By Mario Rubano, MPH, Center for Healthy Aging, NYAM
Today’s guest blogger is Mario Rubano, Policy Associate at NYAM’s Center for Healthy Aging. Mr. Rubano plays a central role in the Academy’s next Then & Now event, “The Opportunities and Challenges of Healthy Aging in New York City.” He conducted the interviews documenting the experiences of older New Yorkers and will moderate the discussion of those experiences with historians Kavita Sivaramakrishnan, PhD, and David G. Troyansky, PhD. The event takes place online on Tuesday, November 15, 5:00 to 6:00 pm; you can register here.
The NYAM Library’s “Then & Now” series has explored a wide variety of medical and public health issues, bringing experts and researchers into dialogue with the broader NYAM community. As the Academy’s 175th anniversary celebrations wind down, we’re delighted to feature a different set of experts—older New Yorkers.
NYAM has been at the forefront of NYC older adult health and policy since 2006, when it first joined the Global Age-friendly Cities project, an international effort spearheaded by the World Health Organization (WHO). The following year saw the development of Age-friendly NYC, an award-winning partnership that reimagined how the City could meet the needs of its older residents. This shift was rooted in the 8 Domains of Livability, a collection of interconnected categories that captured the most vital aspects of healthy living for older adults in urban centers. Today, the Center for Healthy Aging (CHA) embodies this legacy in its ongoing mission to improve the health and well-being of current and future aging populations.
At present, New York City is home to roughly 1.2 million individuals aged 65+, and we were lucky enough to settle down with five of the busiest of them for personal interviews via Zoom. The participants, drawn from a network of grassroots age-friendly community groups, shared their insights, memories, experiences, and opinions (with classic New York panache) in a discussion structured around the 8 Domains of Livability. Each of the participants has maintained an active relationship with local community-based organizations, community boards, volunteer groups, or, in one case, as a part-time Reservist working with NYAM. What was immediately clear across each of the interviews was the devotion that each participant has to this city. Whether born-and-bred or a transplant, these New Yorkers were as energized by the city as one could possibly be, and it’s this vigor that brought their reflections to life.
If a single takeaway were to be drawn from these five interviews, it would be that “progress” is a constant process rather than a state-of-being or condition that is achieved. The domain of transportation illustrates this idea. The participants all remarked on the tremendous improvements in comfort and capacity that the public transportation system has undergone over their lifetimes. The advent of air conditioning to ease the misery of a summertime, rush-hour commute, the growing fleet of accessible kneeling buses that simplify the boarding process for individuals with mobility challenges, and the creation of station transfers were all viewed as highlights over the years. Yet, we also heard about significant lapses in the management of bus lines that blatantly ignore the needs of older New Yorkers and, in many instances, place undue burdens on communities of color.
Healthcare access also changed in remarkable ways, both positive and negative, over the course of their lifetimes. House calls from family doctors who knew and treated entire communities gave way to newer models of care that, while noted for their efficiency and quality, were seen as impersonal and disconnected. We heard sobering stories of healthcare in the years before desegregation and the ongoing effects of Robert Moses’ infrastructure projects, like the Cross Bronx Expressway. These stories demonstrate the necessity of continued civic and community engagement, even after broad, landmark victories. Legislative progress—such as that initiated by the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990—must be continuously refined to ensure that the promises of better lives remain intact in an increasingly complex world.
This project has been a thrilling process in itself, and we look forward to sharing these New Yorkers’ stories, and hearing the commentary by our guest historians, Drs. Kavita Sivaramakrishnan and David Troyansky, at the upcoming November 15th Then & Now event.
By Joseph Bishop, Princeton University, and the Library’s 2022 Audrey and William H. Helfand Fellow
Mr. Bishop completed his Fellowship residency in summer 2022 and will present his research by Zoom on November 8 at 4:00 (EST). To attend his talk, “Pharmaceutical Visions: How US Drug Companies and Ad Agencies Revamped Their Credibility by Marketing with Scientific Imagery,” register through the Academy’s Events page.
This spring I spent weeks immersed in the vast historical materials available at the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) Library. I had the honor of receiving the Audrey and William H. Helfand Fellowship to pursue a project that I believe would have interested Bill Helfand: an examination of the changes in medical advertising at the turn of the twentieth century. During his life, Helfand amassed an extensive collection of fascinating drug and medical memorabilia and visual art. Much of his collection and work illuminates the dynamic between drugmakers and the public during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Significant portions of Helfand’s collection are available at NYAM, and I took advantage of the richly colored and wide-rangingcollection of patent medicine trade cards. NYAM also has mountains of pharmaceutical, medical, and allied trade journals and magazines brimming with pharmaceutical advertisements.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the American public saw the rise in large corporate pharmaceutical companies, national and corporate advertising, and federal drug regulation. An important question is what prompted the transformations in medical visual culture that helped to portray drug companies as scientific and research-oriented. To answer that question, I compare late-nineteenth-century patent medicine trade cards with medical ads in Ladies’ Home Journal in the 1920s. This comparison reveals a transition from entertainment and fantasy to a preoccupation with scientific progress and medical authority. My research at NYAM has led me to conclude that drug companies and ad agencies emphasized scientific and medical imagery to revamp their medical credibility and professional image amid national drug regulation and the public’s anger with the industry’s past association with patent medicine.
