The library's History of Science Collections house one of the world's finest selections of rare scientific books. More than 35,000 volumes document the historical development of the physical and biological sciences, technology, and nonclinical medicine from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century, focussing mainly on developments in Europe and America. Book holdings are supplemented by the papers of many Cornell scientists, including Nobel laureates James Sumner and Hans Bethe.
The collection has special strength in 17th- and 18th-century physics and chemistry. Most notable is the Lavoisier Collection, the largest collection outside of France on chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794), commonly considered to be the founder of modern chemistry. Equally comprehensive is the Robert Boyle collection, which includes almost every work published by the English chemist in his lifetime (1627-1691). The works of Sir Isaac Newton are another area of special strength in this collection. These holdings are supplemented by a vast collection of the papers of major modern physicists on microfilm, and by other manuscript collections such as the Cold Fusion Archive.
In the biological sciences, the library's Adelmann Collection has extensive holdings in anatomy, embryology, and physiology, especially in 17th- and 18th-century Italian anatomists such as Malpighi and Fabricius. This collection of approximately 5,000 volumes is supplemented by about 6,200 medical dissertations submitted to German universities from the late 16th to mid-19th centuries, on topics which range throughout the modern field of nonclinical medicine and beyond to philosophy, metaphysics, and the occult.
Focusing on North American birds, the Hill Ornithology Collection features spectacular 19th-century color plate books and other works on ornithology from the 16th century onward. Included are works by most of history's leading ornithologists, including Mark Catesby, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and Alexander Wilson, as well as a complete set of the 48 volumes produced by John Gould. The collection is highlighted by a magnificent copy of the double-elephant folio of John James Audubon's Birds of America.
Especially notable among the library's rich holdings in natural history is a distinguished collection of 16th- and 17th-century herbals, including works by Fuchs, Gerard, Bock, Brunfels, and Dodoens. These are succeeded by spectacular color plate books on botany, such as Robert Thornton's Temple of Flora and Pierre Joseph Redouté's Roses. Later holdings in natural history focus particularly on Charles Darwin and his colleagues and adversaries in the controversy over evolution, with attention to the works of other naturalists and explorers such as Linnaeus, La Condamine, Humboldt, Spix, and Henry Walter Bates.
In the history of technology, the collection's strengths include the Hollister Collection (300 vols.), which focuses on civil engineering, and the Cooper Collection on American railroad bridges, which includes the original blueprints for many structures that no longer survive. Notable among the technology holdings is Gustave Eiffel's La tour de trois cents mêtres, a scarce work which includes extraordinarily detailed plans of the Eiffel Tower, photographs of the construction process, and facsimile signatures of the dignitaries who were first to ascend what was then the world's tallest manmade structure.