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A very Victorian mutilation


Jacob Rueff (1500-1558) worked mainly as a surgeon in Zurich but also had responsibility for training midwives. His book De conceptu et generatione hominis (1554), written essentially as a manual for midwives, is important for its emphasis and also its illustrations of anatomy in relation to obstetrics. Divided into six sections, the book covers the entire cycle of pregnancy, starting with conception and ending with causes and remedies for sterility. The work is full of remarkable woodcuts, including anatomical drawings, obstetrical instruments and the various positions of the fetus within the uterus as well as pictures of deformed infants.

The Library’s copy of De conceptu has several unusual features, including what appears to be the original C16th calf binding, complete with C15th manuscript pastedown. In addition, the book has the signature and also annotations in the hand of Thomas Newton (1544/5-1607), an English physician, clergyman, poet, author and translator. Newton was born in Cheshire and educated at Macclesfield Grammar School, and between 1569 and 1596 he published perhaps twenty books on a wide range of subjects, including an edition of Seneca’s Tragedies and a work on physick and physicians.

Perhaps most remarkable, however, is the savage mutilation that the book has undergone. Many of the illustrations, particularly of deformed infants, have been cut out altogether, often very crudely. By way of explanation, a letter has been attached at the front of the book. Dating from 1878, it is in the hand of J. Frederick Becon of Beaumaris, offering the work to the Cheshire historian J. P. Earwaker. He writes:

“I have much pleasure in asking you to accept the book containing the Newton autograph. I cut out some of the most disgusting of the monstrosities, without (I think) much impairing the letter-press. Should you not like to retain the book, it might perhaps be an acceptable addition to the medical books at the Chetham Library.”


Evidently Earwaker declined to accept the book, making his loss the the Library’s gain, despite Becon’s savagery. As an example of censorship, it is remarkable for the extent and sheer barbarism of his cutting. A very beautiful and important work, which remained a key text for midwives for over a hundred years, has been reduced to little more than a series of scraps.

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