The Women Behind the Japanese Woodblock Print Collection

Featured

By Erin Hurley, User Services & Accessioning Archivist

One of UCSF Archives & Special Collections’ most famous and beloved collections is the Japanese Woodblock Print collection – a collection of over 400 colorful and informative woodblock prints on health-related themes, such as women’s health and contagious diseases like cholera, measles, and smallpox. According to the Library website dedicated to the prints, they “offer a visual account of Japanese medical knowledge in the late Edo and Meiji periods. The majority of the prints date to the mid-late nineteenth century, when Japan was opening to the West after almost two hundred and fifty years of self-imposed isolation.”[1] The collection has been used, most recently, in a documentary about woodblock prints to be aired on NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting network, and has been a subject of enduring interest to researchers. I’ve heard colleagues wonder aloud about how UCSF came to own this unique collection, so I did some research. Naturally, an enterprising curator and librarian – Atsumi Minami, MLS – is to thank for the collection’s arrival at UCSF.

Walters, Tom F., “Atsumi Minami with items from UCSF Library East Asian Collection,” 1968. UCSF History Collection.

While I was not able to find the exact dates of her employment at UCSF Library, I do know that Minami began working at UCSF Library in 1959, and soon took charge of a small collection of 70 titles of materials related to East Asian medicine started in 1963 by John B. de C.M. Saunders (a shortening of his full name, John Bertrand de Cusance Morant Saunders), then Provost and University Librarian.[1] Minami could read Japanese script, so she became responsible for the collection and was soon given free rein to begin collecting additional materials. In order to do this, Minami “traveled to Japan and China and purchased items from various smaller, private collections, acquiring the woodblock prints as well as hundreds of rare Chinese and Japanese medical texts, manuscripts, and painted scrolls.”[2] Her collecting efforts spanned over 30 years, and produced a collection with over 10,000 titles. It would appear that Minami was still working at UCSF when this informative article was written for a 1986 issue of UCSF Magazine.[3] At the time that article was published, the East Asian medicine collection was also the only active collection of its kind in the U.S., making it even more notable.  

Another woman who was influential in shaping the East Asian collection was Ilza Veith, a German medical historian and former UCSF professor in both the Department of the History and Philosophy of Health Sciences and the Department of Psychiatry. Veith, who in 1947 was awarded the first ever U.S. Ph.D.in the History of Medicine from Johns Hopkins University, was also awarded later, in 1975, the most advanced medical degree conferred in Japan, the Igaku hakase, from Juntendo University Medical School in Tokyo.  Veith was extremely knowledgeable about both Chinese and Japanese medicine, and, in her time at Hopkins, translated Huang Ti Nei Ching Su Wen, or The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine – the oldest known document in Chinese medicine. Though the text has somewhat mythical origins that make its author and date a little difficult to determine, it probably dates from around 300 BC. Veith also helped shaped UCSF’s East Asian medicine collection by donating a number of her Japanese medical books. 

“Ilza Veith,” 1968. UCSF History Collection.

I would encourage anyone interested in the collection to browse the prints on our website, and to read more about their history via a finding aid on the Online Archive of California. Archives & Special Collections also houses the Ilza Veith papers. While we don’t yet have an Atsumi Minami collection, we welcome donations and would appreciate any information that the present-day UCSF community has about this amazing woman.


[1] “Glory of the Special Collections,” UCSF Magazine, V. 9, Issue #342, 1986: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31378005349033&view=1up&seq=341&q1=”Atsumi Minami”

[2] “About the Collection,” UCSF Japanese Woodblock Print Collection, 2007, https://japanesewoodblockprints.library.ucsf.edu/about.html. Accessed April 6, 2021.

[3] “Glory of the Special Collections,” UCSF Magazine, V. 9, Issue #342, 1986: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31378005349033&view=1up&seq=341&q1=”Atsumi Minami”


[1] “About the Collection,” UCSF Japanese Woodblock Print Collection, 2007, https://japanesewoodblockprints.library.ucsf.edu/about.html. Accessed April 6, 2021.

Fighting Measles

In recent weeks measles again became one of the main topics covered in the news stories. Not that long ago, before the advent of the vaccines, measles epidemics were a common occurrence around the globe. Back in the nineteenth century numerous hashika-e (measles pictures) from the UCSF Japanese Woodblock print collection served as guides to combat this disease. Many of them include a holly leaf (tarayō) believed to contain protective powers as well as recommendations for auspicious diet and and explanations how to persuade the measles kami (“Shinto term for god, divinity”*) to leave.

These charms when attached to a door or screen were supposed to protect the house and its inhabitants against measles:

Charm against measles. Utagawa Yoshitsuya, 1862.

Charm against measles. Utagawa Yoshitsuya, 1862.

Poetic charm against measles. Utagawa Yoshikatsu, 1862.

Poetic charm against measles. Utagawa Yoshikatsu, 1862.

Another print depicts three “mighty men” conquering measles.

Three mighty men conquering measles. Ochia, Yoshiiku, ca. 1870s.

Three mighty men conquering measles. Ochia Yoshiiku, ca. 1870s.

And the battle to eradicate measles continues…

Modern day narrative on battle against measles. Unknown artist, ca. 1860.

Modern day narrative on battle against measles. Unknown artist, ca. 1860.

Please visit the UCSF archives digital collection to view the remaining prints related to contagious diseases and read about their meaning.


*Japanese popular prints: from votive slips to playing cards. Rebecca Salter, 2006.

We’re on Zazzle!

We wanted to announce to all of you that a selection of our beloved treasures, here in the Archives & Special Collections, is featured in the UCSF Zazzle store. The online store allows you to purchase customizable note cards, tote bags, mugs, iPhone cases, water bottles and t-shirts that feature one-of-a-kind images from our collection.

designall (1)designall

Recently, we’ve added items that showcase pieces in the “Pharmacy and Pharmacists” exhibition of Japanese Woodblock Prints– currently on display in the  UCSF Library.

 

The online store also includes items with images from past exhibitions of the Japanese Woodblock Prints Collection. These represent a cross-section of the collection, featuring colorful ukiyo-e scenes on topics such as women’s health, diet and nutrition, spirituality, views of foreigners, and traditional Chinese healing methods.

Untitled

designall (3)designall (4)Items with historical UCSF photographs from the Photograph Collection are also available. Check out the fascinating views of campus from the turn of the twentieth century.