Author: Nada Abdelrahim, Library, Museum Blog

A Note from the Library: One Hit Wonder of 1698

Published by Nada Abdelrahim

Even those of us that are only slightly acquainted with the medical field can appreciate the way it has come to be an interdisciplinary practice. Medical professionals of our modern era collaborate with engineers and dieticians, psychologists and more to approach patient care in a more well rounded and successful way. Though this movement towards interdisciplinary methodology is largely a modern medical phenomenon, there are a few practitioners of the past who were ahead of their time. Ultimately, however, in the trend of most radical thinkers, they only achieve recognition many years after their death.

View of Chapter 1 Page. Keill, James. (1770) The anatomy of the human body abridged. International Museum of Surgical Science Collection.

James Keill (1673 – 1719) is one such name. Keill is most well known for authoring the highly regarded English anatomical compendium of the 17th/18th century (Valdez, 1971), The Anatomy of the Human Body Abridged (Keill, 1771). Keill studied at the university of Leyden and went on to receive his medical degree from King’s College in the late 17th century (Phillip, 2019). Keill was primarily known as a physiologist, and was one of the first professors of physiology in Britain (Chambers, 1875). It is important to note that Keill is not considered to be an authority on medicine in the least; rather his one hit wonder The Anatomy of the Human Body, most well known for its theories on secretions of the body (Phillip, 2019), afforded him momentary prestige that ultimately faded away. Influenced by his own brother’s mathematical background, Keill began to write about the parallels of anatomy and mathematics, and the theories of attraction ala Newton (Phillip, 2019).

Inside cover view. Keill, James. (1770) The anatomy of the human body abridged. International Museum of Surgical Science Collection.
Handwritten Inscription Reads: “Be Contented with your Study
And you will Learn
Pay Strict attention to what you Read
And then my Friend you will make eminent Scholars” – Samuel [illegible]

Keill’s fascination ultimately backfired, causing him to lose readers in the era in which he was publishing. It was an unfortunate reality that in his time, the movement of medicine and anatomical thought was moving toward one of vitalistic thinking (Valdez 1971), at odds with Keill’s writings and his understandings of physiology with mathematics and anatomy. His work therefore became disregarded, and Keill’s earlier popularity as a source of medicine dissipated rather quickly, very much a one hit wonder. 

It seems that Keill’s professional life suffered as well. When seeing patients in his practice, they would often require him to send notes back to his partner, Dr. Sloane, about the treatment he would recommend. There are a number of letters providing such evidence, especially about the swanky society members who visited Keill in the countryside (Valdez, 1971). One such case, in which Keill did not have the backing of his partner Dr. Sloane, resulted in the untimely death of his patient Lord Hatton (Valdez, 1971). Keill, in danger of being charged with malpractice on top of the disapproval and blame from the fancier London physicians, performed a post-mortem examination. To his relief, Keill was able to report findings that matched his earlier diagnosis, avoiding more issues with the Hatton family (Valdez, 1971).

The IMSS collection contains books from around the world, with a number of very famous and influential physicians. It is important to celebrate such works, and study them and discuss them, especially for their contribution to society. However, I find it fascinating to look into works such as The Anatomy of the Human Body, and the messy life of author’s like Keill. Maybe it’s because most of us in life will only ever live quietly, making contributions to society in our own small way. Or maybe because we all hope to be recognized for the endless work we put into our craft, only to be known as a one hit wonder.

Works Cited:

Valadez, F., & O’Malley, C. (1971). James Keill Of Northampton, Physician, Anatomist and Physiologist. Medical History, 15(4), 317-335. doi:10.1017/S0025727300016884. Retrieved December 12, 2019

Keill, James. (1771) The anatomy of the human body abridged: or, a short and full view of all the parts of the body. Together with their several uses, drawn from their compositions and structures. The fifteenth edition, corrected. London: Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. Retrieved December 12, 2019

Phillip J. Pirages Fine Books and Manuscripts. (2019). (Medicine). Keill, James. The anatomy of the human body abridg’d. Retrieved December 12, 2019, from

Chambers, R., & Thomson, T. (1875). A biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen: With a supplement continuing the biographies to the present time. Glasgow: Blackie and son. 12 Dec. 2019. Retrieved December 12, 2019

Nada Abdelrahim is the Fall 2019 Max Thorek Manuscript and Rare Book Library Intern at IMSS. She is pursuing her MSLIS at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is also the Youth Programming Librarian and writing fellow at Off Kilter Co. Nada is a strong advocate for equitable access to information, social justice in the information professions and has difficulty saying no to anything she enjoys (which is almost everything).