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William Cheselden. The anatomy of the human body. London, 1763. Library of Congress, Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Thomas Jefferson Library Collection. Sowerby 1534.

An Anatomy of Thomas Jefferson

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When the United States Congress purchased Thomas Jefferson’s private library in 1815, it contained books on nearly every topic available at the time. Included in the collection was a copy of The Anatomy of the Human Body by William Cheselden, printed in London in 1763

William Cheselden. The anatomy of the human body. London, 1763. Library of Congress, Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Thomas Jefferson Library Collection. Sowerby 1534.

William Cheselden (1688-1752) was an English surgeon and anatomist. His Anatomy of the Human Body was widely popular among physicians and the intellectually curious throughout the 18th century, and it was printed in nearly 20 editions after its initial publication in 1713. Cheselden was especially well known for his large, beautifully illustrated Osteographia, or the Anatomy of The Bones, which was published in 1733.

William Cheselden. The anatomy of the human body. London, 1763. Library of Congress, Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Thomas Jefferson Library Collection. Sowerby 1534.

Thomas Jefferson collected books on every available subject, including anatomy. His varied collection was likely inspired by the philosopher Francis Bacon‘s (1561—1626) organization of knowledge into the categories of “Memory,” “Reason,” and “Imagination.” Jefferson reinterpreted Bacon’s categories into his own thematic arrangement of “History,” “Philosophy,” and “Fine Arts,” and he then further divided these larger categories into more than forty sub-fields. I believe Jefferson used this framework as a collecting guide and that he tried to fill-in every subject niche with a book, much as a collector today will try to obtain a first edition of every book on a specific topic or genre or by a certain author (or baseball cards, or comic books, etc.).

Jefferson rarely annotated his books beyond his ownership initials, so we often don’t know what he thought of them, or if he even read them, unless he mentioned them in letters or journals. Did he actually read this anatomy book, with its detailed descriptions and illustrations of skeletons and internal organs?

Rare handwritten notes left in the book suggest that Jefferson read it very carefully and that he wasn’t squeamish about the topic. For instance, he made some annotations correcting typographical errors, as on p. 28 where the text says “os bubis”, and he corrects the Latin error from “bubis” to correctly read “pubis.” So, not only did Jefferson read this book, he also knew what the “os pubis” was: the pubic bone.

Jefferson also wrote a longer annotation that showed he was making connections between this book and others that he owned. On page 11 where Cheselden’s text discusses the sutures of the skull, Jefferson quotes in the original Greek about the aftermath of the ancient Battle of Plataea from The Histories by Herodotus, in Book 9, Chapter 83. The lines are translated by A. D. Godley as, “[When their bodies (which the Plataeans gathered into one place) were laid bare of flesh,] a skull was found of which the bone was all of one piece without suture. A jawbone also came to light in which the teeth of the upper jaw were one whole, a single bone, front teeth and grinders, and one could see the body of a man of five cubits stature.”

These annotations suggest that Thomas Jefferson knew quite a bit more about the bones and flesh of our bodies than we might have expected of a linguist and a statesman, and that Jefferson connected his study of the human body with his reading of ancient history and literature.

More than 200 years later, Jefferson’s collecting has bequeathed to Library patrons Cheselden’s useful, if somewhat eerie images, that, perhaps more than Herodotus, bring to mind upcoming celebrations for Halloween and the Day of the Dead.

William Cheselden. The anatomy of the human body. London, 1763. Library of Congress, Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Thomas Jefferson Library Collection. Sowerby 1534.

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