Women’s book ownership and use: Anne Smyth, Elizabeth Grey, and a new research opportunity

Our 2018 exhibition ‘This Vexed Question’: 500 years of women in medicine included the stories of, and books written by, a great number of women from medical history. It also included some more tangible evidence of women’s every day medical activities: a medical book with concrete evidence of ownership (and presumably use) by a woman.

Anne Smyth wrote her name opposite the title page of a copy of the 1659 edition of Nicholas Culpeper’s London dispensatory which is now in the RCP library. The handwriting looks like it comes from the end of the 17th century, but we haven’t yet found further identifying evidence about who Smyth was or where she lived.


Handwritten name 'Anne Smyth' opposite the title  page of Nicholas Culpeper's book.
Anne Smyth’s signature in Nicholas Culpeper, Pharmacopoeia Londinensis: or The London dispensatory (1659).


Culpeper’s London dispensatory was one of the most significant medical publications of the 17th century. It translated the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis – a directory of medicines written and authorised by the Royal College of Physicians – from the original Latin into English, also providing explanations and clarifications not present in the original. Culpeper’s book opened up a range of medical theory and knowledge to an audience much wider than the physicians and apothecaries at whom the RCP’s book was aimed.

The exhibition explored how women have, for centuries, been experienced and knowledgeable medical practitioners as carers to their families and friends. As practitioners of this ‘kitchin physic’ they learnt, recorded and shared medical information through handwritten and published books. These included personal and family recipe books they compiled themselves: maybe Anne Smyth had one of her own as well as the printed Culpeper? Women also published collections of their own recipes, some of which became very popular.

Title page of Grey's book, with 'Secrets of Physick' printed in large letters.
Elizabeth Grey, Choice manuall of rare conceits (1653)

One such was the Choice manuall of rare conceits by Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent (1582–1651), first published in 1653 and running to many editions. One of the recipes was for a medicine which came to be known by the Grey’s name as ‘The Countess of Kent’s Powder’. It was reputed to treat a range of diseases from smallpox and measles to the plague and scarlet fever, and was made from a number of exotic and expensive ingredients including ‘crabs’ eyes’ (actually small stones of lime found in crayfish stomachs), pearls, white coral, bezoar stones, and black ambergris.

Elizabeth Grey was a wealthy and privileged woman, and much more documentary evidence survives about her than about many of the women of lower social status who also practised medicine or wrote recipes. As well as Grey’s published recipe collection, a list of books that she owned in her own personal library has also survived to the present day.

Line engraved portrait of a woman with curly hair.
Elizabeth (née Talbot), Countess of Kent, after Unknown artist, line engraving, mid 17th century. © National Portrait Gallery, London.


The list is now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS Selden Supra 111). It has recently been edited by Dr Tara L. Lyons, and will be published in the book series Private libraries in Renaissance England: a collection and catalogue of Tudor and early Stuart book-lists, volume X, general Editors R. J. Fehrenbach and Joseph L. Black (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, forthcoming). Grey’s titles will also be entered into the Folger-PLRE database and searchable under her name.

It lists all the books in the house at Whitefriars, London, where Grey lived with John Selden (1584–1654) after the death of her husband, Henry Grey, Earl of Kent, in 1639 until her own death in 1651. The list was made after Selden died in 1654, and it explicitly shows which books were Selden’s and which were Grey’s.

The collection of 179 titles mostly covers literature, but it includes a few in English and Italian that would have informed Grey’s interest in medicine and medicines. These included herbals (books about the medicinal effects of plants); works on distillation, experiments and cookery; and books on disease, treatments and childbirth. She owned the 1649 edition of Nicholas Culpeper’s London dispensatory.

Grey’s collection is one of the largest recorded libraries of an English woman of the period, aside from those in the royal family. We know that women from much humbler backgrounds – such, perhaps, as Anne Smyth – also owned and used books, though inventories of their possessions are less likely to survive. Academic research has increasingly examined the evidence of women’s book ownership, revealing how they used and shared knowledge in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

New doctoral research opportunity

We already know that traces of women’s ownership are preserved in some RCP books such as those mentioned above and a range of others. Now we have secured funding from the London Arts & Humanities Partnership (LAHP) for a collaborative doctoral research project with the Institute of English Studies, University of London.

The project,  ‘Women’s Ownership of Medical Knowledge in Tudor and Stuart England, 1485-1714’, will assess evidence of their knowledge networks, based on the rare books and archives at the RCP. Through collections-based research, it will identify and assess provenance evidence of women’s access to or ownership of medical books and manuscripts to map women’s access to this knowledge.

Concurrently, it will examine women as authors of medical texts and recipes, based on RCP holdings. This study will then compare medical information in the manuscripts to that in the printed texts, revealing the knowledge exchange between women who practiced medicine and the professional or licensed physicians who used the texts they wrote. This will allow the analysis of the reception history of women’s medical knowledge in early modern/pre-Enlightenment England. Finally, it will assess the RCP’s printed and manuscript holdings for evidence of women as medical practitioners

Applications are currently open for the PhD studentship. Full details of the project and how to apply are available on the LAHP website. The closing date for applications is 23 April 2019.

Katie Birkwood, rare books and special collections librarian

With grateful thanks to Dr Tara L. Lyons, associate professor, Illinois State University for sharing her transcription and analysis of the Elizabeth Grey’s book list.

Katie Birkwood ,
rare books and special collections librarian

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