Friday, July 20, 2012

Knowlton’s Books

Dan Allosso

I recently made a trip over to the Franklin County Courthouse in Greenfield, Massachusetts, to see if they had any documents in their Probate Office on the families I’ve been researching.  I should have done this a long time ago, but I never managed to get around to it.  Now that I’m leaving the area, I had to get over there or lose the chance.  It was worth the trip.  I found wills and estate inventories for several of my people.  Most importantly, I found a huge folder for Dr. Charles Knowlton (1800-1850), including the will and inventory, an inventory of items sold in the estate sale (and who they were sold to!), and guardianship papers and accounts for the minor children Knowlton left behind.  You can learn a lot about your subject from these documents.  Who were his friends?  Who did he trust to look after his children?  Who owed him money?

One of the most interesting things for me, so far at least, has been the inventory.  It lists everything from horses and buggies (how did he get around when seeing patients?) to featherbeds and mustard spoons (what did the house and furnishings look like?).  The list of medical devices was surprising, and suggests (I’m going to check with a couple of historians of medicine to be sure) Knowlton was at the cutting edge of his profession.

And then there are the books.

By cross-referencing between the inventory and the estate sale documents, I think I’ve managed to identify nearly all of the books in Charles Knowlton’s library.  The majority of them are medical texts, as might be expected.  There are 72 titles I was able to identify, but many of them contained multiple volumes (largest being Braithwaite's Retrospect with 18 vols.), so the actual count was easily over a hundred books.  This seems like quite a large collection for a country doctor.  And interestingly, they aren’t all dated around the period when Knowlton was studying medicine (the mid-1820s).  Several of them were brand new at the time of his death (1850), which again validates the idea that Knowlton was trying to stay up to date on the very latest procedures and techniques.  In addition to the texts, he subscribed to several regional and national medical journals – one of which, The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, he was a regular contributor to.

I don’t know enough yet about these medical texts to say whether this collection represents a particular medical point of view, but I notice there are a lot of anatomy texts and a lot of texts on treating women.  This makes sense, given Knowlton’s interest in birth control, women’s health, and women’s rights in general.  Interestingly, one of the books in what I’m calling the Freethought section of his library is Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Which brings us to the non-medical portion of the collection.  The general library contained 28 titles, many of which (such as Peregrine Pickle) were probably books used in the education of the Knowltons’ three children or for family entertainment.  The Freethought library, in contrast, contained 43 titles.  I’m making value judgments here, assigning texts to one category or another.  Clearly, Knowlton’s medicine was influenced by his philosophy.  And clearly, even a book like Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language could be political.  But also obviously, the Thomas Paine texts belong in Freethought, as do the histories of religion (Knowlton liked to understand the other position, and anticipate his opponent’s argument in debate).  And I’ve also put Democracy in America and Weld’s American Slavery As it Is in this section, because I think Freethought was very political for Knowlton, and his ideas about America were tightly bound to this perspective.

Charles Knowlton died in 1850, so of course we don’t see one of the foundational texts of contemporary secularism, Darwin’s Origin of Species. Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of The Natural History of Creation, however, is right where it ought to be on Knowlton’s shelf.  This is remarkable, and it demonstrates not only Charles Knowlton’s incredible coolness, but that if anything, James Secord underestimated the importance of Chambers’s anticipation of Darwin’s theory of evolution in his book, Victorian Sensation.

To see the list of Knowlton’s books, complete with links to the Google or viewable copies, check out to my post at here.

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