Conan Doyle’s Poison Pen and “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot”

By Anne Garner, Curator, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

“Upon my word, Watson!” said Holmes at last with an unsteady voice, “I owe you both my thanks and an apology. It was an unjustifiable experiment even for one’s self…A candid observer would certainly declare that we were [mad] before we embarked upon so wild an experiment. I confess that I never imagined that the effect could be so sudden and so severe.”

                                                –Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” (1910)1

Illustration from the 1910 publication of "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" in The Strand magazine.

Illustration by Gilbert Holiday from the 1910 publication of “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” in The Strand magazine.

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century botanical dictionaries lack any mention of radix pedis diaboli. Curious readers will need to turn instead to fiction to find it, and to the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle’s short story, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” was published in 1910, and pivots on this fictional poisonous plant.

In the story, the plant—devil’s foot root—is little-known even in West Africa, its point of origin. Its transport to England is the work of the story’s lion-hunting physician, Dr. Leon Sternsdale.

The case involves the mysterious injuries sustained by four siblings (two are fatal). En route to the story’s solve, Holmes detects a strange brown powder on the smoke-guard of a lamp at the scene. Soon after, he proposes that he and Watson undertake a medical experiment to determine the powder’s effects on the body. The always accommodating Watson assents. Holmes then lights the lamp, burning the powder with the window and door ajar for ventilation.

The impact is immediate: Watson describes a “turmoil in his brains” and a mounting loss of control of both mind and body. At the last minute, Watson marshals his reason and tackles Holmes, pushing him out of the room, where the pair of them lie breathless on the grass outside as the fumes and the poison recede. Holmes’ suspicions are confirmed: the powder is toxic, and he’s able to link the deaths to the devil’s foot root, with the help of Sternsdale.

As a third-year medical student at the University of Edinburgh, Doyle embarked on his own experiment with a toxic root. Gelsemium (sometimes gelseminum), a dried rhizome of yellow jasmine, was rumored to have been discovered by a Mississippi planter who accidentally made a tea for his master using the root, and cured him of his fever (though with side effect—loss of muscle control).2

Doctor Conan Doyle in academic regalia for his graduation in August 1881. In Rodin and Key, Medical Casebook of Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle: From Practitioner to Sherlock Holmes and Beyond, 1984.

Doctor Conan Doyle in academic regalia for his graduation in August 1881. In Rodin and Key, Medical Casebook of Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle: From Practitioner to Sherlock Holmes and Beyond, 1984.

By the mid-19th century, gelsemium had gained a reputation with a handful of medical practitioners in the Midwest as a remedy for pneumonia, pleurisy, and other ailments. In 1879, Doyle, who had been taking a tincture of gelsemium for some time to combat neuralgia, began to experiment with it, incrementally increasing his dosage.3

Doyle published his findings in a letter to the editor in the September 20, 1879 issue of the British Medical Journal, under his initials, A.C.D. Doyle writes that he was “determined to ascertain how far one might go in taking the drug, and what the primary symptoms of an overdose might be.” He concludes that gelsemium, like opium, could be tolerated with increased exposure, though at 200 minims Doyle ceased his experiments because of debilitating stomach issues.4

Gelsemium. In  Millspaugh, American Medicinal Plants, 1887.

Gelsemium. In Millspaugh, American Medicinal Plants, 1887.

Holmes and Watson’s symptoms in the “Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” in some ways conjure the effects of the gelsemium described by Doyle in the BMJ. Watson reports a “freezing” loss of muscular control and partial paralysis as well as loss of the senses. Doyle recounted similar symptoms after ingesting gelsemium. At the highest dosages, Doyle reported severe depression. Watson, too, describes feelings of dread:

“A thick, black cloud swirled before my eyes, and my mind told me that in this cloud, unseen as yet, but about to spring out upon my appalled senses, lurked all that was vaguely horrible, all that was monstrous and inconceivably wicked in the universe.”5

Self-experimentation was common during Conan Doyle’s lifetime. And yet, it’s somewhat surprising that Conan Doyle endeavored to take on this project. As historians Rodin and Key note, Conan Doyle writes in his autobiography, “I had…no great interest in the more recent developments of my own profession, and a very strong belief that much of the so-called progress was illusory.”6 Why then, was Conan Doyle so determined to ascertain the limits of the drug, particularly when he knew of life-ending overdoses? (At peak dosage, Doyle took 2 1/2 times the fatal amount.)

Arthur Conan Doyle. In his Memories and Adventures, 1930.

Arthur Conan Doyle. In his Memories and Adventures, 1930.

The answer is not clear, but may suggest an early fascination with poisons, which decorate so many of Conan Doyle’s Holmes and Watson stories. As a medical student at the University of Edinburgh, Conan Doyle studied with several eminent toxicologists, including Sir Robert Christison and Sir Thomas Richard Fraser.7 Conan Doyle’s service as ship surgeon on a voyage to West Africa may also have familiarized him with poisons that inspired the “devil’s foot root” of the Holmes story.

