The Enigma of Worth


A Preliminary Essay

W. J. Mc Cormack, June 2005

This is the ware wherein consists my wealth;
And thus methinks should men of judgment frame
Their means of traffic from the vulgar trade,
And, as their wealth increaseth, so inclose
Infinite riches in a little room.

Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta, c. 1589some-historyThe book collection of Edward Worth (1678-1733) is preserved in one of Ireland’s most distinguished eighteenth-century medical establishments, Dr Steevens’ Hospital. Now an administrative centre for the Health Service Executive, the renovated and redecorated building faces the south side of Dublin’s main railway terminal, Sean Heuston (former King’s Bridge) Station. It is well served by buses from the city centre, also by the new Luas tram system (completed in 2004).

This historic part of the capital is in the process of rapid transformation into a treasure-island of museums, art galleries and other cultural institutions. The Irish Museum of Modern Art is housed in the former Royal Hospital at Kilmainham. At Collins’s Barracks, on the north bank of the Liffey, the National Museum of Ireland has opened its largest exhibition spaces, while Saint Patrick’s Hospital (instituted by Jonathan Swift through his last will and testament) and Guinness Brewery continue to fulfil their eighteenth-century functions. Notable local churches include Saint Catherine’s (outside which Robert Emmet was executed in 1803) and the Augustinian house in Saint John’s Lane. The Four Courts and Heuston Station add further architectural interest to the area, which still retains the tang of racy Dublin speech and street-life. The Phoenix Park lies immediately to the north-west.

The Edward Worth Library (1733) is the most specialised of these cultural treasuries. The collection is made up of some 4,400 volumes, the earliest dating from 1475. Most are sumptuously bound in decorated leather or are preserved in original bindings covered with vellum. Approximately one third of the collection is made up of medical and related scientific works, with classics, history, literature, philosophy, reference, and travel accounting for much of the remainder.

Though the collection contains a small number of books which Worth inherited from his father (the Revd John Worth, 1648-1688, sometime dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral), the greatest number of books were bought by Edward Worth himself. Born in Dublin, educated in Oxford and the Netherlands, holding medical degrees from three universities, Worth remains an enigma. Little or nothing is known of his personal life or professional career. The most intimate documents discovered to date are book-auction lists which he carefully studied and upon which his collecting interests and financial commitments can in part be traced. The library, which bears his name, possesses a sizeable collection of these catalogues in their original state, mostly dating from the 1720s.

Worth’s great benefaction is inextricably tied into the history of Dr Steevens’ Hospital. When Richard Steeven died in 1710, he left his fortune to his twinsister Grizel (or Griselda) with the stipulation that, on her death, it should be used to found a hospital in Dublin. She, however, determined to commence the work immediately. The process of building was slow, but a Board of Governors was constituted to oversee the project and its subsequent management. Edward Worth was one of the original Governors, though he died a few months before the first patients were admitted in the summer of 1733.some-history2Worth had made a will in 1723, adding an important codicil in 1729. When, by its terms, virtually all his books were left to the fledging hospital, the Governors recognised their value. Space was set aside on the first floor of the building, and boxes of books were brought by cart from Worth’s house in Werburgh Street (at the back of Dublin Castle). The architect Edward Lovet Pearce was evidently commissioned to design the library interior but, as he died in December 1733, his influence cannot have been sustained in practice. Though the noble fireplace in the north wall, flanked by Corinthian columns, may be assigned to him, the business of installing bookcases fell to humbler (yet skilful) mortals. While there is evidence that the carpenters and glaziers at first had difficulty accommodating all the books in the space provided, the room has remained their home ever since (with one brief interlude in the 1980s).

The familiar phrase ‘infinite riches in a little room’ derives from Christopher Marlowe’s play, The Jew of Malta. Its superficial meaning is certainly relevant to the treasure-house which is the Edward Worth Library. However, just as theatre historians have come to appreciate how the grosser surface actions and pronouncements of Marlowe’s drama provide access to subtler and more difficult questions about accumulation and marginality, religion and materialism, paternity and solitude, riches and worth, so the investigator into the Edward Worth Library (1733) suddenly finds him or her self besieged by a host of positive challenges.

Librarians and bibliographers will rightly insist that the foremost of these must result in a modern catalogue of the collection, illustrating the magnificence of the bindings and detailing the exact collational structure of each volume. This task was undertaken by Vincent Kinane when he was seconded part-time from the Department of Early Printed Books, in the Library of Trinity College. Mr Kinane not only commenced work on a systematic modern cataloguing of the books, he also published a number of scholarly articles on individual bindings in the Worth collection. Lamentably, he died in office in 2000 after a protracted illness. But approximately one third of the book stock had been re-catalogued, providing a sound basis for full mobilisation of the Worth Library.

