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Visit to the Rare Books Collection at St Andrews

On February 5, a few of us visited the University of St Andrews’ Rare Book Collection to see how women’s issues are portrayed in historical texts. Thinking ahead to the Women’s Booth at Congress in May, a lot of attention and focus will be on the present and the future, so the purpose of this visit was to encapsulate the past with the present and future,

providing one holistic overview.

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The University of St Andrews is the oldest of the four ancient universities of Scotland and the third oldest in the English-speaking world. Founded in 1413, we were fortunate to have the opportunity to pore over books from as far back as the 1500s.

In doing so, we were able to see how women’s issues were portrayed in historical texts, which highlighted how far medicine and technology has advanced since then, leaving us optimistic about the progression of modern medicine.

We all thought the visit was worthwhile and we share our thoughts on the visit below.

 

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The incredible level of detail. Note that the veins look like branches – Inspiration for the centrepiece for the Quilt Project.

Joan: Joan was intrigued with the sharp detail of the drawings. MRI scanners and the like are recent inventions that provide us with images of the interior of the human body. Historically, any research on the human body was done post mortem and an artist would illustrate the findings.

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Susan was interested in the forceps illustration.

Susan: I was interested in the lift the flap illustration in the text book dated 1830. Basically, the illustration showed how to use forceps.  I had been very sick for 2 days before my son was born early at 38 weeks. My GP had the forceps ready as he thought I was too weak to deliver the baby alone. I had a great fear of anything like that and luckily my son was born without them. 4 months later he was diagnosed with severe haemophilia A, and I was diagnosed at the same time as having low factor levels.  Lucky for us both! Later, my GP remarked at how relieved he was about not damaging my son with using the forceps.  I added for me too – a reminder that childbirth is risky too for carrier mother.

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Alex R was impressed with the printing

Alex R: Alex was really intrigued with how the illustrations were printed and was cleverly able to distinguish the difference between the laborious manual printing process of the 1500s to the machine printing of the 1800s.

 

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Alex W: The book that stood out the most to me was a book from the 1500s that had illustrations of babies (with a full set of hair!) in the womb. There was one image in particular, of twins, that resonated with me because I know how complicated a multiple birth pregnancy can be. My mother gave birth to triplets, and without modern medicine, would most likely not have survived. I felt a bit sombre thinking about the risk that pregnancy carries but grateful for the advances in medicine.

We came away from the visit with insight into how women’s issues were portrayed in historical texts, and with a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of how the issues of the past, present and future are all interlinked.

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