Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Bibliotheca Sibbaldiana

Colin McDowall
Edinburgh, Scotland

Figure 1: Sir Robert Sibbald by Willem Verelst or John Alexander
. Photo credit: Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh

On 5 February 1723 a crowd gathered at the house of the late Sir Robert Sibbald, noted Edinburgh physician, for the auction of his personal library. Sibbald was a considerable collector of books and after his death in August 1722 the sale of his surviving library garnered considerable attention. Although printed as a disposable item, the sale catalogue Bibliotheca Sibbaldiana was remarkably preserved. Held in the library of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, it contains a wealth of information about Sibbald and gives insight into the interests of a medical doctor in the early eighteenth century.1

Physician to King Charles II, Royal Geographer and Antiquarian, the activities and interests of Sir Robert Sibbald mark him as one of the most interesting and important Scotsmen of the 1700s. The son of Sir David Sibbald (Keeper of the Seal of Scotland), Robert Sibbald was born in Edinburgh in 1641, but attended school in Cupar, Fife.2 Sibbald was then sent to the High School of Edinburgh and studied theology at the University in the city before changing to medicine for the reason that he “preferred a quiet life not engaged in factions of church and state.”3 That he might “see the world and know men,” he studied at Leyden, Holland, and took the degree of MD there in 1661, followed by studies at Paris and Angers.4 In 1662 Sibbald returned to Edinburgh to practice medicine and in 1667, along with Dr. Andrew Balfour, he instituted a botanical garden in the city, which became the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.5 Sibbald was instrumental in founding the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1681 and became its president in 1684. His donation of “three shelfes full of books” founded the College Library, the first in Scotland specifically intended for the study of medicine.6 He was appointed physician to Charles II and Geographer of Scotland in 1682 and in the same year was knighted by the Duke of York. In 1685 he was made the first Professor of Medicine at the University of Edinburgh and elected a member of the Royal College of Physicians of London during the short period of his practicing there in 1686.7 In August 1723 he died in his house in Bishop’s Land, Edinburgh, at the age of 81.8

Bookseller William Brown of Edinburgh was commissioned to dispose of Sibbald’s library following his death. The resulting catalogue, Bibliotheca Sibbaldiana: or a Catalogue of Curious and Valuable Books, was printed and sold for “a sixpence each, at William Brown’s, and moft of the bookfellers shopps in Edinburgh.”9 The catalogue was substantial, containing 140 pages and listing the titles of around 5,174 books along with 114 historical and 33 miscellaneous manuscripts. Two copies of the catalogue survive in the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh Library. One of the copies was donated by a Fellow of the College in the 1900s, Dr. J.W. Ballantyne, and is of particular note.

Figure 2: Middle and Center: The title page and exterior of Bibliotheca Sibbaldiana. Far right from the top down: Bookstamp, MS ‘D. Laing’ and MS on the back page. Source: The RCPE Library. Photographs taken by the author.

Finely bound, the “Ballantyne” copy is important for two reasons (Figure 2). Firstly, a stamp “bibliotheca heberiana” in the inside cover reveals it once was part of the collection of noted English book collector Richard Heber (1773-1833), whose library Sir Walter Scott classed as “superior to all others in the world.”10 The copy also bears the inscription “D. Laing,” most probably the Scottish antiquarian David Laing (1793-1878).11 The fact that the Sibbald catalogue was held in the library of three prominent bibliophiles demonstrates how inspiring and intriguing it was to collectors. Secondly, the Ballantyne copy is significant because of its inclusion of marginalia. This may account for its collectability. The catalogue records prices in ink in one margin, while on the opposite margin there are faint pencil notes of prices which do not always match the former (Figure 3). This may be for several reasons. One hypothesis is that the catalogue belonged to a bidder at the sale who did not secure the item he was bidding for; or else these figures could be commission prices, indicating the catalogue originally belonged to William Brown (the bookseller) or Gavin Drummond (the auctioneer). The wording of a handwritten note at the back of the catalogue suggests the latter: “sold all the manuscripts att £260, bought for the library of the Faculty of Advocates.”12