Rodin and Key suggest that not only was Conan Doyle interested in poisons, but he was also a risk-taker. They write that the experiment was a “reflection of the bravado, the sense of the dramatic, and the spirit of adventure already noted in many of his endeavors—experiences as a ship’s surgeon and involvements in war and sports.”8 Conan Doyle bestowed these qualities on his crackerjack gumshoe. In “Devil’s Foot,” Holmes admits that testing the poison is somewhat reckless—and yet we can’t imagine him behaving otherwise.

a street where Arthur Conan Doyle had his first medical practice, where he created the character Sherlock. In Rodin and Key, Medical Casebook of Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle: From Practitioner to Sherlock Holmes and Beyond, 1984.

Southsea. No. 1. Bush Villas is the site of Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle’s practice, 1882-1890. He created Sherlock Holmes here. In Rodin and Key, Medical Casebook of Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle: From Practitioner to Sherlock Holmes and Beyond, 1984.

We recommend commemorating Arthur Conan Doyle’s birthday, May 22, 1859, with a story or three from Round the red lamp: Being facts and fancies of medical life, with other medical short stories, available online, originally published in 1894 and reissued in 1992.

1. Conan Doyle, Arthur. “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot.” His Last Bow. 1910. Project Gutenberg 15 May 2015.

2. Alvin E. Rodin and Jack D. Key. Medical Casebook of Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle: From Practitioner to Sherlock Holmes and Beyond. Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger Publishing, 1984. p. 82.

3. D[oyle], A[rthur] C[onan]. “Gelseminum as Poison.” British Medical Journal 2: 483, 1879.

4.D[oyle], A[rthur] C[onan].

5. Doyle, Arthur Conan. “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot.” His Last Bow. 1910. Project Gutenberg. 15 May 2015.

6. Rodin and Key, 82.

7. Billings, Harold. “The material medica of Sherlock Holmes.” Baker Street Journal 55: 2006. 37-44.

8. Rodin and Key, 82.

Damien the Leper (Part 3 of 3)

This is part three of a guest post written by Anna Weerasinghe, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School studying the history and theology of Hansen’s disease. Read part one and part two.

In March 1888, Damien received a visit from Dr. Prince A. Morrow, a prominent New York dermatologist and syphilologist best known today as an early proponent of sex education.1 Morrow, then a fellow at the New York Academy of Medicine, had written the month before requesting an account of the progression of Hansen’s disease from Damien’s earliest symptoms through to its (at the time) inevitable conclusion. Damien, who was now so far along in his illness that he could no longer hold a pen, dictated the full account.2

Damien weeks before his death, photographed by William Brigham.

Damien weeks before his death, photographed by William Brigham.” In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

Damien described the beginnings of the illness as an itching on the skin of his face and legs. Then, in the early 1880s, he began to experience a dull, throbbing pain in his left leg that eventually gave away to numbness. In the beginning of 1885, Damien accidentally scalded his foot with boiling water. He felt nothing. One of the earliest signs of Hansen’s disease is loss of sensation in the extremities, and Damien began to suspect the worst. Examination by doctors confirmed his suspicions: he had Hansen’s disease.3

It was a devastating diagnosis. Being diagnosed with Hansen’s disease in Hawaii during the 19th and early 20th centuries was akin to being charged with a crime. Those afflicted with Hansen’s disease were legally required to turn themselves over to state incarceration at the Molokai settlement, leaving behind their families, friends, property, and livelihoods. The government enforced occasional sweeps of the island to ferret out ill people who were unwilling to turn themselves in.4

It is now known that Hansen’s disease is not a particularly contagious bacterial infection. About 95% of the population is naturally immune to Mycobacterium leprae, and most of the remaining 5% experience a relatively mild version of Hansen’s disease called tuberculoid leprosy. A small number of infected individuals, including Damien, are not so lucky. Due to a combination of genetic susceptibility and long-term exposure, possibly exacerbated by poor sanitation, Damien contracted the most serious form of Hansen’s disease: lepromatous. If left untreated, lepromatous Hansen’s disease causes large, insensate skin lesions eventually leading to extreme disfiguration of the extremities and face; nerve damage; breakdown of muscle tissue; and death.5

As if the disease weren’t terrible enough, the isolation of Hansen’s disease patients produced even more anguish. A 1907 government pamphlet on the Molokai settlement remarks, “the separation which the disease causes in families and among friends, is its most distressing feature.”6 By blaming the disease for the “distressing” practice of incarcerating victims of Hansen’s disease, Hawaiian policymakers and medical leaders abdicated responsibility for their actions. It was not the disease that separated sufferers from their healthy families, it was the tight grip of social mores and the law.7

Of course, the law did not affect the Hawaiian population equally. Even at the time of the Molokai settlement’s peak population (just over 1, 200 Hansen’s disease patients), only a tiny percentage was white.8 This disparity was most likely due to lower levels of genetic resistance among indigenous Hawaiians, compounded by poverty, as well as poor access to clean water, sanitation, and professional medical services.9 At the time, however, the high rate of infection among the native Hawaiian population was used to prop up colonialist bias and moral judgment.

