Dublin’s Historic Libraries & the Edmund Worth collection, at Dr Steevens’ Hospital.

Dublin is blessed to have a number of outstanding historic libraries,   jammed with literary and scholastic treasures hidden within.  The superb (or rather sublime) Long Room of Trinity College, with its wonderful collection of sculpture busts, is only the best known one.

(Archbishop Narcissus) Marsh’s Library, established 1701 at Saint Patrick’s cathedral is of course another.  That wonderful place, where gentlemen and scholars once sat locked inside individual “reading cages” possesses the distinction of the first public library in Ireland, some claim in Europe.  The Royal Irish Academy (RIA) and the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland also boast vitally important historic libraries, dating from the 18th century.  And there are many more.  Another, lesser-known yet fascinating specimen, not to mention the best example in Ireland of an unchanged “fossil library” is the Edward Worth Library, housed amid the 18th century Steevens’ Hospital.

File:Steevens 1800

I had the privilege of visiting last year and found it one of the most interesting collections of books and one of the least known, quietest and most beautiful spaces in Dublin.  As you’d expect it was a rewarding encounter on many levels.  The volumes themselves are old and beautiful and contained moreover in a rather lovely 18th century room.  Seeing old  printed illustrations- from across Enlightenment Europe and  Renaissance France- of maps, of plants, wild animals and ancient cities- was also pretty exciting.

Matthioli titlepage detail

Most of the books here date from the 17th to early-18th century, that age of Enlightenment when learned Europe shook off the vestiges of medieval superstition and religious dogma to embrace scientific enquiry in all forms.  Other tomes date from the Renaissance-era and so these were already old and valuable even before this remarkable library was formed.

The man who assembled it was Dr. Edward Worth (1678-1733) He was in many senses a typical learned product of the age, having matriculated from Oxford, then completed a further degrees in medicine at Leiden and Utrecht, before returning to Dublin a doctor and building a successful practice here.

Worth head and shoulders

Edward if I may call him that,  is almost forgotten today but in his own era was highly esteemed by his peers; this evidenced by his election as head of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland, as a Fellow of the Royal Society and as an MP in the Irish House of Commons, (representing New Ross).

He also was appointed a Trustee of the board of Steevens’ Hospital, guiding the construction of the new charitable institute.   This took several years so in fact, the hospital had barely opened by the time of his death.

Although Steevens’ in no longer a working hospital today, (it is now the headquaters of the HSE)  they still maintain his library.  In terms of the design, the renowned Georgian architect Edward Lovitt Pearce (of Dublin’s old Parliament-fame) was first commissioned.  But Pearce died around this time too so it’s unclear today exactly how much influence he exercised on the final result, a space which- save for a carpet and some discreet modern lighting- has barely changed since 1733.

Another unusual fact about the library is just how unaltered the collection of books has remained.  This has been effectively frozen in time, with not a single volume added or taken away.   That quality alone makes it a fascinating resource for scholars interested in the materials and transmission of ideas during the early modern period.  For this reason, Dr. Muriel McCarthy, writing in 1984 for The Irish Arts Review, described Worth’s as “a fossil library, in the best sense”  and its static nature, and for what it can teach us about the thoughts and preoccupations of its era.

The walls are therefore lined today with the same bookcases from 1733, and filled in the same order,  the volumes sitting in the same system as they were arranged by Worth before died over 300 years ago.  So for example, Sections A, B and C are all Medicine.


In other stacks we find Botany; Astronomy; Mathematics, and gigantic Atlases. This is an especially exciting part of the collection, both for what it tells us about the history of science, and for the sheer beauty of the books themselves, as can be seen in the current online exhibition on botanical books:  while a further, separate section of slim volumes sitting near the door, is affectionately characterized by the librarian Dr. Elizabethanne Boran as “18th century English love poetry”

A large oil portrait of Dr. Worth (see above)  hangs high over a substantial, classically-themed carved oak fireplace (which possibly is to a design by Pearce).  From within it Worth looks down upon on his treasured collection, his stern face reminding today’s readers of their responsibilities and duty of care,  while a  plaque hangs from the wall, above a second oak door with a Latin inscription.

Arran Dublin Decoded Worth Library

The inscription reads: –

For the curing of the ill and wounded,

Richard Steevens, M.D. presented the revenues,

His surviving sister Grizel this building,

And Edward Worth, head physician, the library you see here,

Scholarly, glittering and polished.