The items that tempted bidders of the Sibbald Collection on that wintry day in Edinburgh almost 300 years ago bear testimony to Sibbald’s academic interest in a wide variety of subjects. Of the 5,174 books listed, classical literature predominates (1,486 works), followed by geography and history (1,189 items). There are 799 books on medicine and 663 on natural history. The relatively small number of medical texts might surprise readers. One possible reason might be the financial difficulties that Sibbald faced in 1707-1708, which may have forced him to sell a portion of his medical library.13 Literary masterpieces are to be found in Sibbald’s library, such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Regained, Bocace’s Decameron, and a 1613 Dante work catalogued as “Poema di Dante.” The predominance of historical and classical texts accords with the popularity of these subjects in the reading lists of Georgian Scotland.14 Sibbald’s collection of natural history texts highlights his interest in the subject, attested to by his donation in 1697 of his natural history collection to the University of Edinburgh.15 Sibbald was part of the intellectual pre-Enlightenment group in Edinburgh at the turn of the eighteenth century and his library collection reflects this.

Figure 3: Left to right: A 1555 edition of Vesalius De humani corporis fabrica, a 1679 edition of Hippocratis Coi, et Claudii Galeni and MS of prices achieved in Bibliotheca Sibbaldiana. Source: The RCPE Library. Photographs taken by the author.

The prices achieved for the collection also reflect the medical interest of the patrons of the period. An investigation of the catalogue reveals many prominent medical texts important in the study of medical humanities. Current-day sought-after works such as Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica, Ambroise Paré’s surgical text Opera Chirurgica, and Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy are all listed.16 However, what is intriguing to the modern medical historian is the price realized for these items at the auction in 1723 compared to what these works would fetch at auction today:

Robert BurtonAnatomy of Melancholy16281 shilling 5 pence£8
($1,500-$2,300) 19
Ambroise ParéOpera Chirurgica15823 shillings£17
($5,000-$7,000) 20
Andreas VesaliusDe humani corporis fabrica155527 shillings£150
£60,000-£700,000 ($80,000- $900,000) 21
Hippocrates and GalenMedicae Artis Principes post Hippocrat. Et Galen1567£2 10 shillings£290
($785-$1000) 22
Hippocrates and GalenHippocratis Coi, et Claudii Galeni … opera. 231679£10 18 shillings£1,265
($2000-$2600) 24

As well as the above works, the Ballantyne catalogue in the RCPE library reveals that the majority of medical texts, including folios, fetched only one or two shillings, with seven pence (£3/$4) being a common amount paid. It can be assessed that the amount obtained for each text can be seen to reflect its worth on that day in 1723. As the table above shows, texts by Hippocrates and Galen were valued above those of Vesalius and Paré. Works by Hippocrates and Galen proved the most popular and fetched the best prices. Intriguingly, the table shows that the opposite is now the case. Although historical medical texts by Hippocrates and Galen are still important, they are now deemed less desirable, whereas the rare and beautifully illustrated anatomies of Vesalius and Paré garner considerable attention and are more sought after.

An investigation of the library of Sir Robert Sibbald through the sale catalogue Bibliotheca Sibbaldiana depicts Sibbald as an exemplar of early Enlightenment thinking: interlinked interests such as medicine, geography, and antiquarianism are well represented in his library. He echoes this in his autobiography, where as well as giving medical advice to the Earl of Perth, “I, by his order, acquainted him the curious books, especially pieces of divinity, history, poems, memoirs of ministers of state, and discoveries in Philosophy.”25 As the catalogue suggests, Sibbald was indeed a “learned and ingenious” man who possessed many medical texts still seen today as revolutionary for the field. From his library it is possible to build a picture of Sir Robert Sibbald not simply as a learned physician, but as a natural scientist, man of affairs, and lover of books.



