Nixon collection is one of five in an encyclopedia of medicine by the 11th-century Persian philosopher, scientist and physician Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina, translated as Avicenna in Latin. Canonis libri V is devoted to compound drugs.

Worth knowing: Avicenna’s work attests to the fact that  medicine in the Middle East at the time was often more advanced than in Europe.


Micrographia, by Robert Hooke (1635–1703)

London, 1667

Significance: Robert Hooke is known as a “Renaissance Man” of 17th-century England. His work in the sciences covered astronomy, physics and biology as well as medicine. Micrographia, his most important writing, documented experiments with a microscope. An artist as well as a scientist, he did all of his own illustrations. Micrographia is basically the origin of microbiology.

Worth knowing: In Micrographia, Hooke coined a new scientific/medical word: “cell.”


Medical bag and instruments belonging to Dr. John Matthews (1908–1995)

Dr. Matthews, an ophthalmologist, was a prominent member of San Antonio’s medical community. Active in local medical organizations, he played a significant role in the establishment of the South Texas Medical Center. On the board of the San Antonio Medical Foundation and president of the Bexar County Medical Society, Dr. Matthews secured the endorsement of the Texas Medical Association for the development of a medical center and medical school in San Antonio in the 1950s. He was elected as the first president of the Friends of the P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library in 1971.



Bloodletting instruments

While it undoubtedly did more harm than good, bloodletting was a popular medical treatment for a variety of ailments for centuries. By the 18th and 19th centuries, technology—in the form of the scarificator and a spring lancet such as these in the Nixon library—had replaced knives and other instruments for cutting or lancing. The brass scarificator has 13 blades and dates between 1833 and 1855. It is cocked by pulling the lever, then a button releases the blades resulting in 13 uniform quarter-inch deep cuts. A cup then suctioned the blood.

Worth knowing: Massive bloodletting in his final hours probably contributed to the death of George Washington
in 1799.


The P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library is open by appointment Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tours of the library, including viewings of the rare books, can also be arranged. Contact Andrea N. Schorr, 210-567-2403, or

You may also like

One comment

  • Jack Frost September 19, 2018  

    Thanks for the article and history. I had no idea but will visit and share with others the availability of such awesome artifacts. Looking forward to seeing this.

Leave a comment

Secured By miniOrange