Dr. Elmer Belt’s Lifetime Addiction of Book Collecting

By Katy Belt

“He is an omnivorous reader in a great many areas. Elmer Belt’s collecting is a reflection of the breadth of his mind and also his infinite capacity for fine detail as it expresses itself in surgery and in his knowledge of medicine. In some ways, you could take his library, and it would be a portrait of the man.” – Jacob Zeitlin, 1977

Dr. Elmer Belt, an internationally distinguished surgeon and Clinical Professor of Surgery in Urology at UCLA was a “collector of ideas” whose dedicated reverence for knowledge is reflected in his extensive libraries.

His celebrated passion for books in all forms, for sharing, protecting, and acquiring, rare and fine-press books, may have started at the age of 12 while working part-time at the now iconic Dawson’s bookshop in Los Angeles. His long-time collaborator and friend, American bookseller, publisher, and collector himself, Jacob Zeitlin stated that Dr. Belt acquired “a little group of Elzeviers” at that time.

A true bibliophile, Dr. Belt loved the physical book itself. This enthusiasm benefited his family and friends alike. On one occasion, when showing a centuries-old copy of a Book of Hours to a young, awe-struck relative, Elmer gently insisted the pages could be touched. “Hundreds of hands have held it over the years,” he said, “why not yours?”

In the 1920s, following his residency with physician and noted bibliophile Harvey Cushing in Boston, Dr. Belt returned to Los Angeles to start his urological practice. Around that time he also began his targeted collecting of materials concerning Leonardo Da Vinci and the Italian Renaissance. He enlisted the sharp eyes of Jacob Zeitlin and art historian Kate Steinitz who for the next 40 years helped him develop and maintain the rare collection that is now housed at the University of California, Los Angeles. The Elmer Belt Library of Vinciana has been drawing scholars from all parts of the world since 1961 and the collection continues to grow.

Dr. and Mrs. Belt also built a number of other libraries, donating an extensive collection that pays tribute to their friend, the writer and activist Upton Sinclair, to Occidental College in 1950. Eight years later they gave the Florence Nightingale Collection to UCLA’s Biomedical Library. In honor of this spirit of private collecting as a public benefit, Dr. Belt received the Sir Thomas More Medal for Book Collecting in 1972.

Dr. Belt was one of the inventors of perineal prostate surgery. In addition, he is a deeply
appreciated pioneer in sex reassignment surgery. Patients and collaborators speak highly of him as an attentive listener who treated people in all walks of life respectfully. He was instrumental in founding UCLA’s School of Medicine.

During an extensive interview in 1977 Jacob Zeitlin gave Dr. Belt “very high marks as a sponsor of culture.” Eminent librarian Lawrence Clark Powell and others note Dr. Belt as a philanthropic patron of bibliophilic projects. More recently in 1992 Dr. J. A. Benjamin remembers “Elmer Belt served as a major role model — not only as clinician and educator, but he also transferred his abiding fascination with the history of medicine and the collection of rare medical books to his young colleague.” He continues to inspire.

“Book collecting was a lifetime addiction of Dr. Elmer Belt.” – Jacob Zeitlin, 1982

For more information on Elmer Belt and his collection, follow these links:
The Elmer Belt Library of Vinciana
Elmer Belt on Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
UCLA Arts Library: ‘The Belt’