Part Medical Text, Part Work of Art

The Becker Library Rare Book Collections include approximately 23,000 volumes chronicling the history of medicine. The books and journals are organized within nine distinct collections that primarily document western medical history, and are typically written in Latin, German, French and English. There are, however, many medical texts among the rare book collections that are not western in origin, including two ola leaf manuscripts, which were inscribed by hand in Sinhalese on the leaves of the Talipot palm in the 18th century.[1]

Each of the ola in our collections came to Becker Library as a gift from Casey A. Wood, MD (1856-1942), an American ophthalmologist and zoologist who traveled extensively in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) and wrote an unpublished monograph, titled “Medical  Olas,” that closely detailed the process by which these manuscripts are created.[2]  Ola were produced by Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka over hundreds of years, and palm leaves were the main inscription material in the region until the early 19th century.[3]  The width of each manuscript is standardized at 2.5 inches (6.35 cm), but the length is variable. The lengths of the ola in Becker Library’s holdings are 9.5 (24.13 cm) inches and 20.5 inches (52 cm), respectively.

As a supplement to his gifts, Wood defined and described the ola as follows:

“A traditional leaf-style medical manuscript from Ceylon. Written in fine Sinhalese characters, the subject of this ‘ola’ being various diseases and direction how successfully to treat them. The book mass is inscribed on strips of prepared leaves from the Talipot Palm. The covers are of Sapu wood. Made for the vederlas or physicians, the ola is made of palm leaves cut to size and pierced for a binding cord. A scribe incised them on both sides with a sharp stylus, then lightly coated them with lamp black and vegetable oil.”

Wood dated the smaller of the ola as being written between 1690 and 1720, and the larger ola as written circa 1786. The beautifully painted wooden covers, binding cords and medallions are described by Wood as “modern but made by Sinhalese artists after antique models.”  Wood further describes the content of the ola as “a collection of medical and surgical remedies for snake-bite, fractures, cholera, typhoid, etc.” These meticulously crafted, handwritten, and decorated texts preserve the practice of traditional Ayurveda medicine native to Sri Lanka.


[1] The dates ascribed to the ola are approximate and were provided by Casey A. Wood, MD, who collected and donated the ola to the St. Louis Medical Society and Becker Library, among other institutions.

[2] Please see for extensive quotations from Wood’s piece, “Medical Olas.”