A recent addition to our holdings on the history of medicine is a fascinating collection of twenty-five university dissertations, treatises, prize-winning essays, books, and reports, on the subject of milk. Ranging from 1659 to 1822, and published across Europe, these works are extraordinary witnesses of how milk was thoroughly studied from a chemical, medicinal, nutritional, and even a social perspective.
For instance, one of the earliest works in this collection deals with the coagulation of breast milk (De ΘΡΟΜΒΩΣΕΙ h.e. lactis in mammis coagulatione), a dissertation printed in Basil in 1670 and eventually defended by the student Nicolaus Grosjean.
In the prologue, the author lists three potential problems that human milk might present. Like semen, blood, or many other components of the human body, the production of milk could be excessive, lacking, or corrupted (lac, ut semen, sanguis & alia plurima in corpore humano, vel redundat, vel deficit, vel depravatur).
The medical and nutritional benefits of milk, from both humans and animals, are also explained in treatises such as Bernandin Martin’s Traite de l’usage du lait (Paris: Denys Thierry, 1684), where the author examines the properties of milk of certain animals, and in an innovative work on the use of milk to cure arthritis, Tractatus medicus de cura lactis in arthritide (Bautzen: Andreas Richter, 1681), by Johann Georg Greisel.
There are also treatises dealing with the role of milk in society. For example, Abbildung und Beschreibung eines englischen Milch-Hauses (Leipzig: Baumgärtnerischen Buchhandlung, 1799) is a German translation of James Anderson's On the Management of the Dairy. It includes a folded copperplate engraving that describes the structure of an English milk house. Also of great social and historical interest is John Christian Curwen 's On the means of supplying milk for the poor (London: W. Bulmer and Co. Cleveland-Row, 1806), a report addressed to the Board of Agriculture where the author emphasizes the importance of milk as a source of nutrition for all members of society, particularly during the winter months.
And even more importantly, most of these editions are extremely rare, being held only in one or two other American libraries.