Binding dermatology's history

Balance in Practice

Mark Valentine, MD

This month's author discusses his passion for both dermatology history and restoring antique books.

A pair of Dr. Valentine’s books bound with traditional marble paper. Dr. Valentine admits disliking the style before learning and growing to appreciate the technique.

Dr. Valentine demonstrates a more decorative style of binding on this volume, a collection of the quotations of the Roman poet Horace.

A selection of Dr. Valentine’s hand tools.

A number of Dr. Valentine’s leather-bound books.

An ornately-bound copy of William Gilpin’s Observations on the River Wye

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Dermatologists, because we have had more control over our lifestyle than most physicians, have the freedom to indulge in multiple diverse pursuits outside of our profession. I’m very grateful for that. Having a balance of professional and personal activities throughout the workweek keeps us grounded, and it keeps us human in the eyes of the patients we’re relating to every day. It makes us better physicians. For me, my interest in bookbinding and passion for the history of dermatology ties together my hours in the office and the hours I spend restoring old classical or medical books in ways that enrich both immeasurably.

Finding a passion

I’ve enjoyed literature and antique books since my time as an undergraduate in West Virginia, taking more than the usual amount of advanced English courses for someone on the pre-medical track. By the time I attended medical school at Johns Hopkins, I’d say I knew more about 18th century English literature, and about the 1700s through the perspective of famous authors, than most med students. In medical school, I was inspired by the example of A. McGehee Harvey, MD, chief of medicine at Hopkins. He was both an avid book collector and a skilled furniture maker. The idea that someone so busy in medicine could still take time to master a craft was a revelation to me. [pagebreak]

I’d always been interested in the process of making and restoring books, so years ago, I finally decided to take the most basic of bookbinding courses. Taught by book artist Mare Blocker, it was entitled “The Art of Bookbinding,” but I regarded it as “bookbinding for kindergarteners.” She taught us the basics, but this opened the door to infinite bookbinding materials and styles. From there, I was hooked. I’d like to say I’m self-taught, but for the most part, that’s just not true. The greatest advances I’ve been able to make have been the result of very talented people who were good enough to make their time and expert instruction available. Just as with dermatology, you’re always looking to the leaders in the field to improve your knowledge and techniques.

I still remember the first work that made me fall in love with books, both as literature and object. It was, coincidentally, the first old medical text that I ever bought, Diseases of the Skin by a French doctor, Pierre Francois Olive Rayer. It’s the first textbook of dermatology that reads like modern prose, starkly different in tone than works even two decades earlier. It’s still my favorite after all these years. I still have that original copy, and have bought and restored three or four others. [pagebreak]

Learning new skills

During the weekends, or when I’m able to get away from practice, I attend workshops on bookbinding that include intensive small-group demonstrations of technique. It gives me a chance to see things from a perspective beyond my medical practice. There are expert bookbinders from all over the world, and the fact that I’m a skin doctor doesn’t really mean anything to them. I’m there to learn, and they are there to teach. It’s a different dynamic than I’m used to, and I’d like to think that going through instruction regularly helps me relate to the dermatology residents at the University of Washington better.

My first venture into repairing a truly valuable book was the two-volume first edition of James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. This happened during a workshop on rebacking leather books with James Brockman from Oxford. I wouldn’t have had the courage to begin the project myself, but he coaxed me to take the plunge. I was nervous, and grateful for the supervision. It had been some time since I’d felt that, and again I was grateful for the time and expertise of the people who excel at teaching. Years later I was fortunate enough to spend a week with Don Etherington, a world-class book conservator, in Greensboro, N.C. I spent a week with him, and he continually fed me repair projects, telling me what he wanted done with them. [pagebreak]

One of the more rewarding parts of the learning process was accumulating the tools of the trade. You can’t just walk into a book shop in Seattle and tell the clerk “sell me a bookbindery.” A lot of the tools are antiques themselves — my press is from England, and dates from the 1840s. I’ve been to a bookbindery supplier in Paris to acquire tools. The leathers I use come from Scotland, France, and Germany. Like most rewarding hobbies, this one has been about the journey, about new experiences and expanding horizons. Isn’t that better than having the whole kit dumped on your lap and hearing “here’s everything you need”?

Art and technique

When restoring a book, whether a work of classic literature or a landmark medical text, you need to hit the right mix of aesthetics and deeply ingrained technique. Bookbinding and dermatology are alike in that way. During the week, I read the journals that seem to come in endlessly, keeping my knowledge honed with the latest developments in the specialty and medicine as a whole.

The most rewarding thing for me, as a hobbyist, is the idea of working carefully on a book for weeks and coming to the moment when you finish it. Then I’m able to take the book and look at each aspect of it, what work I did and how I would evaluate it. It’s a thrill that reminds me a lot of opening a package on Christmas morning. Sometimes you’re incredibly proud, and sometimes you start picking out things to refine and improve. It’s not far off from the self-evaluation and drive for perfection that sustains us as dermatologists. [pagebreak]

For several years now, I have given a copy of a historic medical textbook that I’ve bought and restored to the outgoing chief resident at the University of Washington. I’ve given out Rayer’s book a couple of times. It’s gratifying to have purchased these things in terrible condition and give them away restored. Hardly any dermatologists I speak to have heard of Rayer, and I find it rewarding to restore and pass on what I consider an important work in the history of our specialty.

I should also mention the enjoyment I’ve had with over two decades of participation in the History of Dermatology Society with colleagues from around the world. I think that at some point, being an expert scientist leaves you wanting when it comes to bonding with and relating to patients. Knowing that their doctor has diversified interests, even if they only know about them peripherally, helps patients to view me less as a scientific automaton, and improves our relationship. It doesn’t impact my scientific knowledge of dermatology, but it makes the day more pleasant.  [pagebreak]

Dr. Valentine’s favorite works

I’m proud of every book in my collection, but the following five are my favorites.

De Morbis Cutaneus, Hieronymi Mercurialis, 1572 — The first dermatology book ever published.

On Cutaneous Diseases, Robert Willan, 1808 — A great work by the father of English dermatology. I have two copies, one of which I re-bound.

Diseases of the Skin, Pierre Francois Olive Rayer, 1845 — My first antiquarian book purchase, and still my favorite.

A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson, 1755 —  I bought mine at auction in 1986, and felt like I was getting a bargain. I’d have paid a lot more to own such an important work. It’s the first dictionary where each word was illustrated with examples from classic literature. It’s a masterpiece. Rebacking this massive two-volume work was my most ambitious restoration project.

The Restoration of Leather Bindings, 4th Edition, Bernard C. Middleton, 2004 — The bible of leather book restoration and an unparalleled achievement of prose technical writing by the 20th century’s most acclaimed book restorer.

History — online

Books aren’t the only place to learn about dermatology’s history. As the AAD celebrates its 75th anniversary, head to to explore a timeline of significant events for the specialty and the organization.



Dr. Valentine’s favorite works
History — online
Dr. Valentine’s favorite works
History — online