This week celebrates a key resource in the Whipple: the Foster Pamphlet Collection. These 5,221 pamphlets fill some 200 volumes and cover all aspects of 19th century physiology in the form of articles, sections from books, dissertations and other original works. They are gathered under a variety of subjects, including ‘Blood’, the ‘Central Nervous System’, ‘Digestion’, ‘Nutrition’, ‘Respiration’, ‘Psychology’ and many many others. Bound in blue or grey cloth with red and gold titles, the volumes are stamped ‘Physiological Laboratory.’ Most of the items were collected by Sir Michael Foster and after his death in 1907 this practice of gathering together and binding important material was continued by his successor John Newport Langley.

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L0001869 Portrait of Sir Michael Foster
Portrait of Sir Michael Foster. Photograph. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0


Michael Foster came to Cambridge in 1870 as the first Trinity Praelector of Physiology. He went on to become the first Professor of Physiology at the University and under his direction the Cambridge School of Physiology became a leading and hugely successful centre for research. Many of Cambridge’s famous physiologists were trained under Foster’s leadership and influence.

The early days of Foster’s teaching at Cambridge took place in two rooms granted by the University for his lectures and research, equipped by Trinity. Foster called these rooms ‘the Physiological Laboratory in the University of Cambridge.’ From here, as Trinity Praelector, he edited the Studies from the Physiological Laboratory in the University of Cambridge, papers published in 3 parts in 1873, 1876 and 1877 (STORE REF FILE 18:24-26). These were in effect a forerunner to the Journal of Physiology (edited by Foster from its beginnings in 1878 to 1894). The Whipple’s copy of part one of the Studies is signed by the celebrated physiologist W.H. Gaskell, who was greatly influenced by Foster and became a member of his research team. A number of Gaskell’s works feature in the pamphlet collection.

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As the Cambridge school grew new space was needed.  In 1878 a purpose-built laboratory was constructed on the east side of Downing Street, then in 1914 the department moved to buildings provided by the Drapers’ Company. The pamphlet collection of the Physiological Laboratory went too; it remained in the Department of Physiology until it was donated to the Whipple in 1997.

Whipple article

The Foster Pamphlet Collection is a valuable resource for a number of reasons. It contains a wide range of often unusual or unique material and gives an insight into the collecting of works for reference and record (pre-Internet, email and online subscriptions) in the 19th century. Some items were sent to Foster or Langley directly from their authors, others were collected for interest or curiosity. All were carefully bound and preserved, gathered into themed volumes. The items span 1823-1919, with the majority dated 1860-1907. They were written in numerous languages and printed across the world. The collection is significant for both its provenance and for the breadth of coverage in the field of physiology and related disciplines contained in its volumes. The items even include two articles by Robert Whipple.

Happily the collection, once only accessible through a card catalogue, was catalogued as part of a collaborative 19th century pamphlets project funded by the Research Support Libraries Programme (RSLP). The Foster pamphlets can all be found on LibrarySearch.

J.N. Langley, ‘Sir Michael Foster. In Memoriam’ The Journal of Physiology 35.3 (March 25, 1907) pp.233-246
For more information, have a look on the Library’s website.
The Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience website also has more on Foster and the history of the Physiological Laboratory.