Rare medical book collection tracks tangled history of women’s health


Women’s health makes headlines in 2022. But it took centuries for the medical profession to characterize and understand reproduction, menstruation and childbirth.

That bumpy history is captured in a new display of antique books at Second Story Books in D.C. The rare volumes — all on view, for sale and available to handle — track centuries of evolving knowledge in the fields of gynecology, obstetrics and more.

Featuring 93 books on women’s health, the collection showcases how early physicians thought about female anatomy, reproduction, pregnancy and childbirth.

Most were written by men, but one 1833 volume on maladies of the uterus was penned by Marie-Anne Victoire Gillain Boivin, a French midwife-turned-obstetrician who helped pioneer the field of obstetrics, invented an early speculum and was among the first to listen to the fetal heartbeat with a stethoscope.

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The most valuable book in the collection is A.B. Granville’s 1834 “Graphic Illustrations of Abortion and the Diseases of Menstruation.” A prolific researcher who campaigned against midwives in an attempt to bring pregnancy and childbirth under the control of physicians, Granville wrote extensively about conception and pregnancy in a time of high maternal and infant mortality.

The book contains striking color illustrations of fetuses and uteruses at all stages of development and pregnancy — the consequences of what Granville called “morbid menstruation.”

At the time, the term “abortion” included miscarriage. But Granville also helped women end their pregnancies by administering herbs such as savin in his private practice.

The books come from the collection of the late Milford “Mickey” Foxwell Jr., a physician who became a clinician and educator at the University of Maryland and served as its medical school’s admissions director. A dissecting laboratory at the university bears his name.

Foxwell was a connoisseur of medical history, and his books document the profession’s evolving knowledge about the human body. Second Story Books is selling more than 2,000 of Foxwell’s books from the 17th through 20th centuries.