Aristotle's masterpiece page opening with woodcut
Aristotle's masterpiece page opening with woocut (3)
Detail map of Boston, Massachusetts, United States Overview map of Boston, Massachusetts, United States

A: Boston, Massachusetts, United States

Aristotle's Complete Masterpiece: Probably the Earlest Illustrated Medical Book Published in the American Colonies

Aristotle's masterpiece title page and frontispiece

In 1766 a printer calling himself Zechariah Feeling (perhaps a pseudonym for Zechariah Fowle) issued from Boston Aristotle's Complete Master-Piece, in Three Parts; Displaying the Secrets of Nature in the Generation of Man . . . to which is Added, a Treasure of Health, or the Family Physician . . . This octavo edition of 140 pages contained a woodcut frontispiece and 9 woodcut illustrations (one repeated), two by Isaiah Thomas. 

This edition, a copy of which passed through my hands in 2012, designated itself the "Thirtieth Edition". First published in London in 1684, Aristotle's Complete Masterpiece, an anonymous reproductive and sexual manual, went through hundreds of editions between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, but because the work was considered pornographic, it was often issued under false imprints and sold "under the table." "Largely a compendium of reproductive lore, Aristotle's Masterpiece also contained a prescriptive message about sexuality. It repeated early modern English beliefs that sexual pleasure for both male and female was not only desirable but also necessary for conception. That reproduction was the primary goal of sexuality recurred as a theme throughout its various editions" (D'Emilio & Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America [1988], 19-20).

Austen's Early American Medical Imprints 1668-1820 does not cite any illustrated American medical works prior to the 1755 "26th" edition of the Masterpiece, which is the earliest edition of this work that Austen records. Hamilton's Early American Book Illustrators and Wood-Engravers 1670-1870, a catalogue of the Hamilton collection at Princeton, does not record any examples of illustrated American medical works prior to the 1796 edition of the Masterpiece. The woodcuts in our edition of Aristotle's Complete Masterpiece included a frontispiece showing a large and a small human figure, an illustration of a dissected pregnant uterus, four rather fanciful illustrations of birth defects (conjoined twins and hairy cyclops), two astrological illustrations (Man of Signs) and a small cut of a hand. The two "Man of Signs" cuts were executed by Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831), the famous American printer and publisher, who became Zechariah Fowle's apprentice in 1755 at the early age of six and remained with Fowle until 1765. Thomas's cuts were also used by Fowle in his 1767 edition of The New Book of Knowledge. The woodcut frontispiece appears again in Nathaniel Coverly's 1770 edition of The Narrative of the Captivity of Mary Rowlandson.

The American Antiquarian Society's online catalogue cites five earlier American, or possibly American editions: the "25th," published in 1748; the "26th" and "27th," both published in 1755; another "27th," published in 1759; and the "28th," published in 1766. The AAS's copies are the only recorded examples of these editions. None of these earlier editions includes a place name in its imprint, so it is difficult to state with certainty that they were published in the American colonies. The "26th" edition, although cited in Austen and Bristol, is most likely a British imprint. The edition numbers are meaningless; the 1796 edition of the Masterpiece is also described as the "30th."

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