A library of Worth

 

Mystery surrounds Edward Worth, a physician who founded an impressive collection of more than 4,000 books in Dublin. But his legacy lives on, marked by an international symposium in London later this year

THE FIRST THING you notice is the smell of old books. The faint but satisfying odour of centuries-old leather binding wafts out from the moment you push open the heavy door into the dimly lit and deeply quiet Edward Worth Library.

Entering the shelf-lined sanctuary in the old Dr Steevens's Hospital building in Kilmainham is like stepping back to the 18th century, with only the odd rumble of a passing Luas or screech from a Liffey gull to remind you of the modern-day bustle outside.

On the first floor of what is now an administrative centre for the Health Service Executive, the library is the only room in the old hospital building that still serves the purpose for which it was designed, according to its keeper, Dr William McCormack. After the hospital ceased to operate in the late 1980s, the High Court set up a trust to manage the collection on its original site.

But the 275-year-old stash of about 4,400 books, including some dating back to the 15th century, holds many mysteries, says Dr McCormack, not least about their previous owner, Edward Worth.

Born in 1678, Worth came from a wealthy and well-appointed family. His father was dean of St Patrick's Cathedral, but young Edward shunned the cloth and instead trained as a physician at Oxford, Utrecht and Leiden.

He worked as a doctor in Dublin, but information about him is scant.

"There isn't a single letter of his as yet discovered, so we know nothing really about his circle," says Dr McCormack. "And so little is known about his patients or his practice - although he certainly had clients among the elevated classes."

However, what is apparent is that Worth had a somewhat strained relationship with his peers. This could have been down to chronic illness, which seems to have been a backdrop to much of his life, and may have coloured relations with those around him, says Dr McCormack.

"He fought with the College of Physicians, and he seems to have had no interest in the church," he says. "He was a fairly cantankerous individual, or maybe he was ill and irritable."

And it was perhaps illness that led him to seek comfort in book-collecting, particularly after a financial windfall when his uncle died, suggests Dr McCormack.

"For the last decade of his life, around 1723 to 1733, he was buying books regularly, and buying expensive books and buying quantities of books."

But these were no random shopping sprees. Worth would carefully place ticks beside volumes he fancied in auction catalogues from France, the Low Countries, London and Dublin and then dispatch an agent to get them.

"He was buying this kind of material both as an aesthete and a connoisseur - he was interested in beautiful things, beautiful drawings - but also as a medical man," says Dr McCormack, opening a lavishly-illustrated volume from the collection.

"He spent a lot of money, and he was clearly alert to the fact that book-collecting is an important activity, a way of transmitting information from one generation to the next. He liked buying them, he knew what he was doing and he had very good taste, not just in the aesthetic sense."

The resulting collection spans four centuries and is meticulously catalogued in two large, handwritten volumes from the 1730s that are still the primary search tool for the library today.

Unsurprisingly, there's a strong focus on medicine.

"There is a curious concentration of books in the medical collection here dealing with syphilis," notes Dr McCormack. "I think he may have been one of the figures at the foundation of the hospital who indicated the need for serious study of venereal disease in Dublin. And over the years this hospital was one of the places where venereal clinics were held, even up to the 1980s."

Other topics that prompted Worth to lighten his wallet included surgery, prosthetics, Arabic medicine, botany and the history and philosophy of science, particularly relating to Aristotle and Newton.

"There is far more science than you would get in your average household, and this is largely a European collection," says Dr McCormack, noting in particular the several volumes produced by the influential Italian Aldine printing press.

Yet there is little evidence that Worth actually read the books, many of which he had bound in the fancy manner he preferred, notes Dr McCormack, easing an ornately spined volume from one of the shelves.

"He employed a binder in Dublin who did a lot of work for him and whose style was sufficiently distinctive that he's known as 'Worth's binder', but it was a very anonymous trade," he explains.

In 1723 Worth set out in his will that after his death the collection be housed at the planned Dr Steevens's Hospital (he was on its board of governors).

"There were other trustees like [Jonathan] Swift and other churchmen and politicians, but Worth was a key figure because he was both a physician and a book-collector."

So when the physician died 10 years later, in January 1733, six months before the hospital admitted its first patient, his books were transported by horse and cart from Worth's house on Werburgh Street through the woods to the Kilmainham site.

"The books were brought in here in wooden crates, and they lay here for several years as the building works were going on," says Dr McCormack.

Matters were further slowed when the library's architect Sir Edward Lovett Pearse also died but, eventually, most of the collection was shelved behind large glass-panelled doors and is thought to have been the first glazed library in Ireland. Shutters on the east-facing windows also help to keep out light and heat, notes Dr McCormack.

"These books are in extraordinarily good condition. This is a book from 1578 - the paper is as fresh as the day it was printed," he says, opening a volume.

"Indeed, I had a man in last year who said if he didn't know how protected the library had been over the centuries he would regard some of these books as maybe forgeries or frauds because no book could survive in such good condition."

Some of the books had been purposely marked by editors planning new editions, or slashed with a knife to indicate piracy, adding to the historical value of the tomes. Others were accidentally damaged - one by a sage cutting pressed between pages of a 16th century edition on herbs - and have undergone painstaking and expensive repairs.

"It is almost like plastic surgery," says Dr McCormack.

And in the spirit of Worth's wishes for exclusivity, the collection is open to scholars only as a last resort if volumes are unavailable elsewhere. "According to his will the only three people who were admitted to the library were the physician of the hospital, the surgeon of the hospital and the chaplain. Everybody else didn't count," says Dr McCormack.

Ongoing work at the Worth Library includes scholarly work on its contents and bindings, and building an online catalogue of the collection, a task started by the late Dr Vincent Kinane and continued by assistant librarian Dr Elizabethanne Boran.

Some books are also to be removed to an adjoining room to reduce the weight and allow seminars in the library itself, and an international symposium on the collection is to be held at the Royal Society, London, this November to celebrate the 275th anniversary of the library's founding.

For details about the Edward Worth Library and Royal Society symposium in November, see  www.edwardworthlibrary.ie To find out more about the Friends of Edward Worth, contact Lucinda Thomson by e-mail at  lthh@indigo.ie