Damien on his deathbed, photographed by the settlement physician, Sidney Bourne Swift. In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

Damien on his deathbed, photographed by the settlement physician, Sidney Bourne Swift. In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

Leprosy has had a moral dimension for almost as long as it has existed as a human disease. Like many illnesses, leprosy was often seen as a sign of divine displeasure and sinfulness. Throughout medieval and early modern times, leprosy was connected in particular to sexual deviancy and was even thought to be a venereal disease linked to syphilis.10

While the medical field had largely discarded this theory by the end of the 19th century, the close association between sexual immorality and leprosy was still a widely held belief among the white population of Hawaii. Indigenous Hawaiians, with their freewheeling approach to sex, were clearly at fault for their own sickness. Even Damien drew the connection: “It is an admitted fact,” he wrote, “that the great majority, if not the total number of all pure natives, have the syphilitic blood, very well developed in their system…as we are now, it developed it self [sic] in some instance in the way of what we called leprosy.”11

Damien was a man of his time, as this unflattering quote proves, but he was an extraordinary one. Others bemoaned the sorry state of leprous Hawaiians from a safe distance. Dr. Morrow’s interest in the Molokai settlement, for example, extended only as far as his scientific curiosity.12 But when someone asked Damien if he wanted to be cured of his leprosy, his answer was no: not if the price of the cure was abandoning Molokai and his work among his fellow sufferers.13 It was this very flawed, very human bravery—what some called recklessness—that made Damien a popular saint and martyr long before his canonization.

In previous posts, we have seen Damien through the eyes of his most vocal critics and poetic admirers, religious authorities, and now medical experts. He was a man who attracted the words of others, through his work, his circumstances, and his personality. But of himself, Damien typically had little to say. “As for me,” he wrote to his older brother during his 11th year as pastor of the Molokai settlement, “I am still almost the same, except for my beard which is beginning to turn a little grey.”14


1. For a full discussion of Morrow’s contribution to the early sex education movement in the United States, see Bryan Strong, “Ideas of the Early Sex Education Movement in America, 1890-1920,” History of Education Quarterly, 12 (1972): 129-61.

2.Gavan Daws, Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 226-227.

3.Daws, Holy Man, 160-163.

4. Daws, Holy Man, 142-150.

5. Warwick J. Britton, “Leprosy,” Encyclopedia of Life Sciences, online ed. (John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2002), 1.

6. Hawaii Board of Health, The Molokai Settlement, Territory of Hawaii: Villages Kalaupapa and Kalawao (Honolulu, issued by the Board of Health of the Territory of Hawaii, 1907), 3. Emphasis added.

7. While segregation of Hansen’s disease patients has long been considered unnecessary and unethical, particularly with the development of effective antibiotic treatment, recent studies suggest that segregation may never have been a successful method for reducing the incidence of Hansen’s disease. New research has shown that the bacteria responsible for Hansen’s disease can survive for long periods of time inside amoebae that are commonly found in standing water and soil. This may explain why leprosy incidence in the Hawaiian Islands only began to decrease in the 1910s, when improvements in quality of life and sanitation began to trickle down to the wider Hawaiian population. See William H. Wheat, Amy L. Casali, Vincent Thomas et al. “Long-term Survival and Virulence of Mycobacterium leprae in Amoebal Cysts,” PL0S Neglected Tropical Diseases, Vol. 8, No. 12 (2014).

8. Daws, Holy Man, 250.

9. In addition, white sufferers of Hansen’s disease had greater mobility and often left the Hawaiian Islands to seek treatment in the U.S. or abroad. One government doctor even proposed setting up an official fund to pay the fares of diseased white men to leave Hawaii. Daws, Holy Man, 148.

10. Saul Nathanial Brody, The Disease of the Soul: Leprosy in Medieval Literature (Ithaca: Cornel University Press, 1974), 41; 60-61. See also Luke Demaitre, Leprosy in Premodern Medicine: A Malady of the Whole Body (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 209.

11. Daws, 148-149.

12. Dr. Morrow ultimately advocated against the U.S. annexation of Hawaii from a sanitation perspective. See Prince A. Morrow, “Leprosy and Hawaiian Annexation,” The North American Review, Vol. 165, No. 49d2 (Nov. 1897).

13. Daws, Holy Man, 216.

14. Daws, Holy Man, 137.

Tapes, Health, and History: Gaining Reel (to Reel) Experience at the New York Academy of Medicine

By Michelle Krause, Spring Intern

Intern Michelle Krause with audio-visual materials in the library's collection.

Intern Michelle Krause with audio-visual materials in the library’s collection.

I am a graduate student in the Moving Image Archive Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. To complete the program, students must complete two semester-long internships and one full-time summer internship. This semester I completed my first internship for the program at the New York Academy of Medicine, under the supervision of Archivist Rebecca Pou.

When the opportunity presented itself to intern at the New York Academy of Medicine, I immediately applied for the position. I come from a family of doctors and am extremely interested in the medical field. I knew I would be fascinated to work on preserving a collection of audiovisual materials relating to medicine.

I was fortunate to work with three collections throughout my internship at the Academy. The largest collection I worked with consisted of 447 magnetic recording tapes (in reel-to-reel format) of medical lectures recorded in the late-1950s to the mid-1970s at the New York Academy of Medicine. My duties included organizing the materials and corresponding the reels with their appropriate series. After this task was complete, I catalogued all of the information on each reel into an item-level spreadsheet.

Labeled reels.

Audio reels in the library’s collection.

Throughout the course of my internship, I gained and strengthened numerous skills; for example, collection management, inspection, cataloging and knowledge regarding audiotape reels. Before embarking on this internship, I had no experience in collection management (I would eventually take a course on the topic during the spring semester), however after having completed the internship I feel completely confident in the field. It was especially helpful that Rebecca allowed me to choose my own method of assessing and cataloging the collection; as a result I felt confident in my choice of action, simultaneously improving my skills as a cataloguer.

