Doctors on the books

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust
Published online: 6 July 2015

The Leslie Cowlishaw Collection is a priceless collection of rare medical books tracing the evolution of medicine from Hippocrates to the early 1940s. It is housed at the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in Melbourne and will shortly be showcased during Rare Books Week

The Melbourne headquarters of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) is an impressive edifice, situated on historic Spring Street on the eastern edge of the CBD.

Inside it is equally impressive, the Council Room in particular, with its walls lined with the portraits of past presidents all the way from Sir George Syme, KBE, and a huge oval table surrounded by leather chairs and bookcases.

The books on those shelves, the artwork, and the various pieces donated to the College over the years — including a magnificent “bog” oak dining table dating back to Charles II — are the responsibility of the College’s curator, Geoff Down.

Prominent among the rare and historic books in the RACS’s possession is the Leslie Cowlishaw Collection.

Dr Leslie Cowlishaw was a Sydney physician who, from the time of his graduation in 1906 until his death in 1943, collected around 2000 rare books documenting the evolution of medicine.

Mr Down, who has curated the RACS’s rare and historic book collection for 10 years, has still only made it through just over half of the Cowlishaw Collection.

The earliest book dates back to 1483 — Avicenna’s Canon medicinae (The canon of medicine) — and there are seven other incunabula (books printed before 1501) in the Collection.

There is a 2nd edition of Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica (On the fabric of the human body); a 1483 printing of Celsus; 18 editions of Hippocrates; and five editions of Galen.

Dr Cowlishaw originally wanted his collection to belong to the Royal College of Physicians, but at the time of his death in 1943, the College did not have the resources to house or maintain the collection, and it was put up for auction.

Ken Russell, at the time a trainee with the RACS and who would go on to become an eminent medical historian, was in Sydney visiting his sick father when he heard the Cowlishaw Collection was up for sale. He contacted Dr Gordon Wheeler, the secretary of the RACS.

A quick phone call to Sir Alan Newton, then president of the College, led to a fast decision. “Buy it. It doesn’t matter how much it costs, just buy it.”

Bought by the College of Surgeons in 1943 for £2750, the collection is priceless today.

“That’s a discussion we have with the College’s insurers every year”, Mr Down tells the MJA. “This is a collector’s collection. Books like these are bought and sold at auctions. You only know what they’re worth when someone at an auction puts up a bid.”

Mr Down will give a presentation on the Leslie Cowlishaw Collection at this month’s Melbourne Rare Book Week.

Also presenting at Rare Book Week is Dr Jonathan Burdon, a Melbourne-based respiratory physician who will present on “Medicine in Melbourne in the time of La Trobe” on Friday 17 July.

Dr Burdon, a co-convenor of Rare Book Week, tells the MJA that public health was almost non-existent when Charles Joseph La Trobe was Superintendent of the Port Phillip District in the late 1830s.

“At the time, the mortality rate, particularly in children, was very high”, Dr Burdon says. Infectious diseases, notably typhoid, gastrointestinal ailments, tuberculosis and syphilis, were the major culprits in a city without a constructed sewage system.

Also presenting is Dr Felix Behan, who will speak about French surgical books from the 16th to the 18th century, focusing particularly on the writing of Ambroise Paré, considered the “father of modern surgery” in France.

Melbourne Rare Book Week:

Dr Jonathan Burdon: Medicine in Melbourne in the time of La Trobe; 6.30 pm–8.30 pm on Friday 17 July at Morgans, 401 Collins Street, Melbourne. Bookings required at

Dr Felix Behan: French surgical books from the 16th to the 18th century; 7 pm–8 pm on Tuesday 21 July at the Hughes Room, Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, Spring Street, Melbourne.

Mr Geoff Down: Dr Leslie Cowlishaw and his book collection; 7 pm–8 pm on Wednesday 22 July at the Hughes Room, Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, Spring Street, Melbourne.

A podcast with Geoff Down about the Cowlishaw Collection is available at and iTunes. It is also available as a video at

  • Cate Swannell



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