The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Math and Medicine: The Notebooks of Andrew Croswell

In the news recently there is a lot of coverage of the Zika virus and the late rise in outbreaks related to it. With that in mind I wanted to check our collections to see what the MHS holds relating to viruses. When I searched our online catalog, ABIGAIL, using Virus as the subject term I came up with no results. Using a method I briefly described in my last post on the Beehive, I started clicking around to see what related terms there might be. Instead of Virus diseases, ABIGAIL pointed me to three narrower terms: Influenza, Measles, and Rabies. Not satisfied with these options and the results they yielded, I tried searching for simply Diseases instead. The first result I found with this search is what this post is all about. 

Andrew Croswell (1778-1858) was a student at Harvard University in the late 1790s. He later studied medicine in Plymouth, MA, and practiced there and in Fayette and Mercer, ME. In the collections here we hold two notebooks that were kept by Croswell. The first is a mathematical notebook which contains definitions and problems in geometry, trigonometry, and surveying. The second is a physician's notebook that contains notes on the treatment of diseases and injuries, as well as the use of some medicines. 

The second notebook, relating to various diseases and treatments, is text-heavy in its content. Croswell - who had very nice, neat, and even handwriting - copied observations from published medical texts, especially the work of Dr. Benjamin Rush. 

Observations on the cholera infantum

Rush's observations vol 1 p159


Also, Croswell includes illustrations of a few little villages in Maine where he practiced medicine.

Mercer Village, ME 1805


While it was the search for disease that exposed me to Mr. Croswell, it was his non-medical notebook that really captured my attention. Given my aversion to math in my educational career, this was an accomplishment. Croswell's mathematical notebook, kept while a student at Harvard, was impressive not only in its order, clarity, and neatness, but in the embellishments that he included. The title page gives us a very good idea of what to expect in terms of content before we get into the notebook:


The first section of notebook deals with geometry. Croswell started by writing out definitions of terms relating to the subject and then goes on to tackling geometric problems. It is here that the notebook becomes, to me, much more visually striking as he starts to include geometric figures alongside the various problems. Generally, the figures start out fairly simple and then get more complex.


After his work on geometry, Croswell moves into the field of surveying and problems of trigonometry. Again, he steps-up his detail and the intricacy of his illustrations, adding color and tables as he solves problems relating to land area:


He then proceeds to "Mensuration of Heights and Distances" through the use of trigonometric functions. Again, Croswell takes his illustrations up another level, this time depicting full scenes which represent the mathematical problems at hand. The problems contain variables such as whether a location is accessible to people and the situation of the ground from which observations are made.

PROB. 1. _ To take the height of an accessible object by one observation.


PROB 4th. To take the distance of any inaccessible object. | PROB 5th. Upon a place of known height determine the distance betwee two objects, lying in the same direction.


The last section of this mathematical notebook concerns itself with matters of maritime navigation. 


Again, Croswell draws out intricate geometric designs to illustrate the problems of navigation and sailing. He even includes a hand-drawn and colored map of the Atlantic Ocean (the judges deduct one point on this for his representation of the North American coastline). 


Pretty cool, right? To think, that from hearing about a modern medical issue in the news, I ended up with such a meticulously written and illustrated mathematical guide to solving problems of navigation! Now it's your turn. Pick a starting point in ABIGAIL and see how far afield you find yourself after just a few minutes. Then visit the library and check out what you discover!


permalink | Published: Friday, 12 February, 2016, 12:00 AM