  1. Only one previous study has been undertaken to which this article adds new information. See: I.M.L. Donaldson, “The sale catalogue of Sir Robert Sibbald’s last Library,” Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 2010, Vol. 50, p. 86-87. Available at: https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/college/journal/ex-libristhe-sale-catalogue-sir-robert-sibbalds-last-library(Last accessed: 09/04/19).
  2. See Charles W.J. Withers, “Sir Robert Sibbald,” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2019). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/25496(Last accessed: 09/04/19).
  3. F.G. Hett (ed.), The Memoirs of Sir Robert Sibbald(1641-1722), (London, 1932), p. 55.
  4. For the quote see Ibid. For Liden see E.A. Underwood, Boerhaave’s Men at Leyden and after (Edinburgh, 1977), p.89.
  5. For more information see: V.F. Barker and I.A.D. Bouchier, “Robert Sibbald,” Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 1976, Vol. 10, p. 414.
  6. See Donaldson, “Sibbald’s last Library,” p. 87 and Morrice McCrae, Physicians and Society: A History of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, (Edinburgh, 2007), p. 27.
  7. Withers, “Sir Robert Sibbald.”
  8. Ibid.
  9. Gavin Drummond and William Brown, Bibliotheca Sibbaldiana : or, a catalogue of curious and valuable books: … Being the library of the late learned and ingenious Sir Robert Sibbald of Kipps … To be sold by way of auction, on Tuesday the 5th of February 1723, at his house in the Bishop’s-Land in Edinburgh …(Edinburgh, 1722) i.
  10. The work is listed as lot 1150 in Richard Heber, Bibliotheca Heberiana. Catalogue of the library of … R. Heber, (Published not identified, 1834-1837), p. 58. The Scott quote from a letter to George Ellis, Esq., Sunninghill, from W.S. 17thOctober 1805 reprinted in John Gibson Lockhart (ed.), Memoirs of the life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart, Volume II, (Edinburgh, 1848), p. 280.
  11. See “David Laing: Our most important manuscript collection.” Published on Sep 4, 2015. https://www.ed.ac.uk/information-services/library-museum-gallery/crc/collections/special-collections/rare-books-manuscripts/rare-books-directory-section/david-laing(Last accessed 09/04/19).
  12. Drummond and Brown,Bibliotheca Sibbaldiana. In the 20thCentury the non-legal collections of the Advocates Library formed the basis of the National Library of Scotland, the Sibbald manuscripts were among the papers donated, where they remain.
  13. “Robert Sibbald,” https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/heritage/college-history/robert-sibbaldThe RCPE. (Last accessed 09/04/19).
  14. For a discussion of Sibbald’s role in the intellectual life of early enlightenment Scotland, see R. L. Emerson, ‘Sir Robert Sibbald, Kt, the Royal Society of Scotland and the Origins of the Scottish Enlightenment’, Annals of Science, 45 (1988), 41-72 and Mark Towsey, Reading the Scottish Enlightenment: Books and their Readers in Provincial Scotland, 1750-1820(Brill, 2010).
  15. W.S. Craig, History of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, (Oxford, 1976), p. 99-100.
  16. See: “Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, 1628” https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/burtons-anatomy-of-melancholy-1628(last accessed 09/04/19).
  17. Calculations based on “Currency convertor 1270-2017” The National Archives. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency-converter/#currency-result (Last accessed 09/04/19). British currency exchange calculation based on rates in April 2019.
  18. GDP to USD prices based on google currency converter.
  19. See: Past sale of the “Anatomy of Melancholy” https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/books-manuscripts/burton-robert-the-anatomy-of-melancholy-5079941-details.aspx?from=searchresults&intObjectID=5079941&sid=6043a05a-f755-4d94-b0f0-de91d79c8e9a(Last accessed 09/04/19).
  20. See: “Sale 2107/Lot 269” Swann Auction Galleries https://catalogue.swanngalleries.com/asp/fullCatalogue.asp?salelot=2107+++++269+&refno=++578940&saletype= (last accessed 09/04/19).
  21. See: Past sales of “De humani corporis fabrica” https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/searchresults.aspx?sc_lang=en&lid=1&searchFrom=searchresults&entry=De%20humani%20corporis%20fabrica&searchtype=p&action=search(Last accessed 09/04/19).
  22. See listings on “ViaLibri” https://www.vialibri.net/searches/201904091434MAWJ31raT(Last accessed 09/04/19).
  23. It is of interest that the same edition resides in the library of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, though its provenance is unknown to trace to Sibbald’s library.
  24. See: Past sale of “Hippocratis Coi, et Claudii Galeni … opera” https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/hippocrates-c460-bc-c370-bc-and-cladius-galenus-5672786-details.aspx(Last accessed 09/04/19).
  25. Hett (ed.), Memoirs of Sibbald, p. 73.

DR. COLIN MCDOWALL is a Wellcome Trust funded cataloger working in the Library of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE). In 2018-2019 he was funded by a Wellcome Research Resources Grant to catalogue and conserve an important nineteenth century collection on developmental medicine built up by Dr. J.W. Ballantyne, an internationally renowned specialist in ante-natal care. Dr. McDowall has worked at the RCPE for the last six years in different positions, from intern to library assistant, while he undertook his PhD in History from the University of Glasgow.

Spring 2019 



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