Unveiling the riches of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library’s collection

The library has an extensive collection of historical works in science and medicine

Unveiling the riches of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library’s collection

U of T’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library houses a collection of rare historical books and artifacts. The collection consists of 740,000 rare books and manuscripts that span nearly 4,000 years of written history.

Opened in 1973, the library first housed the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections and was later named after Thomas Fisher, a merchant miller and community figure in the township of Etobicoke in the mid-nineteenth century.

Fisher’s great-grandchildren donated a generous amount of their collection, including several works by William Shakespeare.

Since then, donations and acquisitions have helped the Fisher Library obtain and maintain important historical documents in varied fields.

Its significant Science and Medicine collection consists of works from the medieval period to the modern age, with ideas that date to ancient Greek and Roman times.

An example of this is an undated Latin manuscript, thought to be from the fourteenth century, of the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid’s Elements. Elements is the earliest written work in the library’s Science collection, and covers theories fundamental to mathematics, particularly geometry.

Alexandra K. Carter, the resident Science and Medicine Librarian, remarked how the introduction of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-fifteenth century might have catalyzed the explosion of scientific ideas.

“Once you could make multiple copies of something, you could have people all over the place reading the same text, and then making similar discoveries,” said Carter.

Within the walls of the Fisher Library are copies of works reflecting the genesis of ideas that are cornerstones of a myriad of scientific and medical fields from anatomy to zoology.

The library’s 1566 edition of Nicolaus Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) presents a heliocentric model of the universe. The library also features titles in the physical sciences, such as Isaac Newton’s 1687 publication of Principia on the Newtonian laws of motion and gravitation, and Antoine Lavoisier’s defining of chemical elements in Traité élémentaire de chimie (Elementary Treatise of Chemistry) from 1789.



Lessons on practical applications for agriculture and horticulture are also available in books such as Jethro Tull’s The Horse-hoeing Husbandry (1829) and Batty Langley’s A sure method of improving estates (1728).



Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665) — noted for the first use of the word ‘cell’ in a biological context — was the first book in English dedicated to presenting organisms and materials as they were seen under a microscope. And in Hortus Cliffortianus (1737), Carl Linnaeus depicted the details of plant species in the botanical gardens of the Hartekamp estate in Holland.


According to Carter, one of the factors that make a title a collectible is scarcity. Older books are prized, especially first editions of historically significant works.

Provenance is also a hallmark of many of the works featured in the Fisher Library. For instance, annotated books by Marshall McLuhan are available at the library. McLuhan was a U of T professor and public intellectual known for his foundational work on media theory in the 1960s, and for predicting elements of the internet well before its genesis.

Unlike other similar libraries or museums that enforce a do-not-touch rule, visitors to the Fisher Library can run their fingers along original writings on major scientific breakthroughs, published on paper that is hundreds of years old.

“We do the best that we can to protect the books, but we really want people to feel that they can come in and use the books,” said Carter, inviting the public to visit the library and experience what it’s like to step back in time and meet the giants of science and medicine.

Page-turners for year-long learners

Your summer reading list for science books has arrived

Page-turners for year-long learners

Summer is the time to read all the books you didn’t get to during the school year because you were too busy ‘reading’ all those chapters your professor assigned. The following science books will quench your thirst for knowledge even during the hottest of summer days.

Whether you study plants or politics, check them out — these titles can be found at University of Toronto Libraries or your local Toronto Public Library branch.

Future Arctic: Field Notes from a World on the Edge by Edward Struzik

Read this book to arm yourself against the next climate change denier who tries to tell you that global warming is #fakenews. In Future Arctic, Canadian author Edward Struzik spares no details about the dire state of the Great White North. While some passages about environmental change are more chilling than the Arctic temperature itself, Struzik does not end the book without leaving readers with a hopeful solution on how to mitigate harm to this delicate ecosystem.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

Do you ever get so overwhelmed with Earthly affairs that a one-way ticket on a SpaceX ship seems like the best option for escape? If your answer is yes, you may want to read Mary Roach’s hilarious but educational Packing for Mars first. Roach investigates deep into the world of space travel prep and shows readers how the life of an astronaut is not always as glamorous as it seems. Roach explores everything from the psychology of isolation and confinement to the physical limitations of zero-gravity copulation.

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam

This one is for all you current or future medical students. Toronto doctor Vincent Lam won the Giller Prize for this collection of stories about a group of young doctors as they work through med school at U of T and join the fast-paced world of being a Toronto doctor. Read passages about how personal ethics cloud judgment during a cadaver dissection and what it was like to be on the front lines of the SARS crisis.

Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg

Journey on fishing trips around the world with author Paul Greenberg as he outlines society’s relationship with four major commercial fish species: salmon, cod, sea bass, and tuna. These trips are no family fishing excursion at the cottage — instead they are a peek into the fragility and bleak future of commercially harvested fish populations. If you eat seafood, take reading Four Fish as your duty to understanding how complex and problem-ridden the fishing industry is.

The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years by Sonia Shah

The next time you curse the swarm of mosquitoes buzzing around your head this summer, remember
that an itchy bite is a whole lot better than what you might get from a mosquito if you lived where malaria has yet to be eradicated. Sonia Shah, a science journalist, outlines the history and impact of malaria in The Fever without overwhelming data. According to Bill Gates, if you read one book about malaria, let this be the one.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration in the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery

A book that is equal parts about the science of cognition and a personal memoir, The Soul of an Octopus details the relationship between a woman and several octopuses at Boston’s New England Aquarium. This humbling story will make you rethink whether these intelligent invertebrates ever belonged in tanks in the first place.

Treating Health Care: How the Canadian System Works and How It Could Work Better by Raisa B. Deber

Written by U of T professor Raisa Deber, this book examines the Canadian healthcare system from different lenses such as economics and ethics. In an interview with the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, Deber explains that she wrote Treating Health Care as a toolkit for understanding our current system and how to make it better. With talks of universal healthcare on the horizon and a new Ontario premier in office, you may want to read this book to prepare yourself for the certain changes to our healthcare system ahead.

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

The book that inspired the documentary of the same name, Merchants of Doubt remains as relevant as ever in today’s global political climate. The book outlines several historical scandals between science and politics ranging from cigarette smoke to acid rain to global warming. Citizens and scientists alike should read this book to understand why it is important to be both informed and critical of issues that mix science, politics, and money.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Transport yourself to the edges of the galaxy with Douglas Adams’ ever-popular and side-splitting novel. The book centres on a man named Arthur Dent who is saved from the demolition of planet Earth by his alien friend Ford Prefect. The two hitchhike throughout the galaxy, meeting friends and foes alike. Wherever you go this summer, don’t forget to bring your towel!

The ROM Field Guide to Birds of Ontario by Janice M. Hughes

Whether you are an experienced birder or can’t tell a sparrow from a swallow, check out the Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) field guide to the birds of Ontario — you may just find a rare species in your own backyard. Birds not your thing? The ROM also puts out field guides for fish; reptiles and amphibians;  butterflies; and wildflowers.