An audio reel.

An audio reel.

I devoted countless hours to inspecting the audiotape reels, which emphasized to me that it is necessary to perform tasks slowly if one wishes to complete a thorough assessment of a collection. Completing this internship has increased my knowledge of magnetic recording tape, especially in reel-to-reel format, as well as how to correctly identify damage to audiotape reels. I could not have asked for a better internship or supervisor this semester so I can only hope that my experience this semester is repeated in future internships. Because of my work with the collection, the library now has a clearer picture of what these collections contain, and can move forward with work to preserve them and make them more accessible.

Fascinating Mad Men-Era Advertisements

By Anne Garner, Curator, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

This is part of an intermittent series of blogs featuring advertisements found in our collection. You can find the entire series here.

In American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 83, no. 3 (1962).

In American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 83, no. 3 (1962).

Nobody conjures the ’60s better than Matthew Weiner and the writers, designers, and stylists of AMC’s Mad Men. We’ll miss the quotidian details: the trash left behind at the Draper family picnic, that unbelievable maternity dress of Trudy’s, the choking smoke of Mohawk’s planes, Metro-North’s trains, and Don’s automobiles. When Sally Draper puts a plastic dry-cleaning bag over her head and her mother scolds her—not out of fear for her safety and only for dumping her dry-cleaning on the floor—we’re gob-smacked. These moments crystallize the seismic shifts that have occurred in cultural expectations over the last fifty years.

The Academy Library has strong holdings in the major journals of the 19th and 20th centuries. Journals were then, as they are now, the primary place of publication for innovations and discoveries. In addition, the advertisements aimed at the professional readers of these journals offer insights into changing cultural beliefs. Most libraries excised the advertisements, especially if they were gathered in a separate section of the journal. The Academy tradition was to keep the advertising, and these ads are now heavily used by historians.

The images and texts in these advertisements provide artists, writers, and historians with richly-textured cultural context. There is much to be learned, for example, from looking at the way antidepressants were marketed to women in the twentieth century, at the early advertisements for the birth control pill, and at tobacco advertising aimed directly at physicians as consumers.  Here, a look at a Flavorwire piece we wrote using ads entirely from our collections and relating them to Mad Men.

The Good Man of Religion (Part 2 of 3)

This is part two of a guest post written by Anna Weerasinghe, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School studying the history and theology of Hansen’s disease. Read part one and part three.

Our last post saw Protestants Robert Louis Stevenson and the Rev. Dr. Hyde in a pitched, public battle for religious missionary Father Damien’s reputation. But what did fellow Catholics think of Damien?

Bishop Hermann Koeckmann and Father Leonor Fouesnel. In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

Bishop Hermann Koeckmann and Father Leonor Fouesnel. In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

“Good man of religion, good priest,” wrote Father Fouesnel, the vice-provincial of the mission at Honolulu, “but…sometimes indiscreet zeal leads him to say, to write, and even to do things which ecclesiastical authority can only criticize.”1 Damien was constantly at loggerheads with his superiors Fouesnel and Hermann Koeckemann, bishop of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts on Hawaii, throughout his time at the Molokai leper settlement, and this is was nothing new.

Damien, born Jozef de Veuster on January 3, 1840 to a farming family in Tremelo, Belgium, was driven, strong, and competitive from a young age. He followed his elder brother Auguste into the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 1860 and quickly strove to surpass him. When Auguste fell ill and was unable to make the trip to Hawaii to begin his mission, Damien literally jumped at the chance to take his place. He even went over the head of his direct superior by writing a letter to the father-general of the Congregation, much to his superior’s annoyance. By October 1863, he was onboard a ship destined for Hawaii. He was only 23 years old and had yet to be ordained.2

Damien at twenty-three, just before he left Europe. In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

Damien at twenty-three, just before he left Europe. In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

This first step towards Molokai set the tone for Damien’s often-fraught relationship with his superiors throughout his life. Damien was impolitic, demanding, and at times even imperious. He did not request supplies or aid, he demanded them; when he got the desired materials or money, he used them as he saw fit without waiting for approval. His intentions were generally good: for example, Damien once took lumber intended for the chapel in Pelekunu, a town on the other side of Molokai, to perform much-needed repairs on the chapel at the leper settlement instead.

But the biggest bone of contention was Damien’s extraordinary international media presence, particularly towards the close of the 1880s when Damien’s terminal Hansen’s disease diagnosis had been confirmed and publicized. This massive surge in popularity was accompanied by an equally vast outpouring in donations, directed not towards the Congregation’s mission, but to Damien himself.

“I see with displeasure,” wrote Bishop Koeckemann in early 1887, “that the newspapers which admire you exaggerate and put things in a false light, without taking account of what the government and others do—the mission also has its share.” Koeckemann and Fouesnel were convinced that Damien was fanning the flames of publicity, writing “to the four winds” about the miserable state of the leper settlement and insinuating that the mission and the government were shirking their duties.3

Damien was taken aback by his superior’s disapproval as much as by the media attention. He believed his actions to be encouraging charity, not publicity—and in fact, only a few letters by Damien were published during his life. His circumstances, rather than his words, were what aroused public interest. The press presented Damien as a hero of self-sacrifice: losing first his freedom of movement, then his health, and finally his life.