Even in the few years between Vincent Kinane’s arrival in 1997 and the appointment of his successor in November 2004, advances in technology and reductions in the cost of same have altered the situation. Thus, whereas he relied on detailed verbal descriptions of bindings, the resumed work will also incorporate extensive digital photography. It is expected that all Worth bindings will be represented in the on-line data-base currently being established by the British Library and the Dutch Royal Library.

More material approaches to the history of the Edward Worth Library are also required. For example, the initial construction of glass-fronted shelves did not fully accommodate all the books which had been delivered. The architectural consequences were occasionally more ingenious than elegant, though the over-all appearance of the room is not only dignified but even cosy. Additional book-cases were inserted, including a range of enclosed presses above the glass-fronted display. Numbering arrangements for these Upper Presses was not always internally consistent, and a temporary change of location for the Library as a whole in the late 1980s has additionally led to a re-distribution of some material. There is, consequently, a problem with its own double origins (early and late) with regard to the arrangement of books in the Upper Presses.

The earlier source of this challenge is more complex than a simple excess of books over available shelf-length. As Edward Worth had long planned to bestow his collection – or the best part of it, – on the hospital, there had no been shortage of time for devising comfortable accommodation. In 1730, a year after the codicil to his will and more than two years before his death, a hand-written catalogue was prepared; its two reversed-calf bound volumes continue to serve as the most complete guide to the library. Even if work on this catalogue was not concluded promptly, the unfinished state of the hospital building allowed every opportunity for adjustments to fit the books as finally delivered. The thought must arise that, in some regard, more books may have arrived than were expected.

A surplus of any kind raises questions about the financial resources available to Worth as he assembled his remarkable collection. Physicians in the early eighteenth century frequently rose to great prosperity, and the increasingly scientific practice of medicine led to its establishment as a profession with its own institutions, regalia and fetishised elevation in the market where it thrived. Given the lengthy training involved, physicians also tended to emerge from families already comfortable, if not actively prosperous. Here the enigma of Edward Worth becomes emblematic.some-history3The family history was dismal. Edward’s elder brother Michael had died young some time after 1692. Their father, John Worth, dean of Saint Patrick’s, had died in 1688 when the younger son was only ten years of age. (He was succeeded in the deanery by William King, later the dominant force in Irish Anglicanism.) Even assuming that the boy’s mother (whose family name had been Comfort) was still alive, he must have relied on relatives for support. His uncle William Worth (1646-1721) had been junior baron in the Irish court of exchequer until the triumph of the Williamites, after which he lucratively became a commissioner responsible for management of estates belonging to the Duke of Ormond. Certainly, this latter connection would explain the Duke’s involvement in 1702 when, as Chancellor of Dublin University, James Butler recommended that ‘Dr Edward Worth from Utrecht’ be admitted to a Trinity medical qualification.

Thus ratified for local practice, Worth did not simply join the ranks of Dublin’s working doctors. In November 1702, he approached Sir Patrick Dun with a view to recognition as a candidate for membership of the College of Physicians. The College chose to require an examination of his qualifications by a number of ‘censors’ whose verdict would be transmitted by William Dun and Dr Richard Steevens. Though these were standard procedures, Worth was not elected until April 1710, being elevated to Fellowship on the same day. In the mean time, he claimed an M. D. degree from Oxford where he had been an arts undergraduate at Merton College in the 1690s.

Worth’s relationship with his professional body reached a brief high point on 18 October 1715, when he was unanimously chosen as president for the coming year. Three days later, on 21 October, (at his own request) he was excused from serving, on payment of a £5 fine which (it seems) had already been received. Thereupon commenced a period of several years in which he was repeatedly censured or fined for absence, culminating in April 1722 when the authorities appointed a Dr Duncan Cumming to intervene with Worth who should return and take his seat in the College of Physicians. By 21 May, no satisfactory answer had been obtained, and Worth’s name seems to have dropped from the College’s active file of correspondence.

One explanation for this infrequent engagement with the College might be found in a better knowledge of Worth’s own health. It has been remarked on a number of occasions that he was ill for years before his death, a view supported by the early date (1723) of his will. The same circumstances would explain the very sparse available details of his medical practice. If he did not earn a substantial professional income, and could yet spend the very large sums required to acquire more than four thousand valuable books in a relatively short period of time, the focus returns to the sources of his wealth.

At present comparatively little is known of the Worth family’s circumstances. Dean Worth died in London at the age of forty, and was evidently buried in England. His older brother William Worth (1646-1721, sometime baron of the Irish exchequer) was buried in a family vault on the south side of the choir, in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral a few days after Christmas 1721. The most active period of Edward Worth’s career as a book-buyer and a commissioner of binders followed promptly. When he in turn died at the beginning of 1733, he was buried in Baron Worth’s vault. The Baron’s only surviving son – confusingly also named Edward – was still alive and became a major beneficiary of his book-collecting cousin’s will. The influence of Dean Worth and his line had proven to be short-lived and ephemeral.

