Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Erik Waller the book collector

Anna Lantz
Stockholm, Sweden

Figure 1. Erik Waller in his home. No date, unknown photographer. Uppsala University Library, Waller MS Waller 0004.

Erik Waller (1875–1955) was a Swedish surgeon and book collector who spent most of his professional life in Lidköping, a small town in the southwest of Sweden. He received his medical education in Uppsala and Stockholm before moving to Lidköping in 1909, where he was offered a position as acting hospital doctor. In 1931 he became chief surgeon and director of the hospital, a position he held until he retired in 1940. Ten years later, he donated his collection of about 21,000 books in medicine and science to Uppsala University, the largest and one of the most valuable donations in the university’s history. To complement the books, the university acquired the rest of his collection of some 80,000 manuscripts, engravings, and medals in 1954.

The collection

The main part of Waller’s book collection consists of about 10,500 historical medical books, including 150 incunabula, or books printed before 1501. It includes major medical works published in Europe before 1800 and many thereafter. Waller had a special interest in Ambroise Paré, Andreas Vesalius, and William Harvey. The collection also comprises around 200 works on veterinary medicine and dentistry, and around 1500 books on natural sciences in general, chemistry, and alchemy, physics, botany, zoology, astronomy, and other natural sciences. There is also a substantial reference library of circa 8000 books and c. 2900 books on the history of medicine, c. 350 books on the history of natural science, and c. 270 books on in the history of science in general. In addition, there are also c. 2400 biographical books, c. 1200 bibliographies, c. 100 books on autographs, and c. 1113 books catalogued as miscellaneous, making them together probably one of the greatest collections of writings on the history of medicine and science that has been compiled by any private collector.

Figure 2. Erik Waller’s library in his home. No date, unknown photographer. Uppsala University Library, Waller MS Waller 0014.

The collector

Waller began collecting books in the 1910s, perhaps even earlier, and continued until the middle of the 1950s. The key source to our understanding of his activities are the c. 1500 letters sent to him between 1905 and 1955 by more than 400 correspondents and the c. 100 Waller wrote himself. There are c. 130 letters and receipts preserved from c. 50 antiquarian booksellers in various countries that were sent to Waller between approximately 1915 and 1955, an indication of a probably much larger network of book sellers around the world from whom Waller bought his books. Some letters reveal that he was their customer for more than twenty years and that he even bought them gifts. Waller would either send them lists of books he was looking for, or they in turn would suggest books for him. On some occasions, sellers contacted other dealers to help them find him books.

In other letters to Waller, friends and fellow book collectors complain of the difficulty in finding good books because of him. Olof Hult (1868–1958) writes from Berlin in 1929 that all antiquarian bookshops have been plundered by a Dr. Waller, and five years later he complains again that Waller is emptying all the antiquarian bookshops in the United States and Europe. Another example is given by Fulton, who writes to Waller in 1939 that a book Harvey Cushing (1869–1939) wanted to buy already was sold to a gentleman in Sweden, meaning Waller.

Other letters and postcards written by Waller to some of his fellow collectors reveal that he also visited antiquarian bookshops in both Europe and the United States. He mentions recent acquisitions, often while on vacation or at medical and scientific congresses. He also corresponded with other book collectors and some of the most prominent scholars. He met most of them at various congresses in Europe and the United States, which are frequently mentioned in several letters. Almost all letters mention issues regarding books and the history of medicine, recent acquisitions of antiquarian books they would like to exchange or sell to each other, auctions coming up or they have already attended or recommend to one another, and where to find good antiquarian book sellers. The letters also reveal that they sent books as gifts to each other, visited each other’s libraries, and helped each other to find books they are looking for.

Figure 3. Erik Waller’s library in his home. No date, unknown photographer. Uppsala University Library, Waller MS Waller 0015.

