Stars & Surgery: History of Science Collections at St John’s College Library

Our Hilary Term 2020 exhibition focuses on astronomical and medical items in the library’s special collection. A mix of manuscripts, letters and early printed books, Stars & Surgery provides a glimpse into the understanding of science in the past. Read about some of the highlights below.

This exhibition is an extension of the event Thinking 3D: History of Science in Oxford College Libraries, which took place on 25th October 2019.

Peter Apian, Astronomicum Caesareum (Ingolstadt, 1540)

Famed for works in mathematics, astronomy and cosmography in the 16th century, Peter Apian (1495-1552) created this magnificent book embodying the Ptolemaic model of the solar system, just a few years before the rise of the heliocentric theory.

The vibrant diagrams are all hand-coloured volvelles; a type of analogue computer constructed out of paper used to calculate the time and duration of astronomical and astrological movement. Each volvelle consists of several rotating parts, fixed to the book by thread ties, originally decorated with seed pearls, which have been lost from our copy over time. There are 21 full pages with moving parts, making this one of the most extensive sets of such instruments.

With this volume, Apian intended for his contemporaries to be able to cast horoscopes, without using the complicated mathematics that was associated with astronomy and astrology at the time. Frequently he uses the birthday of his patron, Charles V, and of his brother and Co-emperor Ferdinand I, throughout the text to exemplify this.

The library’s copy of Astronomicum Caesareum was given by Archbishop Laud in 1635, and can be seen Hilary Term 2020 in the new Library & Study Centre.

Euclid, Elements

Euclid of Alexandria (c. 300 BCE) is a famed Greek mathematician who lived during the reign on Ptolemy I. Not a lot is known about his life, however, his collective text Elements has been characterised as “the most famous textbook ever published.”

St John’s alumnus, Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, scholar from 1924-29 and honorary fellow from 1985 until his death in 1993, bequeathed his collection of around 1,100 works on the history of mathematics and astronomy to the library. Included in this collection are over thirty editions of Euclid’s Elements. The two images above show the earliest and latest editions that arrived with the Bulmer-Thomas bequest, the one on the right from 1482, and the one on the left 1847.

Issued by Erhard Ratdolt of Venice, the 1482 version is one of the first printed editions, and marks a pioneering attempt to produce a mathematical text illustrated by geometric figures, of which there are over 400. Based on an earlier translation from Arabic to Latin, presumed to have been made by Adelard of Bath in the 12th century, this edition inspired other printers to create similar items.

The latest edition of The Elements of Euclid from the Bulmer-Thomas collection was illustrated by Irish professor of mathematics, Oliver Byrne, and published by William Pickering in 1847. As well as being one of the first multi-coloured printed books, the striking use of colour and lack of text in this edition distinguishes it from other versions, as Byrne attempted to minimise textual analysis.   

Oliver Byrne’s 1847 edition of The Elements of Euclid

Though the information has remained largely the same in these texts, it is interesting to see the development in presentation between the earlier and later copies. There is an additional third edition on display from 1686.

William of Parma, Chirurgia

William of Parma (also known as William of Saliceto) was a thirteenth century Italian surgeon and teacher, practising in Cremona, Milan and Bologna. While teaching, he wrote a variety of medical texts, including his Chirurgia, or Surgery. The image above shows a leaf from a fourteenth century manuscript copy of this text.

This manuscript, completed with coloured drawings of surgical implements, was originally compiled as a practitioner’s handbook, based on William of Parma’s own experiences during surgery. It helped to renew an interest in human anatomy among physicians at the time by promoting the use of the knife over cauterisation. Space at the edges of the text was left for personal observations, and has been used for various notes added by later hands, suggesting that this volume was a functional tool.

The original owner of this manuscript, John Wryghtson, has written a curse before the beginning of the text:

‘Thys boke ys on crystys curs ys anodyr / he that stellyth the ton y pray goed send  hym þe todyr’

The exhibition will run during Hilary Term 2020, and is open to all members of College and their guests, and alumni with up to three guests. Members of the public wishing to see the exhibition should contact the Librarian ( in advance.


Ashworth Underwood, E. (1949). Some surgeons of the Middle Ages. Milestones in Medicine, 7, 112-113.

Cunha, F. (1941). William of Saliceto – the school of Bologna: Incunabula Medica V. The American Journal of Surgery, 52(1), 144-149.

Swetz, F.J. & Katz, V.J. (2011). Mathematical treasure: Oliver Byrne’s Euclid. Convergence. Retrieved: 04-03-2020 from:

Swetz, F.J. (2012). Mathematical treasure: Ratdolt’s Euclid’s Elements. Convergence. Retrieved: 04-03-2020 from:

Information about the Astronomicum Caesareum was largely taken from a previous exhibition held at St John’s Library: Revolutions, curated by former College Librarian, Stewart Tiley.

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