While his sons were still children, the Dean had willed that his books should be divided between them provided they took holy orders; but he also willed that his nephew should ultimately acquire the books if the boys did not comply with his vocational condition. As one of the sons (Michael) died young, the condition could only have applied to the medical doctor and bibliophile Edward Worth. It is not yet clear how extensive Dean Worth’s library had been – some of his books ended up in Trinity College, others are to be found in the Worth Library where they are distinguished by their rather battered (better, used) appearance compared to the trophy volumes connected by the surviving son. Others again seem to have formed the nucleus of the collection put together by Sir Edward Newenham MP in his youth, and these are now housed in the Dublin City Library. Never having shown any traceable inclination for the clerical life, Dr Edward Worth was able to assemble his own impressive library without relying heavily on his father’s will but instead apparently benefiting from his uncle, the Baron of Exchequer’s death in 1721.

There remains then the question of why Dr Worth chose to leave his valuable collection to Dr Steevens’ Hospital, making this decision years before patients were admitted or the building completed. First, one should note that neither Trinity College nor the College of Physicians benefited. Had he been principally concerned to see his books incorporated into a learned library, these were the obvious local institutions to which he might look; indeed he held professional titles or qualifications from each. However, his relations with each had also been compromised by circumstance. In the case of Trinity, his ad eundem degree had been awarded through the intervention of no less a figure than the Chancellor, who at the time had also been chief of the Queen’s land forces in Ireland. If this connection had been mobilised by Uncle William, the former Baron of Exchequer, then one should note that by the time that Dr Worth was making a will, the Duke of Ormonde’s opinion of his former commissioner had declined, declaring that William Worth had ‘made very great advantage to himself over and above’ the entitled income. The Duke and Chancellor was still very much a power in the land and in Europe, but Trinity’s jealous dons and medicos may have been hostile to a sometime favourite of the Chancellor’s.

Relations with the College of Physicians had become complicated with Worth’s promptly declining to act in the office of President within a few days of his election. The succeeding years of fines for absence, culminating in the failure of Dr Cumming to secure an understanding with Worth, may amount to little more than the result of petulance provoked by ill-health. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Physicians did not have a property in which they could accommodate such a library as Edward Worth’s, but by the early 1720S they were ensconced long-term in the home of Lady Dun, widow of Sir Patrick Dun. Such a gift as Worth devised for Steevens’ Hospital would truly have secured their worldly estate; instead it went to a fledging institution willing to design a room for the purpose. Perhaps the unfinished state of the hospital weighed positively, together with his association with Richard Steevens and his intended role as a governor of the hospital.

There were, of course, destinations beyond Dublin to which the books might have been sent. In Oxford, Merton College had an excellent library to which Worth’s would have been a gift deserving elaborate commemoration in one of Europe’s most important universities. In The Netherlands, the medical schools which Worth had attended – first Leiden and then Utrecht from which he graduated – were also pioneering institutions with valuable libraries attached. The Worth books are drawn from all over the continent, virtually from every European country in which the craft of printing and book publication had been established. Many of the books had been bought in the Low Countries by agents acting on Worth’s behalf. By way of corollary, Dutch influence persisted in ‘Williamite’ Dublin, even after the Hanoverian succession of 1714. Nonetheless, no institution in which Worth had been trained or qualified, whether Irish, English or Dutch was to benefit. It is difficult wholly to suppress the suspicion that some kind of personal score-settling was involved, especially with regard to Trinity College Dublin.

Two lines of further enquiry can be briefly noted. First, there is the pressing need to define the Worth collection more exactly, by means of a full collational bibliographic description and cataloguing of each book. This is a demanding, time-consuming but entirely feasible exercise. Only with its completion can we judge the scale of the issues and conflicts of issue discussed above. The second line of enquiry carries no guarantee of success or completion, a historicobiographical investigation of Edward Worth’s life and career, his financial circumstances and interests, his ideas and values. The extreme paucity of known primary sources is discouraging. But, as James Kelly has demonstrated with reference to Sir Edward Newenham, Worth did not exist in a vacuum; he and his books rubbed shoulders with others in Dublin – and perhaps beyond. We know that he lost his father and brother at an early age, and that he declined to follow parental wishes on the matter of a clerical career; we assume that he did not marry nor did he have children; we note the hostility of Jonathan Swift and some murmurings about suspected atheism.

Archival material in the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, and in the library of Trinity College, Dublin.
James Kelly, Sir Edward Newenham MP 1734-1814, Defender of the Protestant Constitution. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2004.
T. P. C. Kirkpatrick, The History of Doctor Steevens’ Hospital Dublin 1720-1920. Dublin: at the University Press, 1924.
J. D. H. Widdess, A History of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland 1654-1963. Edinburgh, London: Livingstone, 1963

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