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Frontier Medicine: Different Editions of John C. Gunn

John C. Gunn’s book of popular medicine was first published in 1830 in Knoxville, Tennesee under the title Gunn’s Domestic Medicine, or Poor Man’s Friend in the Hours of Affliction, Pain, and Sickness.  Gunn intended it to serve as a guide for frontier and rural families who lived far away from any sort of medical care, and so it contained instructions on how to treat a wide variety of illnesses.  It ended up becoming a widely read and popular text.  While the first edition was a relatively modest 440 pages, subsequent editions ballooned to over 1000 pages that included advice on everything from the proper behavior of wives to how to cope with a child who indulges in the “solitary vice.”  Gunn’s work became well-known enough to merit a mention in both Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, where it is one of the books at the Grangerford residence and is described as, “[telling] you all about what to do if a body was sick or dead;” and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

The library holds several editions of Gunn’s work that range from the first edition to the so-called 230th edition, which was published in 1901 (according to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture the final edition was published in 1920).  While all of the editions contain Gunn’s original core text, as the years passed more material was added in order to keep the medical content relevant. Looking at the various editions next to each other is an interesting way to observe how a text can change through the time.

These copies here date from 1830 (left) and 1835 (right), and are the earliest editions in the library.  At this point the books were fairly modest in size, and would have been easy to carry around.


Neither of these editions is heavily illustrated.  The 1830 edition has a copperplate engraving depicting a classical Greek scene with Apollo, Chiron, and Asclepius, and a hand-colored picture of the heart, but is otherwise unillustrated. 


Our copy of the 1835 doesn’t even have those.  What it does have, however, are copious handwritten annotations, which tell us that this book didn’t just sit on a shelf gathering dust.  Instead, it was heavily used by its owners.


Our editions from the mid-19th century are more elaborate affairs.  The books themselves are more than twice as large as the earlier editions, and the front covers are embossed with decorative patterns.  They also have more illustrations, most of which portray allegorical scenes related to the passions, or family life.  These did not remain the same from edition to edition.  The illustration from our 1858 edition (now published under the title Gunn's New Domestic Physician) shows an idyllic outdoor scene with a mother watching over her two sleeping children, while the illustration of the mother figure in the 1869 edition is a copperplate engraving of Queen Victoria herself – not very surprising, given that all versions of Gunn’s text embrace the Victorian ideal of a mother as a woman who is charmed by domesticity and whose children are “her company and her world.”


The latest edition we have is from 1901.  In this edition the allegorical illustrations are no longer present (although a digitized copy from the Gerstein Library at the University of Toronto has the same ones that are seen in our 1869 edition, so it seems that they are simply missing from our copy), and it contains more strictly medical illustrations than its predecessors.  Several elements of Gunn's original core text, including his advice regarding the emotions and marriage, are still present.

The longevity of Gunn's work of medical reference is impressive, but it certainly isn't a record holder.  Gray's Anatomy, which first appeared in 1858, had a fortieth edition published by Elsivier in 2008.  While the text as a whole has changed significantly in order to remain an up-to-date medical resource, the very name Gray's Anatomy provides modern editions with a certain legitimacy.  For frontier families living far from medical assistance, the name Gunn might have provided the same assurance.



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