Sunday, May 24, 2020

A Book I Shouldn't Have Had Yet

Dr. Herbert M. Evans, 1882-1971

The book’s the thing, but sometimes it is more than that.  An acquisition can leave a deep impression or even a scar.  And when you hold the book, you feel life, or death. 
            It is the third month of the 2020 Pandemic, and maybe I have spent too much time with my books.  (Can there be such a problem?).  But the world is not as it should be, and every venture out brings an awkward tension between masked and maskless.  And so it is with this story: excitement and incredulity tempered with fear.  We begin with two doctors and end with a third, all notable book collectors.
            The book is the rare, privately printed catalogue Medical Library Belonging to Herbert M. Evans (Berkeley: 1931).  The bookseller description records 202 mimeographed sheets with additions and deletions using pasted slips, as well as a few scattered holograph corrections.  It is a quarto bound in blue cloth; the paper spine label reads “Evans Library of Medical Classics 1932.”  The pastedown has Evans’ bookplate and the front free endpaper the following inscription, “To my friend Elmer Belt, Herbert M. Evans, Berkeley, March 14, 1936” with Belt’s bookplate below.
            The book appeared for sale online with ABAA bookseller Jeff Weber of Carlsbad, California.  I ordered it within minutes of receiving the want match.  I am usually as quick a draw as any collector who rides the range of rare books, but I lost this showdown to an unknown bookslinger.  I was feeling forlorn.  This was an exceptional association copy that fit perfectly with my other holdings.  I sent an admittedly desperate email inquiry to Weber and received a courteous reply that the buyer was keeping it.  The battle was over.  Move on, and I sulked, but I couldn’t help but research further.   
            Dr. Herbert M. Evans (1882-1971) was proclaimed by bookseller and friend Jake Zeitlin as “the greatest collector of science books of all time” in his 1982 essay on “Southern California’s Collection Builders.”  Evans built five major collections of rare science books in his lifetime.  This private catalogue represented his early efforts as a collector and reflects the development of his collecting. 
Evans distinguished himself as an undergraduate student at UC-Berkeley, completed medical school at Johns Hopkins, and eventually returned to the Berkeley campus in 1915 as Professor of Anatomy.  While at Johns Hopkins, Evans was greatly influenced by William Osler and Harvey Cushing, famed doctors, and book collectors.  Osler and Cushing played a primary role in stimulating Evans’ enthusiasm for the history of science and medicine.  Evans’ chief interest as a doctor was research and teaching rather than practical medicine.  He was the co-discoverer of Vitamin E, for example, and isolated Human Growth Hormone, essential for human growth and development.  He was an internationally known authority on the pituitary gland and was acknowledged generally for his studies in embryology and endocrinology.
            Given Evans’ lifelong obsession with book collecting, it is remarkable he found time to research and teach.  Donald Dickinson in Dictionary of American Book Collectors writes, “Evans turned to collecting landmarks in the history of science.  To start his collection Evans wrote to the leaders in each scientific discipline asking them to identify the basic monographs in their own area.  Building on this advice, he acquired the books and produced an exemplary catalog of 114 works entitled Exhibition of First Editions of Epochal Achievements in the History of Science (1934).  In the brief introduction Evans stated the case for collecting first editions.  Evans said one needed these ‘first fruits’ in order to understand subsequent achievements.
My copy presented from Evans to Jake Zeitlin
“Between 1930 and 1965, Los Angeles bookdealer Jake Zeitlin estimated that Evans purchased no less than 20,000 volumes in the history of science.  In addition, he formed two large collections of western Americana and a sizable general library of poetry, art, and literature.  Unfortunately, his appetite for books was not backed by a large personal fortune.  As bills accumulated, Evans would sell.  Before the creditors were satisfied, however, he would start buying again. 
            “His first large science library went from Zeitlin to Lessing J. Rosenwald and from Rosenwald to the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton.  The second Evans library was divided between Bern Dibner and E. L. DeGolyer, again through Zeitlin’s efforts.  Subsequent collections went to the Universities of Chicago, Texas, and Utah and to numerous private collectors.  In most of these negotiations Evans was represented by Zeitlin in Los Angeles and Warren Howell in San Francisco.  Evans was an energetic and knowledgeable bibliophile with a thorough understanding of the importance of first editions.  His books now form the basis of some of the greatest history of science libraries in the United States.”
            The recipient of the catalogue, Dr. Elmer Belt (1893-1980), was a renowned urologist and graduate of UC-Berkeley where he received his B.A., M.A., and M.D.  He was also an exceptional book collector.  Moreover, he was a member of the first anatomy class Dr. Evans taught at Berkeley. 
E. C. Amoroso and G. W. Corner write in “Herbert McLean Evans, 1882-1971: A Biographical Memoir (1972),  “Years later [Belt] recalled Herbert Evans and his young associates, ‘The effect of their scholarship and idealism upon the freshman class in medicine was electric.  Each of us realized how great an opportunity it was to enter the study of medicine under their guidance and for us the study of medicine became an obsession.  The routine work of gross dissection and histology was time-consuming but most of us, in addition, were stimulated to take up a separate problem in research.  We were thus led to seek out and read recent contributions to the literature concerned with our special subjects.  This pursuit inevitably led us to doubt didactic textbook statements unless verified by our own personal observations.  This atmosphere of doubt and verification prevailed through the department and led to intense application.  For most of us this was our first taste of scholarly research.’”
