Gerald N. Wachs: A Consummate Collector
Gerald ("Jerry") Wachs, MD (1937-2013) is widely remembered for his warmth, intelligence, generosity, sense of humor, and above all devotion to his family. After receiving his medical degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago's College of Medicine, he spent nearly 20 years at Schering (now Merck) as a senior associate medical director, where he was responsible for the FDA's approval of over 20 new drug applications, followed by 18 years in a private dermatological practice.
Dr. Wachs was an inveterate collector. As he put it, "I have conclusive evidence of a heretofore-unknown scientific phenomenon. There is a gene for 'collectors.' I have it, in spades! ... Over the years I have collected books, stamps, coins, art prints, tropical fish, baseball cards ... and numerous other absolutely must-have objects."
Dr. Wachs formed a number of collections that relate directly to his interests. A proud member of the Sherlock Holmes society, Baker Street Irregulars, he collected printed materials relating to Holmes and 1,000 lapel pins, the largest collection in the world. He loved theater, and the Wachs Collection of Tom Stoppard, a promised gift to the University of Chicago Library, was the basis for a scholarly bibliography he co-authored with English literature scholar William Baker, Tom Stoppard: A Bibliographical History (2010). An avid fan of baseball and member of the Society for American Baseball Research, he also collected books about the game, and, in particular, his beloved Chicago Cubs.
The collection of which he was most proud was the Gerald N. Wachs Collection of Nineteenth-Century English Poetry. Like many collections, it began somewhat serendipitously and quite modestly. But over a period of more than 40 years, working with bookseller Stephen Weissman, it grew to nearly 900 items.
Books on view in this case include those that had special significance for the collector and the formation of the collection, as well as examples of exceptional rarities that he was able to acquire.The Biography of a Collection
In March 1970, Dr. Wachs read an article about New York rare book shops. Looking for a birthday present for his wife, Glorya, he visited one of the stores mentioned in it, Ximenes Rare Books, Inc. Ximenes was founded by Stephen Weissman and two friends in 1961 when they were undergraduates at Harvard. They were all devotees of the Sunday Observer's cryptic crossword puzzle. With collegiate whimsy they took the name of the Inquisition-era Cardinal Ximenes from the pseudonym–traditionally chosen to recognize the devilishly difficult nature of the puzzle – of one of the Observer's compilers (or "setters"). Weissman bought out his partners and moved his business to New York. When Dr. Wachs stopped by, he recommended a first edition of Bryon's Hebrew Melodies (1815), which includes "She Walks in Beauty."
Thus began a professional collaboration and personal friendship that lasted over forty years. They decided to use The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature (1969-77) as their road map and discussed at length whether or not the goal should be to acquire a copy of everything listed in volume 3, which covers 1800-1900. As Steve Weissman recalls, "To some extent Jerry and I were both stamp collectors by instinct, and shared a philatelic predilection for completeness. At the same time I was hesitant about applying the same principle to collecting books.... my instinct was that for certain obviously common titles we should hold out for inscribed copies, or copies with interesting provenance."
As the collection evolved, they were able to apply these criteria to the books selected for the Wachs collection. As opportunities arose, they replaced copies purchased early on or supplemented them by ones in finer condition or with association significance.
Starting with Hebrew Melodies, which is "Wachs No. 1," each item added to the collection was given a sequential accession number. The "Wachs number," included on each item label in the exhibition, thus indicates when in the development of the collection a particular item was acquired and makes it possible to trace its growth.