Rare Book Profile: George Catlin’s The Breath of Life, or Mal-Respiration

George Catlin’s The Breath of Life, or, Mal-Respiration: and its Effects Upon the Enjoyments & Life of Man (New York: John Wiley, 1861) is a minor work by a major American artist and ethnologist with no medical training.

George Catlin (1796-1872) was originally educated as a lawyer and practiced law in Philadelphia for two years. He then followed his passion for art to become a portrait painter in New York. In 1832 Catlin decided to study Native American Culture, and spent several years living among various tribes in North and South America.  1840 he travelled through Europe exhibiting his paintings of Native American life, and in 1841 published the first of several lavishly illustrated works on Native American life and culture.

In 1861, Catlin published The Breath of Life, in which he attributed most of civilization’s ills to the European habit of mouth-breathing, and the superior health of the Native Americans to their sleeping on their backs with mouths closed as nature intended. He illustrated the book with comparative pictures of healthy people and mouth-breathing Europeans in a uniquely cartoonish style, and for some reason had the text set using the long form of the letter s, which had been obsolete for the last 60 years. The book was popular enough to remain in print for several decades. The cover design of early editions after the first included the phrase “shut your mouth” in large type, which overshadowed the book’s actual title, and some later editions were issued with the title Shut Your Mouth and Save Your Life

The Health Sciences Library has both the 1861 first edition and an 1869 reprint.  The first edition was given to the library by Dr. James J. Waring. It was rebound in beige linen with the publisher’s original printed paper cover bound in by Dr. Frank B. Rogers. The 1869 reissue is in the publisher’s original printed paper-covered boards with a brown cloth spine.

Rare materials are available to individuals or groups by appointment on Wednesday mornings and Thursday afternoons, or at other times by arrangement. To schedule an appointment, contact Emily Epstein, emily.epstein@ucdenver.edu or 303-724-2119.

Emily Epstein

Cataloging Librarian

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