“Steward’s Healing Art” Afterlives: The Old Man and the Robot

This final blog entry is bittersweet. I spent all semester with Steward’s Healing Art, a book by the revered Dr. William Steward and published in Saco, ME in 1827. And now “parting is such sweet sorrow…” but it has been an absolute joy to work with such a fascinating and mysterious volume. Now comes the blog post regarding the digital form of Steward’s Healing Art, and, yes, I was very surprised to find one. It is hard to imagine that an “online version” of an inconspicuous, ephemeral medical text exists. But this is why I love Amazon.

I am going to sidetrack slightly by discussing my Internet searches purely because I was amazed by what I found. I was searching through digital archives and websites that held no records of Steward’s Healing Art. I was not entirely shocked by this lack of information but you can always count on Amazon to have everything. Thus, I purchased the Kindle version of Steward’s Healing Art for $1.04 from Amazon and scrolled through it. I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of this version of a book that I have explored all semester. It just held no character like the physical version. It was almost lifeless and full of mistypes and didn’t have that “old book” smell or feathery, fragile pages. It held most of the correct text, spelling and all, but the type was modern and defective in some areas. Megan Cook said that this is due to a process called OCR (optical character recognition), which often ends up distorting the text beyond recognition.

(Kindle version of Steward’s Healing Art) 

Amazon Digital Services LLC is selling the Kindle version online and its publication date is February 6, 2018. There are also two decorated pages in the beginning where you can see “National Library of Medicine” (running horizontally) and “U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Public Health Service Washington, D.C.” (running vertically) along with the caduceus. There is also a stamp that indicates that this version made it to the “Surgeon General’s Office Library”. I presume this copy was taken from the National Library of Medicine and copied for Kindle. These first three pages were the only ones in the Kindle version that were images taken from (what I would guess to be) another physical copy of Steward’s Healing Art that could have had the decorated pages added to it. These decorated pages are not present in the physical copy that I have become familiar with in the Colby College Special Collections. The Kindle version also gives us a clue that the text was taken from a copy that was rebound with a red cover. The physical version has its original leather cover but the Kindle version suggests that another copy was rebound in red.

(First two pages of the Kindle version [these pages are very blurry in this version] and the red back cover)

(A stamp from the “Surgeon General’s Office Library” and the serial code on the back of the Kindle version)

Additionally, this version of Steward’s Healing Art is easily flipped through. I did not have to wait as a page reloaded, as I would have to do for the other digital facsimile I will describe soon. Because of the fragility of the physical version, I also have to flip the pages slowly. I can actively switch pages within the Kindle version without having to delay due to frailty or reloading, which was convenient. However, the text in the Kindle version was extremely altered because of OCR and some of it was incoherent.

(Example of the copyright page from physical version [left] and Kindle version [right])

To get to the main point of this blog post, Megan Cook helped to point me in the right direction to find a digital facsimile of Steward’s Healing Art. I found a surrogate of the same edition on Sabin Americana via Gale (Cengage Learning), which was released in 2005, and this should not require a login if the link is used. Similar to my Kindle version, it was quite different from the original physical copy. The type and signature marks were the same from the original and this digital version included the same sections like the advertisement and “A Concise Herbal”.










(The original Steward’s Healing Art compared to the digital facsimile and Kindle version)

The fact that someone took the time and energy to digitize this book and make it available online is a bit baffling. I thought that this book was very obscure and that very few copies of it exist due to the publisher dissolution I wrote about in my second blog post. The cheap and quickly produced Steward’s Healing Art hardly seems like the type of book one would make available to the worldwide web. Someone must have uncovered a copy and realized its cultural value. The text, in and of itself, gives us a view of what life was like during the early 1800s. From the stylish type used to the ingredients suggested, it gives a full range of historical perspectives. The choices that the publishers made and the written descriptions from Dr. Steward himself highlight the evolving technologies from their time. These include a more diverse typeface and medical treatments.

Steward’s Healing Art may be a great example of historical medical practices from the research of a country doctor but the online version, in my opinion, lacks substance and connection to the reader. This volume has been adapted to become more accessible than that of its physical form and the textual advice and written remedies are all present. But this version excludes many copy-specific, physical components including the stains, wear, and the inscription.  Even the color is dull compared to the yellowing of the original pages. Most of the text’s sociology is lost in this version. We do not know the people who interacted with the book since there is a lack of marginalia or the use it has seen. There is also a lack of stains and there is no way to compare its size to a hand that holds it, which excludes evidence for intended purpose and audience (outlined in my fourth blog). The website only states that it is 18cm (Sabin Americana) but this does not give an accurate representation of its weight or scale, which are both imperative aspects to deduce how this book was intended to be used.



(Holding the physical copy for comparison [left] and stains/bookworm damage [right])

(Original Steward’s Healing Art [left] compared to the digital facsimile [right])

Navigating these two texts was very different as well. There is nothing, in my opinion, quite like flipping through the paper pages of a book. Clicking on an arrow and waiting for a new page pop up is not as satisfying as filing through fragile leaves. I also had a to wait as the website reloaded in order to view other pages in the book. However, I feel as though it is easier to find pages and content in the digital version. This is because the online format includes a table of contents for the entirety of Steward’s Healing Art rather than just one index after the first section, “Steward’s Healing Art”, in the physical copy (refer to my third blog post for more information on the additions of Steward’s Healing Art).

The physical book also contains pages that are renumbered for each section, which was translated into consistently numbered “images” in the online version. The digital version gives the viewer an option between two page numbers. One for the actual printed number on the top of the page and another for the “image number”. For instance, if I wanted to get to the “Of Plasters” section in the “Appendix”, I would go to page 171 in the online version, according to the “eTable of Contents”, which is also listed as page 5 in both the physical and digital copies.

(Two page numbers for one page in the “Appendix”)

I also feel disconnected to this digitized facsimile. I don’t appreciate the content as much since the physical form lacks a presence. This is weird but while I am going through the physical version I feel like I’m chatting with an old man that doesn’t like the newer generation but enjoys boasting about his success and recounting his experiences anyways. There is a clear voice that comes through from both the aging physical form and the cantankerous, pompous text. So it was very frustrating to me when I went through the digital copy and did not hear or feel the same character, even though the text and format are the same. It was as though the old man had turned into a monotone robot. It left me wondering what Dr. Steward would think about this digital facsimile.

(The Old Man and the Robot)