Although a doctor and eminent man of science, Worth was not, I learnt, a man of science only.  He was also a collector pure and simple, a lover of antique tomes, books that were already old and rare and precious in his own time, before he ever purchased them.

He hailed from a line of high-ranking clergy. A half century before, his grandfather had even managed to hold a deanery under Cromwell and then (somewhat remarkably) also became a Bishop (of Killaloe) after the Restoration of 1660 .

As Dr. Boran points out, this indicates a canny political operator.  The restored Stuarts were not always so forgiving with those they might easily choose to see as collaborators with the previous, hated (and regicidal) Cromwellian regime. They went to the trouble of digging up dead bodies to try, hang and disembowel them for treason.  Nor did they hesitate to hunt down those living signatories (of their father Charles I’s death warrant) who had fled England, arresting them abroad, then shipping them back for the same fate.

File:Execution of Cromwell, Bradshaw and Ireton, 1661

above:  contemporary image of the posthumous “executions” of Cromwell, Bradshaw and Henry Ireton, seniorPuritan leaders instrumental in the defeat and execution of Charles I some eleven years previously, Their bodies were all disinterred, “tried and executed”  for treason and regicide,  following the Restoration, (of Charles II) in 1660.

In blunt terms then old Bishop Worth did well to prosper under both regimes; clearly a canny politician, and one of life’s survivors.

Later Edward’s father John Worth became Dean of St. Patrick’s from 1678-89,  (some twenty-four years before Edmund’s own contemporary, the great Jonathan Swift held that role).   The Dean wanted his sons – Michael, and our Edward- to follow the family tradition of a career in the Church.  Indeed, he made it very clear that whichever son became a clergyman would  inherit his estate.

Remarkably, even faced with this tempting prize, both demurred.  Michael became a lawyer in London.  Edward as you know, chose medicine.

Edward did then however have one stroke of fortune,  quite literally.  Conveniently – like some scarcely believable fictional device- he possessed a rich uncle.  This rich uncle died (as rich uncles are wont to do) and left Edward lots of money.  In the long run this facilitated his act of filial rebellion.  It also provided him with the means to pursue the most rare, intersting and beautiful examples of what he loved the most.  Books.

Edward was a bibliophile of the first degree, a sniffer of fine leather bindings, goat and calf-skin tooled with gold leaf; an obsessive collector and enthusiast, a peruser of catalogues from London and Amsterdam, as he spent an extraordinary amount of time, money and effort finding special books from Dublin, London, and Italy, from Holland, Spain and France.

Oh yes, Edward collected on a vast scale.  There are around 4,400 volumes in the Worth library.  Many date from his own era.  This was when books remember, even new ones, were still expensive, luxurious items.  Other volumess were already old, rare or even unique even back when he purchased them.

Unusually, there are almost no hand-written annotations within the pages, although this was normally common practice for learned men of that age.

That lack of evidence is a puzzle, and is part of what makes Worth such an enigma.  Dr. Boran explained we know almost nothing about his private life, his loves, hates, political or religious views.   But more oddly, we barely know much more about his scholastic and intellectual life either.  Given his achievements, education, his learning and eminence as a doctor – we can be quietly confident that Worth did have a broad, rich and varied intellectual life.   Frustratingly, we just don’t what it contained.  We are probably the poorer for this gap in understanding.

Nonetheless, the absence of such notes has often been taken to mean (somewhat lazily perhaps) that Edward Worth collected books primarily for display, pleasure and prestige. In other words as objects of material beauty, rather than for the knowledge they contained.

As Librarian and curator of Worth’s collection, Dr. Boran constantly seeks a better understanding of his tastes, abilities character and motivations, a task made far harder by this odd lack of notes within the books,  as well as the strange absence of other personal letters, notes, diaries or records.  (Undoubtedly Worth had all such papers destroyed)

In her quiet detective work Dr Boran thus depends on the scantiest of clues, a slip of paper there, a catalogue entry there, this or that book purchased, or even not purchased, to understand better the what, how  why, even the who- of Dr. Edward Worth.  In her seven years here, she has naturally developed a more nuanced view on his purchasing motivations.  She is confident he was more actively engaged in reading, science and scholarship than the strange lack of notes might lead one to conclude.  Indeed she presents evidence for a range of motives.

below,  detail from a book at the Edward Worth library.


