– Contributed by Jodi Kearns
This summer, we ran a list of all the pre-1800 books in the Cummings Center rare book collection. You can read the full list here: CCHP_pre1800_books. One title on this list is Osservazioni Intorno Alle Vipere written by Francesco Redi in 1664. For a reason I cannot entirely explain, this book stood out to me from the others on this impressive list. This book can be found in several libraries around the world, and it usually holds the subject heading “Snakes.” [vipere (Italian) = viper, poisonous snake.] An approximate English translation of the title is Observations About Snakes. I took to Google to learn more.
The Encyclopædia Britannica biography on Francesco Redi (1626-1697) describes Redi as an Italian physician and poet. It seems he spent time researching and writing to debunk commonly held beliefs about the natural world, including a study in 1668 showing that maggots on putrefying meat are from eggs laid by flies, and do not spontaneously generate. This he concluded after a series of experiments that are recognized as one of the earliest experiments to use proper controls like those used in modern scientific methods.
The Embryo Project Encyclopedia recounts an earlier Redi experiment published in 1664 that contested a popular belief by demonstrating that snake bites and venom are separate and that venom was only effective if it entered the bloodstream with a bite. This work was published in Osservazioni Intorno Alle Vipere in 1664.
That a book survives 350 years and ends up in a collection specializing in the history of psychology and related human sciences fascinates me. The Cummings Center copy has an even greater distinction among surviving copies: it is inscribed by this 17th Century scientist and author. The inscription is to “Paolo Abrams” from the Author [d’Autore (Italian)]. The trail runs cold during my search for information about a Redi contemporary named Paolo Abrams.
The Embryo Project Encyclopedia claims root of the field of experimental toxicology in Redi’s work. A 1997 article in the French journal Histoire des sceince médicales claims the field of experimental parasitology also began with Redi’s work.
[This volume came to the Cummings Center with the David Shakow papers.]