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Popular Medicine in America, 1800-1900

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Reference Reviews, May 2016

Popular Medicine in America, 1800-1900 gives access to an incredible collection of over 5,000 primary documents (pamphlets, books, advertisements, posters, ephemera, etc.) marketing medicines and health products to the American public. It provides an amazing window into the health-care market of the nineteenth century.

Documents included in this resource are from the medical collection at the Library Company of Philadelphia and selected materials from the ARS Medica Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Unfortunately, it does not appear that there are any plans to incorporate additional collections or otherwise expand this resource. It does, however, provide links to external collections of digitized, online collections on similar topics from places like the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, John Hopkins School of Medicine, etc.

While the primary focus of Popular Medicine in America, 1800-1900 is medical information directed at the American public during the nineteenth century, it actually contains documents dating from 1676 to as late as 1985. The topics covered are many and varied including child rearing, patent medicines, medical devices, homeopathy, phrenology and more.

Searching the collection is very straightforward. A basic search box is found on every page, and an advanced search option is available. The advanced search page offers several search boxes and uses Boolean operators. A handy link to Search Tips appears on the advanced search page, and provides detailed information on search functionality. Phrase searching, wildcard and proximity searching are also supported. Search fields are limited to keywords anywhere, title and company. Searches may be limited by date and filtered by document type, theme (subject) and source library. An alphabetical list of the contents is also available for browsing.

Search results show a thumbnail of the document, the title, date, document type and theme (subject). Once an item is selected from the list of results, a page opens showing every instance of the search term(s) in the document, the page number, section of the document (introduction, etc.), the number of hits on that page and a small image of the first occurrence of the search term within the page. Selecting an item from the list opens that page of the document. Here, you can zoom in and out, enlarge to full-screen and rotate the image. You can also page forward and back, go to another page in the document by entering a page number and jump to the most previous hit or the next hit. Images are of very high quality, 300 dpi, crisp and easy to read. In a few instances, the original document is damaged, and this affects the readability of the image.

A large portion of the collection is made up of advertisements utilizing artwork, so much so that an image gallery is available for those wishing to peruse the images. The images are beautifully done and well represent the advertising art of the day. Curiously, it is often impossible to tell just what is being offered; there is no telling what these pills, tonics and powders do. But the artwork is wonderful.

Users can set up an account to save searches and documents. Documents can also be downloaded for paying subscribers. However, this was not available to the reviewer, so I am unable to comment on the quality or ease of the use of downloaded documents. Metadata is included for each item, and includes title, a reference number, library (owner of document), date, theme(s) (subjects), keywords, visual content and copyright holder.

Additional features of Popular Medicine in America, 1800-1900 include essays by the editorial board to help introduce the database, sub-collections organized by theme or subject, online exhibits, a chronology of events in the history of medicine to provide context, a glossary, links to external sources as discussed earlier and a list of popular searches. These sections, while not essential to the use and function of the database, are nonetheless interesting and fun to explore.

Popular Medicine in America, 1800-1900 will be a valuable resource for anyone doing research on the history of medicine, popular culture or medical marketing during that era. The information is well organized, and searching is uncomplicated. The images are of very high quality and easy to read. Popular Medicine in America, 1800-1900 is recommended for libraries supporting history of medicine, American culture and history of business/marketing collections. For anyone wishing to see an overview of this resource, there is well-done video on the Adam Matthew Web site (

Alisa Mizikar, Reference/Science Librarian, Wittenberg University, Ohio
Reference Reviews, May 2016