On one hand, there’s no doubt Worth collected some books purely for their intrinsic beauty and interest.   Dr. Boran cites the works by the antique Physician Galen.  Few (I learn) were still studying Galen for his medical insights by the early 18th century.  Knowledge on the human body had taken such strides that no serious doctors in Enlightenment Europe seriously believed Gallen’s idea our health was determined by “the Four Humors” of Blood, Bile and the rest.

So clearly then, Worth bought these books only for their historic interest, as collector’s items.  For the pleasure in each book as “material object”- as cultural historians say.

Yet Worth certainly regarded other books as repository of knowledge; just perhaps not quite the same books.   For example Dr. Boran explains he was an accomplished mathematician, familiar and current with the latest thinking, including Newton’s theories on Gravity and Optics, and indeed with the new forms of calculus Newton developed to support those theories. (To find out more see the ‘Newton at the Worth Library’ webs exhibition: http://newton.edwardworthlibrary.ie/Home)

Newton portrait 1726 edition

Moreover, Worth’s maths books are not (or at least were not then)  beautiful per se.  They’re simply full of numbers.   No copperplate engravings of exotic plants and animals or maps of far-off lands and ancient cities here, simply numbers, signs symbols and equations.

Therefore, it makes sense to conclude that Worth purchased books on that subject for serious use and study, not for pleasure, prestige or display.    Yet, at the same time, clearly, the expense on bindings that Worth lavished on his tomes proves he cherished them all. Certainly gentlemen collectors of his age sought to have their libraries form a harmonious whole (often with their own livery or heraldic shields on the books).    Some of Worth’s other books, a third category if you like, may have been collected simply because their original bindings were so beautiful.

That obsession with beauty and pleasure in the object may itself explain his reluctance to annotate the margins of the pages, as all fellow scholars did.   Did he simply regard all books as too precious to be write on?   Or was Worth also an intensely private, even secretive person? Either way, any such notes Worth made were on separate pages, then later either lost or, far more likely, destroyed by Worth, for whatever personal reasons, prior to his death.

To explain the slightly incongruous collection of “18th century English love poetry” near the door, Dr. Boran posits another interesting if poignant motive.    She has a theory they reflect a case of love;  of the unrequited kind, alas.   Poor Worth it seems, loved a woman, but she did not love him back.  For a proud, clever, perhaps vain, perhaps shy man, this must have been a private, very quiet sort of pain.    Apparently, Edward’s will stipulated that the volumes of poetry were to be bequeathed to a woman after his death.  Yet here they are, still in the library today.  Perhaps even they were not accepted.  Unrequited verse, so to speak.

Worth sought consolation in the gifts of the mind.  He loved books in all their dimensions, for all their purposes.  He spent a fortune having books rebound, which I’m reminded was common practice for the time.  So much so that printers of new works often sold books with no covers, knowing well each wealthy clients would have each volume bound to their own style anyway when constructing each private library.

There was an entire menu of different leathers and skins available to choose from; calf and goat being particularly luxurious and popular, among the cognoscenti.   Once bound, each would be tooled by its binder, using a range of his own hand-made steel tools, combined into a vast range of designs, from linear and geometric patterns to animal, plant, maritime and other motifs.


Because of the size and quality of its collection, which is in superb condition, the Worth library is (you will not be surprised to hear) of enormous interest to antiquarians in the field of bookbinding and for scholars of book-history generally.

As Dr. Boran talks me though the rudiments of the field and shows a number of prime specimens, I realize that not only can an expert tell from where and when each volume hails, but with closer inspection even the individual collector and the individual craftsmen (the binders).   All from the tools, styles, motifs and designs employed on bindings, even when other records (like catalogues and inventories) have been lost.

This dawns on me as I’m shown a quite slim but very beautiful, large format old book, with a deep red leather binding.  Dr. Boran and other specialists have little trouble recognizing it as early to mid-16th century (High-French-Renaissance) text and binding and- moreover- very probably commissioned and owned by a member of the court of king Francois I.      And that,  in turn, makes this particular volume a rather special book.