Still, after Damien’s death, neither Koeckemann nor Fouesnel were interested in pursuing a sainthood for Damien. All agreed that, after the press had labeled Damien a “hero” and “martyr of charity,” everything had been said. “The rest,” Koeckemann concluded, delicately leaving out all mention of Damien’s personal faults, “only complicates matters.” As Koeckemann’s successor, Bishop Gulston Ropert observed, “Even the beginnings of the process of beatification would have to wait until everyone who knew Damien well was dead.”4

Indeed, the process of Damien’s canonization did not begin until 1977, when Pope Paul IV declared him to be venerable (the first step towards full sainthood). It would take another three decades and two posthumous miracles for Damien to be officially recognized as the patron saint of Hansen’s disease patients.5

The feast day chosen for the new Saint Damien was not the day of his death, as is typical for Catholic saints. Instead, Damien is venerated on May 10, the anniversary of his arrival on the island of Molokai—a moment that many regarded as a death sentence far worse than physical death.6 In the final post, we will look at Hansen’s disease on Hawaii, as well as the progression of Damien’s own illness and death.

Read part three.


1. Gavan Daws, Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 136.

2. Philibert Tauvel, Rtather Damien: Apostle of the Lepers of Molokai, Priest of the Cognregation of the Sacred Hearts (London: Art and Book Co., 1904), 29-31.

3. Daws, 191.

4. Daws, 245-246. Beatification is the second of three formal steps in the process leading towards sainthood.

5. Rachel Donadio, “Benedict Canonizes 5 New Saints,” The New York Times, October 11, 2009. For more about the second miracle, which was documented in the Hawaii Medical Journal, see “Vatican Affirms Miraculous Healing Attributed to Blessed Father Damien.” Catholic News Agency. May 1, 2008.

6.In fact, at the time when Damien left for Molokai, the government of Hawaii was deliberating a law that would declare confirmed Hansen’s disease victim legally dead. Daws, 73.

Sigmund Freud on War and Death

By Paul Theerman, Associate Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

4.Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), photograph by Max Halberstadt, n.d., from NLM’s Images from the History of Medicine, Image Order Number B012346.

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), photograph by Max Halberstadt, n.d., from NLM’s Images from the History of Medicine, Image Order Number B012346.

Sigmund Freud was born this day in 1856. Just one hundred years ago, a scant six months or so into the Great War, he set down Reflections on War and Death, his thoughts on the meaning of the war that had already spun out so violently—and that had more than three years yet to go.

Freud was at the top of his career in 1915. He started carving out the distinct field of psychoanalysis in 1895, with Studies in Hysteria, followed by The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), and numerous other books and articles. From 1902 he had gathered a group of physicians that became the nucleus of the psychoanalytic movement. In 1909, Freud undertook a triumphal tour of the United States. He founded The International Psychoanalytical Association in 1910; the American and New York groups came about the following year. And in 1912, Freud founded Imago: zeitschrift für anwendung der psychoanalyse auf die geisteswissenchaften, a journal that applied psychoanalysis to history, philosophy, and the social sciences. It was in Imago that the essay, “Reflections on War and Death” appeared, as “Zeitgemäßes über Krieg und Tod.”1

In his essay, Freud wished to present a worldly estimation of the carnage gripping Europe. He wrote, “The civilized world-citizen . . . may find himself helpless in a world that has grown strange to him when he sees his great fatherland disintegrated, the possessions common to mankind destroyed, and his fellow citizens debased.”2 While regretting the violence that the war had unleashed, he also professed not to be particularly surprised. European civilization was not nearly as moral as people had believed, he wrote. He contrasted two forms of moral development. One was hard won by deep psychic change: the transformation of evil and selfish impulses to beneficent social ends under the influence of “the love needs of man interpreted in the widest sense.”3

Sigmund Freud, “Zeitgemäßes über Krieg und Tod,” Imago: zeitschrift für anwendung der psychoanalyse auf die geisteswissenchaften 4(1) (1915): 1-21.

Sigmund Freud, “Zeitgemäßes über Krieg und Tod,” Imago: zeitschrift für anwendung der psychoanalyse auf die geisteswissenchaften 4(1) (1915): 1-21.

The second form, indistinguishable from the first in peacetime, was enforced by a system of rewards and punishments that elicited moral behavior: good conduct is rewarded, and bad punished. However, in the chaos of wartime, the system showed itself for the sham that it was: no shame attached to the horrendous acts perpetrated between warring states. Freud explained this with the scant consolation: “our mortification and painful disappointment on account of the uncivilized behavior of our fellow world citizens in this war were not justified. . . . In reality they have not sunk as deeply as we feared because they never rose as high as we believed.”4

Cover of Freud's Reflections on War and Death, translated by A. A. Brill and Alfred B. Kuttner (New York: Moffat, Yard, and Company, 1918).

Cover of Freud’s Reflections on War and Death, translated by A. A. Brill and Alfred B. Kuttner, 1918.

In 1918, the year after America joined the war, Abraham Arden Brill (1874–1948), one of the founders of the psychoanalytic movement here, and Alfred B. Kuttner (b. 1886), a literary figure and film critic, translated and published Freud’s work, with this introductory note:

This book is offered to the American public at the present time in the hope that it may contribute something to the cause of international understanding and good will which has become the hope of the world.

