February 14, 2016
Value of an Old and Rare Medical Book – More Bark than Bite
As a New York City rare book dealer, I get a constant stream of calls from around Manhattan. It seems that the apartments here, while not overflowing, still are able to produce a constant flow of interesting and rare material. I just today purchased this interesting 17th century medical work from a local picker.
Richard Morton. Pyretologia, seu, Exercitationes de morbis universalibus acutis Londoni : Impensis Samuelis Smith …, CIC DC XCII  8vo, 19.5 cm., , 430,  pages,  folded leaves of plates (present but loose) Binding: 17th century English calf, wear to head and foot of pine and starting of front joint; internal;t some toning, still a pleasing copy of a rare 17th century English medical work. Ref: Wing M2832; NOT in Garrison-Morton or Waller.
So, how much is this old book worth?
This is the type of work that I really enjoy buying – a scarce and attractive 17th century work that is not fully appreciated by the auction records. Indeed, while it is uncommon in commerce, in 2000 a copy at Swann Galleries barely made $230- a rather trifling sum for such an interesting work. It is quite unfortunate, that with the transparency and widespread availability of auction records, a poor sales record for even a single copy can often set a unfair ceiling on what many collectors will pay- a sort of Scarlet A[uction record] that hangs on the neck of the book. Nevertheless, a modest profit on this type of work can be made when properly cataloged and offered to the right appreciative collector or Institutional library.
Indeed, this is a fascinating work. The author, Richard Morton (1637–1698), was an English physician “who was the first to state that tubercles were always present in the tuberculosis disease of the lungs.” according to the oft quoted Wikipedia. Digging deeper, however, into this modest book on fevers, Morton presents himself as a firm advocate of Peruvian bark as an antidote, proclaiming its “Herculean” properties to cure fever. While not understood at the time, the reason was that the compound quinine occurs naturally in the bark of Cinchona trees.
Of even greater historical but related interest are Morton’s remarks on the sudden death of Oliver Cromwell, who died of an intermittent fever as his physicians (in Morton’s view) were too timid to make use of the bark. What would have happened had Cromwell not have died, passing his reigns to his ineffective son Richard who failed in his attempt to carry on his father’s role as leader of the Commonwealth. Only nine months later, the Monarchy was restored. Just imagine how a little bit of tree bark could have changed the course of human history!