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Archives and Special Collections: Rare and Early Printed Books: History of science

The history of science is one of our subject strengths. The core is formed by the astronomical library of the Durham Observatory and the early printed books of the University's Science Library. In addition, we have a very good collection of early modern medicine in the Kellett Collection. Natural philosophy is covered very well in the Bamburgh Library, and includes first editions of works by Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, as well as large runs of the Royal Society's Philosophical transactions and the French Journal des Sçavans.

Early modern publications on geography, ethnography and exploration can mainly be found in the Routh Collection, but also in the Bamburgh Library and elsewhere in our collections. Natural history is represented by the Whitehead Collection with its focus on deer management and hunting, as well as works on individual species of plants and animals. There are various archives relating to the history of science, such as the papers of Durham academics and material by or about Thomas Wright.

The Library at Ushaw College also has an extensive range of works on early modern medicine, natural history and other scientific works.

Our collections

early modern woodcut of star constellations

The Durham Observatory Library, usually identifiable by its bookplate, contains books and pamphlets on meteorology and astronomy, mostly from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. There is a small number of earlier works - often in translation and in later editions - of European and English astronomers and scientists such as Christian Huygens, Isaac Newton, John Flamsteed and Alexander von Humboldt. An early twentieth-century library catalogue can be found in the observatory archives.

Astronomical works also appear in our other collections, for example Galileo Galilei's Sidereus nuncius (1610); Johannes Kepler's Tabulae Rudolphinae (1629); and the unauthorised edition of John Flamsteed's Historia coelestis Britannica (1712). Several works by Petrus Apianus represent early astronomy and cosmography. Instrument Buch (1533) and Cosmographia (1584) with a commentary by Gemma Frisius still have volvelles present. In the case of the Instrument Buch the volvelles remain unassembled. Another rare publication is Edmund Halley's Astronomiae cometicae synopsis (1705), which he correctly identified the return in 1758 of the comet now named after him.

Our archival material relating to the local astronomer Thomas Wright is supplemented by "Wrightiana", a small collection of material relating to him.

Natural philosophy - a phrase used to describe the sciences before the nineteenth century - covers chemistry, physics and metaphysics, biology, and mathematics. It intersects with medicine, astronomy, cosmology, and geography. Most early modern natural philosophers were interested in theology and linguistics as well.

Our collections feature the works of well-known natural philosophers such as Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, and Thomas Browne, many in first editions, such as Newton's Principia (1687) and his Opticks (1704), and twenty-four works by Boyle.

Archbishop John Sharp, whose books form part of the Bamburgh Library, had a strong interest in the publications of the Royal Society, and the library contains extensive runs of the Philosophical transactions (1665-1780) and its French equivalent Journal des sçavans (1665-1778). His sons and grandsons similarly kept an eye on scientific developments.

Moreover, the Elliott Collection contains about 80 volumes on cryptography (study of secret languages) and other scientific works, such as the first edition of Johannes Trithemius' Polygraphiae libri sex (1518) and Robert Hooke's Micrographia (1665). The library of Dr Thomas Winterbottom, a physician from South Shields (1766-1859), despite being stripped of its medical contents, still contains some interesting scientific works, such as Joseph Priestley's The history and present state of discoveries relating to vision, light and colours (1772).


Within the history of medicine we have a good range of publications from the early modern period, mainly Title page of the second edition of Vesalius's book on anatomy.from the collection of Dr Charles Kellett (1908-1978), supplemented by individual works in other collections such as Cosin's Library and the Bamburgh Library.

The Kellett collection focuses in particular on sixteenth and seventeenth-century anatomical teaching and illustration in France and Italy, including for example Charles Estienne's De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres (1545) and various printed editions of Galen's works. Some material is available in modern facsimile editions, such as the first edition of Vesalius' De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (originally published in 1543). Kellett also donated his working notes for publications and lectures as well as his slides.

In Cosin's Library, we have a second edition of Vesalius' De fabrica, published in 1555. The Sharps had an interest in practical medicine as part of their charitable activities. Although many medical works were inherited by a younger brother, a physician in London, some material remains in the Bamburgh Library.

Colour illustration of a little owl from Selby's Illustrations of British ornithology From Prudeaux Selby's colourful Illustrations of British ornithology (1825-1833) and Thomas Bewick's natural history engravings to a book collection on all aspects of deer management and hunting, natural history is well represented in our collections. G. Kenneth Whitehead (1913-2004) was interested in all types of deer and in hunting big game. Many books contain plates and illustrations by well-known wildlife artists, such as J.G. Millais and Edwin Landseer. The broad interests of the Sharp family also included natural history, from birds to insects.

Alongside works on animals and insects, we have a small number of herbals and botanical texts, such as John Gerard's Herball, amended by Thomas Johnson (1633), John Parkinson's Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris (1629 and 1656), and works on plants from around the world.

Availability online (digital images)

These collections have not been digitised, so that only the catalogues are currently available online.

If you would like to purchase digital copies of specific items from any of our collections, please use our online enquiry form.

If you are a member of teaching staff at Durham University and would like to use material from Archives and Special Collections within your lectures or seminars, we may be able to scan or photograph items for this purpose.  Please contact us as early as possible with any teaching digitisation requests.

See also our guide to Digitised Collections Online for further information on our digital resources.

Access to original sources

The collections mentioned above are located at Palace Green Library.  Our current opening hours are as follows, but see also below.

  • Monday to Friday: 10am to 4:30pm
  • Saturday: closed
  • Sunday: closed

For further information on visiting to use the collections, please use our enquiry form.

See separate Libraries and Site Information guide for further information on Palace Green Library.

Appointments are strongly recommended for all visits, please use the enquiry form to book.  Please give three working days notice when possible and include a full list of document references or shelfmarks so that we can best enable your research access.

Where to start

Sources elsewhere