This hope was based in a clear-eyed look at the basest human instincts, and the insight that change meant resolution at a deep psychic level, not to be gained by simple moralizing or hand-wringing. The last 100 years have produced a dispiriting number of examples of the failures to which Freud pointed. And the book remains in print to this day.


1. Imago 4(1) (1915): 1-21.

2. Sigmund Freud, Reflections on War and Death, translated by A. A. Brill and Alfred B. Kuttner (New York: Moffat, Yard, and Company, 1918), p. 16.

3. Freud, Reflections on War and Death, 21.

4. Freud, Reflections on War and Death, 29.

The Strange Case of Father Damien (Part 1 of 3)

Today we have part one of a guest post written by Anna Weerasinghe, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School studying the history and theology of Hansen’s disease. Read part two and part three.

“The simple truth is, [Father Damien] was a coarse, dirty man, headstrong, and bigoted. He was not sent to Molokai, but went there without orders; did not stay at the leper settlement (before he became one himself), but circulated freely over the whole island. He had no hand in the reforms and improvement inaugurated, which were the work of our Board of Health…and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness.”1   

Robert Louis Stevenson and the Reverend Doctor Charles McEwen Hyde. In In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

Robert Louis Stevenson and the Reverend Doctor Charles McEwen Hyde. In In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

So wrote the Reverend Doctor Charles Hyde on August 2, 1889, just months after Father Damien’s death. In just a few weeks on May 11, “Father Damien Way” (33rd Street between First and Second Avenues) will join the ranks of the numerous public memorials named in Saint Damien’s honor.2 Based on Hyde’s colorful description, Damien hardly sounds like the kind of man to be sainted for his charitable work in Hawaii among sufferers of Hansen’s disease (better known as leprosy). Nor does Damien seem like the kind of celebrity whose death would ignite a firestorm of controversy, culminating in a pitched battle of wits between the Reverend Doctor Hyde and world-renowned author Robert Louis Stevenson that would help catapult its subject to enduring international fame.

So just who was Father Damien? A saint or a sinner? A hero or a victim? In this series of blog posts, we will get to know the many sides of Father Damien—the man, the saint, the Hansen’s disease victim—and the divisive forces that shaped his life and legacy.

When Father Damien first arrived at the Kalawao leper settlement on the isolated Hawaiian island of Molokai in 1873, he caught the attention of the press almost immediately. As the first western religious missionary, Catholic or Protestant, to live within the leper settlement despite being free of the disease himself, Damien was something of a sensation. He was praised for his Catholic sense of self-sacrifice and even dubbed a “martyr,” particularly towards the end of his life when it became clear that he had contracted a severe and ultimately fatal form of Hansen’s disease.3

“The priest of Kalawao, with some children of the settlement.” In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

So while the Reverend Doctor Hyde only met Damien once during a brief visit to Kalawao in 1885, he had already heard far too much about the priest’s saintliness for his taste. Philanthropic efforts to segregate and support those afflicted with Hansen’s disease in Hawaii were largely funded by wealthy Protestant businessmen and politicians from the United States with a view to future American annexation of the islands. Hyde, an able administrator of these charitable funds, felt that Damien was taking advantage of Protestant charity. “Others have done much for the lepers, our own ministers, the government physicians, and so forth,” Hyde complained. “But never with the Catholic idea of meriting eternal life.”4

Halfway across the world in Sydney, Robert Louis Stevenson read Hyde’s criticism of Damien with mounting rage. Fresh from the success of his best-selling novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson wasted no time in raising his pen against the Reverend Doctor: “With you,” he wrote with a certain viciousness, “I rejoice to feel the button off the foil and to plunge home.”5 In February of 1890, he printed his own “Open Letter to the Reverend Doctor Hyde of Honolulu,” a thirty-page rebuttal ripping apart Hyde’s short complaint.

Unlike Hyde, Stevenson had never met Damien personally. But he was a fellow invalid, terminally ill with tuberculosis, and felt a close affinity for the priest and his country despite their religious differences. Stevenson had travelled to Hawaii for his health in the summer of 1889 and visited the island of Molokai just after Damien’s death. Interviewing both Damien’s compatriots and Protestant critics, he found they “build up the image of a man, with all his weaknesses, essentially heroic, and alive with rugged honesty, generosity, and mirth.”6 Was he coarse? Dirty? Headstrong? Even bigoted? Stevenson admitted he probably was, but asserted that these faults didn’t diminish his bravery or achievements. To Stevenson, Damien’s failings simply made him a human, rather than superhuman, hero.

The response was immediate. Hawaiian newspapers were flooded with responses to Stevenson’s letter ranging from gleeful to indignant. Headlines bloomed across the United States, from San Francisco to Omaha to New York. “Damien Defended!” declared the Omaha Daily Bee. “A Reverend Gossip Rebuked,” taunted The New York Times.7 Hyde didn’t stand much of a chance in this battle of the printed word. Stevenson’s impassioned defense of Damien triggered an outpouring of charity from around the world dedicated to the deceased Damien’s cause. Hyde never backed down from his position, but he retreated from public view. “I leave it to any candid mind to judge which side lies the calumny and slander,” the beleaguered Hyde concluded. “There let it lie.”8

Damien’s greatest public critic and most famous defender have had their say, but the man himself remains a mystery Next time, we’ll hear more from those who knew the best and worst of Damien personally—his religious superiors.