            Amoroso and Corner record Dr. Evans’ more personal recollection of the young Belt, “Typical of Evans' attitude towards the industrious, talented and zealous student was the story he told, when addressing the medical history section of the newly formed University of California Medical School at Los Angeles, of one such (Elmer Belt) who contrived to enter the Anatomy Department after the doors were locked at 5.45 p.m. to continue his dissections at night, thus permitting extra time for his researches. He said that Benjamin Wheeler had called him to his office and told him that the campus police reported seeing a student enter an unlocked window of the anatomy building nightly. 'Did Dr Evans know this student? What did he intend to do about it?' Said Dr Evans 'Were I not fearful of frightening the student away from such devotion to anatomy, I would call him before the class and bestow honors upon him.'
Belt’s “intense application” carried over into other areas. Jake Zeitlin writes, “Book collecting was a lifetime addiction of Dr. Belt.  He began at 12 years of age with a little group of Elzeviers which he acquired while working part-time at Dawson’s bookshop.  Herbert M. Evans inspired Belt to collect his great library of books by and about Leonardo di Vinci.  Elmer Belt bought two sets of Verga’s Bibliographia Vinciani in 1928.  He gave one of them to me and said, ‘I want every book in here, I can spend so much a month.  If you treat me fairly you can go on for years.  If you overcharge me, you are through.’  For almost forty years, I have had the good fortune to work with him and with Kate Steinitz, his librarian.  During those years, his collection became the lodestone of research for scholars from all parts of the world; it is now housed in separate quarters at U.C.L.A.”
            Rare bookselling is a trade usually learned through apprenticeship.  But less obvious is that book collecting is often grounded in a form of apprenticeship; in this case Osler and Cushing influencing Evans who influenced Belt, with a strong dose of Zeitlin added.  Evans’s private library catalogue presented to Belt reflects not only an outstanding association copy but exemplifies the spider-web of connections among collecting contemporaries.  So, you can now see my disappointment at missing it.
            My books and intermittent real estate work have helped to distract from the all too consuming news feed of pandemic deaths and unprecedented social upheaval.   A numbness and continuous low-grade anxiety have crept in making it hard to concentrate.  Billions of us are feeling some form of it.   In this dour mood, I did a routine email check.  A tingle of unexpected excitement.  Bookseller Jeff Weber sent me the following: 
“Dear Kurt, Do you still want to buy the [Evans] book you asked for earlier?  It appears that I am able to buy it back. . . I’ll tell you the story if you want the book.”  Best, Jeff.”
My reply was a quick “Yes” combined with intense curiosity.
Jeff responded, “Very good.  The book will be yours once I receive it.  You are lucky to get the book given that someone ordered and bought it prior to your order.  So how can it come your way now?  I had told the buyer that you wanted the book and he said he wanted to keep it.  The story should have been done there.
            “The buyer was James Tait Goodrich, a world-renowned neurosurgeon.  He also bought and sold medical books, which I suspect you well know.  The trouble was that after he ordered the book, he died due to the coronavirus.  I don’t know the exact sequence of time, but Jim had ordered a number of books and this one he expressed to me that he had been looking for over many years.  He was thrilled to receive it.  Jim succumbed to the virus and died within just nine days.  He didn’t go to the hospital for care until he had a well-advanced case.  I don’t think he could have done anything else for those days.  I have been in touch with his widow, and she is fine (surprising!?).  Thank goodness for that.
            “So it goes in the book world.  Books travel from one person to another and rarely might something pass so quickly on, but it marks our time.  I have found books back on the market and see them sell high, then reappear the next year and sell low.  Makes you wonder. . .
            “If you didn’t know Jim I would relay to you that he was a very nice man, generous with his knowledge and time, extremely humble, and his achievement in the operating room was world-class and pioneered separating conjoined twins at the brain.  He was by far the most successful surgeon to ever perform this surgery and manage to save both patients.
            “In any case once I receive the book back, I will be able to push it your direction.”
The book arrived on a rainy Tuesday.  I left the package unopened on my library table overnight.   All sorts of thoughts and feelings swirled within me:  irrational fear, acquisitional excitement, sorrow, and sadness.  But finally, the solace knowing that Dr. Goodrich was able to own the book after a long search if only for a brief time.  I found a path to him with that.  I carefully opened the box.
When a week later my friend and bookman Bill Allison came to visit, we socially distanced on the back patio under a slowly turning fan, and I passed the book to him across the table and we talked about it.  I felt almost normal for the first time in a while. 