Herodotus front cover

François (r. 1515-47) was the king who presided over the great humanist court of scholars and intellectuals preeminent in Renaissance France.  It was he for example, who brought the ageing Leonardo de Vinci to France, to an honoured retirement in Amboise.  (The Mona Lisa incidentally came with the great artist, and so hangs in the Louvre today)

It was also king Francois and his circle of nobles and scholars, who also snapped up the wave of different codex coming west, following the defeat and collapse of Byzantium from 1453.     Many of these volumes containedas you know, ancient knowledge, previously unknown or lost to Western Europe.

The French humanists did not just sit and gloat over their new possessions.  Oh no.  Works were translated from the ancient Greek, (or Arabic, Hebrew or Aramaic) into Latin, the language of scholarship, while the glittering French circle also paid for or undertook themselves, the accompanying commentaries, illumination and interpretations.

In doing so they brought classical knowledge and literature, drama, mathematics, science, architecture, history, geography et al from ancient Greece and Rome back to life, and almost as an afterthought, made France preeminent in Humanist Europe.  Indeed with little fear of exaggeration, you might call this great project history in the making, as it undoubtedly shaped and defined our modern understanding of the classical world.

It shaped our idea of their own era too, the Renaissance–  the term they coined.     Significantly perhaps, even the Italian Rinascimento is a translation from the French word (and concept) -not the other way around.

This dazzling cultural achievement of 16th century France created a by-product, marking the “Golden Age of the Book”.    Not merely the book “as text” but as material object: typography, paper, covers, bindings, illuminations and illustrations, maps and so on.

Understandably then as a collector and connoisseur, Worth would have been pretty excited to find and arrange the purchase of a special edition of Herodotus, commissioned by a member of this French court, accompanied by a 16th century commentary and interpretation by two famous humanist scholars.

Herodotus, the ancient writer from the Greek settlement of Halicarnassus (modern-day Bodrum in Turkey) was author of the history of the wars between ancient Greece and Persia – the famous Pelponnessian Wars.  His achievement, the first attempt at balanced, written history,  often sees him credited as the first historian-proper and led the roman Cicero to confer on Herodotus the title of “father of history” .


As well as the histories of Herodotus, the same Renaissance book contains a biography of Homer, as well as additional material about the near and middle east.  As the icing on the cake, it comes complete with illustrations, in delightful little foldout pages to the back, which I now get to see.    One is an artist’s impression of ancient Babylon, based on Herodotus’ description.

Babylon from Worth

While the other  (below) is of that most celebrated edifice in that ancient and fabled city, the Tower of Babel.

Tower of Babel

So, the Tower of Babel as illustrated in Renaissance France at the court of king François I (patron and friend of Leonardo) sits before me.  And I know it is based directly on an ancient surviving description from 2,500 years ago by Herodotus, contemporary and acquaintance of Pericles, and first great historian of the ancient world.

Not a bad book to have here in Dublin, one would venture   It certainly gave me a thrill to see.   In fact, let us be blunt.  This is something truly extraordinary.

Yet here it is, right here in Dublin. And all thanks to Edward Worth and his beautiful frozen library.

So, we owe the good doctor an acknowledgement of debt, for this room and these beautifully bound, fabulously expensive gifts of the mind.  In this fossil library we see here today, still scholarly, still ‘glittering and polished”.


Hevelius Fig F

The writer is indebted to Dr. Elizabethanne Boran for the information in this article.  Any remaining errors are, of course, entirely my own.  Please note that all illustration here from and of books are courtesy of the Trustees of the Edward Worth Library and many if not all are under copyright.   Therefore please do not use or reproduce without explicit written permission from the Worth Library.

I’d urge anyone with even a passing interest in old illustrations and book art or in the history of science, to pay a visit to the regular on-line exhibitions curated by the library.  This link, for example will bring you straight to the gallery” page of an exhibition on Botany,  

And here’s another online exhibition, this time on Astronomy and astronomers:

Thank you for reading.   Literary minded types may also enjoy this shorter piece, on Maps, Nabokov and Joyce.   

Or if you enjoyed the piece above come on one of our highly sociable Dublin Decoded walks.  Public, scheduled tours- open to all-  run from mid-March to late October.  But if you have a group (or organize one)  pre-booked private tours can be booked any time,  year-round.   The menu of available tours  can be found at dublindecoded.com

After perusing the menu, requests on pre-booked tours should be sent to:  dublindecoded@gmail.com

If you want to be alerted when public tours resume in Spring, and see which ones are going ahead, subscribe to our walking tour newsletter here.

–Arran Henderson.


above and

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