Read part two and part three.


1. As quoted in Robert Louis Stevenson, Father Damien: an open letter to the Reverend Doctor Hyde of Honolulu from Robert Louis Stevenson (London: Chatto and Windus, 1890), 6-7.

2. Flanders House.

3. For examples see, “Father Damien’s Mission,” The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, November 5, 1885; “The Late Father Damien,” The Honolulu Daily Bulletin, April 29, 1889; “The Leper Martyr,” New-York Tribune, May 12, 1889.

4. Gavan Daws, Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 12-13. Stevenson, Father Damien, 7.

5. Stevenson, Father Damien, 8.

6. Stevenson, Father Damien, 20.

7. For examples see “Letter to the Editor: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Letter,” The Hawaiian Gazette, May 27, 1890; “Letter to the Editor: Stevenson’s Letter,” The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, May 21, 1890; Mary Lambert, “Stevenson and Father Damien,” San Francisco Morning Call., June 8, 1990; “Damien Defended!,” Omaha Daily Bee, May 24, 1890; “A Reverend Gossip Rebuked,” The New York Times, January 21, 1890.

8. As quoted in Daws, Holy Man, 247.

Happy Preservation Week!

By Emily Moyer, Collections Care Assistant, Gladys Brooks Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory

PreservationWeek2015_logoSponsored by the American Library Association’s Association of Library Collections and Technical Services (ALCTS), Preservation Week aims to raise awareness of the importance of preservation and education in providing collections for future generations.

Every week is preservation week in the Gladys Brooks Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory at The New York Academy of Medicine. Preservation efforts include cleaning, stabilization, and rehousing; monitoring environmental conditions; education on the care and handling of materials; item-level treatments; and disaster preparedness. We work together to try to prevent future deterioration of materials and mitigate risks to the collection.

This behind-the-scenes video shows a day in the conservation lab here at the Academy: creating slings for our 60,000+ health pamphlet collection, shrink wrapping brittle periodicals and books, mounting facsimile images for an exhibition, refoldering and dry cleaning pamphlets, mending a manuscript cookbook, and rebacking a 19th-century medical student notebook.

Happy Preservation Week!


The Dragons of Aldrovandi

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

It’s St. George’s Day, and what better way to celebrate than with dragons?

Title page of Serpentum, et draconum historiae libri duo, 1640.

Title page of Serpentum, et draconum historiae libri duo, 1640. Click to enlarge.

Perhaps the most famous illustrations of dragons in our collection come from Ulisse Aldrovandi’s posthumous Serpentum, et draconum historiae libri duo (The History of Serpents and Dragons), 1640.

Aldrovandi (1522–1605) was a physician and naturalist from a noble family in Bologna. He received a medical degree from Padua in 1553, and became a full professor at the University of Bologna in 1561.1 Pope Gregory XIII, his cousin, supported his career, appointing him as inspector of drugs and pharmacies and offering monetary aid for his many natural history works, only four of which were published during his lifetime.1,2

Aldrovandi maintained a museum of biological specimens, supervised by Bartolomeo Ambrosini, who shepherded Serpentum et draconum to publication after Aldrovandi’s death.2 The book offers descriptions and engravings of snakes, along with more legendary creatures, some drawn from descriptions given by merchants, others debunking the practice of stitching together animal parts to create “monsters.”3,4 Aldrovandi even claimed to have a dragon in his museum, collected in Bologna in 1572 at the bequest of his cousin, the pope.2

Enjoy the dragons! Click on an image to view the gallery.


1. Ulisse Aldrovandi: Italian Naturalist. Encycl Br. Available at: Accessed April 23, 2015.

2. Findlen P. Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press; 1996. Available at: Accessed April 23, 2015.

3. An “Ethiopian dragon” | Royal Society Picture Library. Available at: Accessed April 23, 2015.

4. A “dragon” made from fish parts | Royal Society Picture Library. Available at: Accessed April 23, 2015.

What Lies Beneath: Semi-Limp Parchment Bindings in The Academy’s Rare Book Collection (Items of the Month)

By Erin Albritton, Head of Conservation, and Christina Amato, Book Conservator, Gladys Brooks Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory

In the summer of 2013, conservators in the Gladys Brooks Book and Paper Conservation Laboratory began investigating conservation treatment options for a 17th-century Parisian imprint. As part of this process, we undertook an examination of a significant portion of The Academy’s early modern parchment volumes and became fascinated with a particular binding style—known as a semi-limp parchment binding—that has received very little attention in the published literature. For April’s item of the month, we offer a sneak peak at some of these bindings and the features that make them unique.1

A group of semi-limp parchment bindings in The Academy’s rare book collection

A group of semi-limp parchment bindings in The Academy’s rare book collection

Parchment2 bindings can be grouped into three basic categories: limp, semi-limp, and stiff. As the name implies, limp bindings are supple structures characterized by the absence of boards beneath their simple covers. Stiff board bindings, on the other hand, live up to their name through the addition of two rigid pieces of board inserted at the front and back. Semi-limp bindings—the category on which we focus here—fall somewhere in between: supple, but due to the presence of flexible boards, not quite limp.3

The most common type of semi-limp binding represented in the The Academy’s collection has two flexible boards that “float,” unadhered, beneath its parchment cover (see picture below).