Bookplate in Medical Library Belonging to Herbert M. Evans (1931).

Medical Library inscribed to Elmer Belt with Belt's bookplate
James Goodrich in his study.Photo: Mary Ellen Mark


  1. My recollection is that Elmer Belt was very involved inn the Book Club of California.

    1. Yes, and he was a sophisticated bibliophile whose interests ranged far outside of science:

  2. It was meant to be that you were Both to have the satisfaction of finding the book. I am sure Dr. Goodrich is celebrating your happiness.

  3. Kurt, congratulations for snatching victory &c. and I cannot thank you enough for running this piece. It inspired me to re-check and see if anyone was offering a similar rarity (the 1925 privately published catalogue of Le Roy Crummer's medical library). Years ago my biblio-geiger-counter didn't rip with static when I saw it listed for $500, and someone else apparently paid that freight. Once I switched back onto this subject, I found the same item overseas (in roughly the same condition as well) for a fraction of that price. Now, on to the second Crummer catalogue (1927), which I've never spotted for sale. You probably have both!

  4. Hi Bill, thanks for reading as always and your comments. I didn't know anyone else had an interest in the Crummers. (There must be three of us because neither you or I bought the $500 1925 catalogue.) You'll be entertained by the fact that I have the 1927 catalogue inscribed by Myrtle Crummer but not the 1925 edition. Only 100 copies were done of the 1927. Myrtle was a true co-collector with her husband and shared in the joys and acquisitions. She edited and catalogued the 1927 edition for him as a birthday surprise.

  5. I'll settle for being 50 percent right sight unseen, Kurt! What prompted by interest in LC was the fact that Jake Zeitlin's oral history elevated him to the company of Osler, Cushing, Dock, Streeter and Evans as a medical book collector. When that's the case, the library catalogues in question are not simply informative but major statements of bibliophilic taste and discretion. Too bad that, as Zeitlin also details, Myrtle Crummer's own remarkable library was never wholly documented and was (seemingly) dumped with chagrin after it was "tainted" by Carter and Pollard!

  6. Thanks, Kurt, quite an interesting post. I'm glad you were able to acquire the book for your collection under very fortunate circumstances. I’m sure Dr. Goodrich would be pleased.
    I became familiar with the Elmer Belt Library when I was working in Special Collections at UCLA whilst a graduate student there working on my MLIS degree, circa 1973-74. During my time there I was fortunate to have the opportunity to examine some of the books in the Belt collection, including the beautiful Pacioli, Divina Proportione. Almost a decade later I was the director of Special Collections in the library at Cal Poly SLO and we were putting together an exhibition in the department of models built from Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings. I wanted to supplement the exhibition with some printed materials relating to Leonardo, but there was really nothing in the library’s collection. On a whim, I contacted Brooke Whiting in Special Collections about the possibility of borrowing the Pacioli from the Belt Library. A few days later he let me know that we could borrow the book for the exhibition and a few days after that, I drove to UCLA to pick it up. I chuckle now when I think of myself driving my 1957 Ford pickup down the I-405 with this incredible book nestled on the seat next to me. I see Christie’s in London sold a copy in 2017 for 175,000 BP. I live in Florence now, and have had the opportunity to examine several copies of the Divina Proportione, but none resonate with me more than UCLA’s copy. Sorry to ramble on, I really enjoy your blog.

  7. Hi Bob, Thanks for reading. I really enjoyed your reminiscence. I doubt nowadays they'd let the book loose without an armed escort. I recall ca. 30 years ago getting to flip the pages on the Gutenberg Bible at UT-Austin. Probably not kosher anymore unless you have top level clearance.

  8. I enjoyed your story. Many years ago as a Medical Staff Fellow at the NIH we used Evans Blue to check on cell viability. Today in the pandemic I watch Dr. Fauci on the news but am much more delighted to realize that Dr. Evans was a bibliophile. It is interesting to note that Dr. Belt (but not Dr. Evans) was a member of the Grolier Club.

    1. Thanks for reading, Richard. Evans was involved in the West Coast clubs such as the Zamorano Club thus maybe his reason for not being a Grolier Club member. Belt however went all in for both, but not sure how much he actually participated in Grolier Club life.

    2. In my collection I have Zamorano Club Biographies and Memorial Tributes 1956-1997 Compiled with a Foreword by Msgr. Francis J. Weber. It has a nice piece about Jacob (Jake) Zeitlin but no mention of either Belt or Evans.
      Looks like you were a Grolierite for three years.

  9. Interesting and informative as always, Kurt! Glad to see you are continuing to enjoy your books in the midst of all of this. Books are dear friends indeed. I look forward to perusing this one with you on my next visit.

  10. Hi Hunter, good to hear from you. Come see me anytime!