Waller’s motivation

Particularly interesting is Waller’s correspondence with Harvey Cushing, a neurosurgeon, and John Fulton, a neurophysiologist at Yale University. Besides sharing the same field, they were all medical historians, book collectors, bibliophiles, and owners of eventually large collections of antiquarian books which they all donated to universities. Their letters were written between 1911 and 1954, and their correspondence ended abruptly on Waller’s death in January 1955. Their letters reveal a great concern for each other’s writing projects. In 1931 Cushing wrote to Waller about his plan to write a bio-bibliography of Andreas Vesalius, and thereafter their letters are full of detailed discussions regarding different editions of Vesalius’s works and the progress of Cushing’s writing. Equally interesting is the correspondence between Fulton and Waller, early on expressing great concern for Cushing’s health, and during the last nine years of Waller’s life focusing on Fulton’s work.

Standing out these relationships are William Osler and Harvey Cushing. Osler was a bibliophile and collector of antiquarian books, and after his death, he bequeathed his collection to McGill University in Montreal, where the Osler Library was officially opened in 1929. Osler had been both friend and mentor to Cushing for more than twenty years. It was after visiting the Osler Library at McGill in 1934 that Cushing came up with the idea of donating his books to Yale and to ask his friends Fulton and Klebs to do the same.

Waller’s donation to the Uppsala University

Waller first mentioned donating his collection in a letter to Fulton in 1948. He mentioned his concern regarding how to catalogue his collection and continued that it should be wiser to hand over the whole catalogue manuscript to the same institution to which he intended to give the books. His work on cataloguing his collection was progressing slowly, and eventually he received help from the librarian Sallander from Uppsala University Library. The catalogue was published in 1955, five years after Waller’s death.


Waller developed his collection between 1910 and 1950. He developed a broad network of antiquarian booksellers in Europe and the United States, from whom he personally bought his books one by one, by correspondence or on site. He was a selective and knowledgeable collector who knew what he was looking for and sent lists of specific books he sought after. He had an important network of book collectors, bibliophiles, and prominent scholars with whom he corresponded and who helped each other. Especially important were Cushing and Fulton, who were his close friends for more than forty years.

Waller’s collection is important as a comprehensive collection of medical books printed in Europe until the year 1800 and beyond. It was the largest collection of its kind in Sweden and is part of Sweden’s national heritage. Waller’s decision to donate his collection was probably primarily inspired by Cushing’s and Fulton’s donations to Yale University. Waller chose Uppsala University as the receiver because it was an institution “where the history of learning – included history of medicine and science – is especially cultivated,” and which could catalogue his collection. He was also motivated by his network of like-minded men with whom he corresponded lively and met occasionally for more than fifty years, especially Cushing and Fulton. His decision to donate the entire collection to Uppsala University so it would remain in Sweden is the pre-eminence of his achievement, a magnificent and noble act.


Primary sources

  • Erik Waller’s correspondence collection in Alvin, Platform for Digital Collections and Digitized Cultural Heritage, https://alvin-portal.org.
  • Yale, Erik Waller Collection, MS 1341, folders 5–8.
  • Ove Hagelin Private Collection, MS Ulf Göransson and Viveca Halldin Norberg, Inbjudan till biblioteksvetenskapligt symposium om Dr Erik Wallers vetenskapshistoriska handskriftssamling måndagen den 25 augusti 1997 kl. 9.00-16.00 i Carolina Redivivas Boksal, 25 June 1997.

Secondary sources

  • “History of the Library,” Yale University Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, https://library.medicine.yale.edu/about/history. Accessed 9 September 2021.
  • Keys, Thomas E, Applied Medical Library Practice, Springfield, 1958.
  • Krook, Hans, “Samlare och konnässör – om Erik Waller och hans medicinhistoriska bibliotek,” off-print from Nordisk Medicinhistorisk Årsbok (1976), pp. 1–8.
  • Sallander, Hans, Bibliotheca Walleriana: The Books Illustrating the History of Medicine and Science Collected by Dr. Erik Waller and Bequeathed to the Library of the Royal University of Uppsala, 2 vols, Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1955.
  • Sallander, Hans, “The Bibliotheca Walleriana in the Uppsala University Library,” NTBB, 2 (1951), pp. 49–74.
  • Strandell, Birger, “Erik Waller,” off-print from Nordisk Medicin, 54 (1955), pp. 1–6.

ANNA LANTZ, MA in art history, is Curator of Rare Books and Prints at the Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library, Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 15, Issue 1 – Winter 2023

Fall 2022




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