Floating boards within the detached parchment cover of a  17th-century Belgium binding. Tournai, 1668.

Floating boards within the detached parchment cover of a 17th-century Belgium binding. Tournai, 1668.

During our research, however, we were excited to discover a style of semi-limp parchment binding previously unknown to us—a structure distinguished by the fact that it has a single piece of thin moldable board (rather than two floating boards) inserted beneath its cover (see picture below). The board is wrapped around the whole textblock, the outer parchment cover is folded over it, and both are attached to the textblock at the head and tail via laced endband cores. For lack of any historical name, and to distinguish it from the floating boards binding mentioned above, we have called this structure a wrapped board binding.4

Wrapped board binding with inner paper board stiffener visible through damaged outer parchment cover. Lyon, 1641

Wrapped board binding with inner paper board stiffener visible through damaged outer parchment cover. Lyon, 1641

As illustrated in the photographs below, the two styles outwardly appear very similar and can be almost impossible to tell apart without access to and close examination of the inner joints and spine.

Left: Floating boards binding, Paris, 1645. Right: Wrapped board binding, Paris, 1628.

Left: Floating boards binding, Paris, 1645. Right: Wrapped board binding, Paris, 1628.

To learn more about these structures, we undertook a two-part survey of The Academy’s rare book collection. Part one was a big-picture analysis, in which we examined approximately 20,000 volumes and collected basic information about every parchment binding we found; part two involved a detailed look at the semi-limp structures we identified during part one.

The results of our survey indicate that semi-limp bindings were much more popular in Europe during the early modern period than we suspected. Indeed, given the proportion of scholarly literature devoted to limp parchment bindings and their profile within the pantheon of historical binding structures, we were surprised to count nearly four times as many semi-limp bindings (of both the floating boards and wrapped board varieties) as limp bindings in our collection—with 194 and 48 respectively. Within our survey sample, the wrapped board structure was relatively uncommon—appearing on only 28 (or 14 percent) of all semi-limp bindings—and its use seems to have been limited to France in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.5

Title page from a Parisian wrapped board binding, 1639.

Title page from a Parisian wrapped board binding, 1639.

Almost all of the semi-limp parchment bindings we surveyed were simple structures—small in size and unornamented, featuring a number of structural shortcuts (including abbreviated sewing patterns on only two or three supports; simple endbands with minimal tie-downs; and plain endsheets of very basic construction) typical of retail (or, perhaps, less expensive bespoke) bindings of the time. While evidence indicates that these bindings were probably intended to be permanent,6 they were cheaper and easier to make (and, therefore, also likely less expensive to buy) than leather bindings. Hence, it appears that both the floating boards and wrapped board bindings were, in all probability, part of a larger strategy within the early modern book industry aimed at binding more books for a bigger audience quickly without going broke.

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Our initial findings indicate that, like their limp parchment cousins, semi-limp bindings played a significant role in bookbinding history. This role has been both underappreciated and underexamined in the scholarly literature, however, and much research remains to be done. Consequently, we encourage readers to take a look beneath the covers of the parchment bindings that line the shelves of their collections and start documenting what they see.7


1. For definitions of some of the bookbinding terms used in this post, see Roberts, Matt and Don Etherington. Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books: A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1982 (accessible online at or Carter, John and Nicholas Barker. ABC for Book Collectors. 8th ed., New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2004 (accessible online at

2. Parchment is any animal skin that has been limed, de-haired, dried under tension, and then scraped and thinned. Although definitive species identification is not possible without DNA analysis, most parchment-bound books are made from sheep, goat or calf skin.

3. From the early 16th century on, binders began replacing traditional wooden boards with a variety of different types of cheaper paper ones. Most parchment bindings with boards were made using these.

4. Although much has been written about limp parchment bindings, we have found very little scholarly literature about their semi-limp cousins. The one notable exception is Nicholas Pickwoad’s 1994 study of the Ramey collection—a group of 359 volumes at the Morgan Library, printed mostly in France between 1485 and 1601—in which he identifies (for the first and, as far as we can tell, only time in an English-language resource) 46 examples of the wrapped board structure we describe here. See Pickwoad, Nicholas. “The Interpretation of Bookbinding Structure: An Examination of Sixteenth-Century Bindings in the Ramey Collection in the Pierpont Morgan Library.” The Library 6th s., XVII, no. 3 (September 1995): 209-249.

5. In The Academy’s collection, the wrapped board binding appears most frequently on French imprints published in Paris between 1620 and 1649. Although floating boards bindings were produced in a variety of different countries throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, in The Academy’s collection they appear most often on Italian imprints published after 1640.

6. Unlike temporary bindings—which were made so that they could be removed and replaced with a more elaborate binding—these structures lack features (such as long sewing supports) that would have made rebinding easy, and are marked by others (such as trimmed and decorated textblock edges) that indicate permanence.

7. For those interested in learning more about this research project, a discussion of our survey results is anticipated to be published by The Legacy Press in 2016 as part of a collection of essays on the history of bookbinding titled Suave Mechanicals (Volume III).