American patent medicine companies faced scrutiny for producing nostrums with cryptic contents and questionable efficacy during the first decade of the twentieth century. They depended on local advertisement imagery that reflected the nineteenth-century public’s anxieties and aspirations. Popularizations of science were created for various reasons—from entertainment to informing citizens—but they all served to increase scientific and medical awareness within the American public. Philadelphia-based ad agency N. W. Ayer’s accounts show that patent medicine was their most lucrative commodity category, carrying 26 percent of their total revenue in 1878, and their second-most lucrative commodity in 1900, carrying 15 percent. By 1879 in the US, more than 400 religious weeklies each needed a steady flow of advertising revenue to stay in business. Newspapers generated patent medicine business, and medical advertisements sustained newspapers. Nostrum manufacturers developed new marketing techniques, created novel distribution systems, pioneered brand-name products, became an economic link between urban and rural centers, and expanded markets.
Americans living through the last two decades of the nineteenth century saw an explosion of advertising trade cards. Retailers gave away these pocket-sized cards, often stuffed in product packaging as a bonus and easily collectible by customers. Patent medicine companies used these cards extensively, as they proved to be a very successful sales medium. Many people collected cards into albums and created scrapbooks, which children sometimes received as birthday or Christmas gifts.
Trade cards such as Ayer’s Ague Cure (Image 1) evoke an aura of connection with nature and adaptation to the surrounding environment. The image in the bottom right corner depicts an alligator and a couple of frogs discussing Ayer’s Cure as if they used it to protect themselves from malaria. The ad implies that Ayer’s product helps one adapt to one’s environment just as well as the alligators and frogs adapt to theirs.
On the other hand, Cas-car-ria’s trade card (Image 2) depicts a young girl holding a switch and a dog together, fending off miniature demons labeled with ailments. Cas-car-ria’s ad evokes notions of animal protection and self-protection, implying that when patients take Cas-car-ria, they harness the animal within, unleashing the strength required to fight off external demons.
The explosion of ads promoting proprietary medicines and their incessant hyperbole and mistruths eventually provoked strong public reactions that demanded transparency and regulation. There were always calls to rein in the quackery, but the inundation of promotion drove the regulation of patent medicine to become a public priority.
Examining Ladies’ Home Journal during the 1920s illustrates these changes in advertising. At this point, advertisements offered a different portrayal of scientific medicine and appealed to a more docile public regarding medical professionals. A Squibb pharmaceutical ad depicts a well-organized medicine cabinet (Image 3). The caption asks, “What is in your medicine cabinet? Are they products your physician would approve?” This approval seeking from medical authority plays into the new values of placing faith in the trained judgment of scientific and medical authority.
Ads for Zonite (Image 4) ran images of scientists wearing lab coats and examining test tubes, drawing a scientific aura into its products. Zonite also associated its product with scientific discoveries, like the Carrel-Dakin fluid (i.e., diluted bleach), a critical antiseptic used in World War I.
The ad for “Yeast Foam” (Image 5) also appeals to scientific and medical authority, depicting a man wearing a medical coat and peering into a microscope. In the foreground are two circular illustrations of microscopic specimens—one containing germs and the other germ-free. The ad portrays a professional man immersed in scientific work, suggesting that the product has been carefully vetted through scientific scrutiny for quality assurance.
Similarly, the Fleischmann advertisement (Image 6) depicts two men in lab coats working at a table equipped with flasks, a beaker, a microscope, and other scientific instruments. The caption below the image states, “Messages of startling importance from the laboratory of the scientist.” Text within the ad notes how Fleischmann’s Yeast cures various diseases. In the case of skin diseases, the ad relies on a general sense of medical authority: “Many physicians and hospitals are prescribing Fleischmann’s Yeast for impurities of the skin. It has yielded remarkable results.”
The values of corporate ad agencies following the patent medicine era are not only a reaction to muckraking journalism and reform movements. The use of scientific medical imagery conveying authority and professional judgment was also largely about revamping the medical credibility of US drug companies and corporate ad agencies; they benefited handsomely during the patent medicine era but later needed to diminish their connections to these fraudulent products. Ad agencies traced the American public’s anxieties and aspirations as they shifted from loose whimsy about panaceas in the late nineteenth century to a reverence for qualified scientific and medical experts and institutions at the beginning of the twentieth century. By tracing this transition in medical imagery, we can glean how drug companies and ad agencies shaped products to elevate their professional clout.
By Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian, Library Fellowship Coordinator
The NYAM Library has just awarded its 2023 residential research fellowships. The Audrey and William H. Helfand Fellowship in the History of Medicine and Public Health goes to Sean Purcell, Indiana University, for his project “Imaging Consumption: Seeing ‘The White Plague’ in American Medicine”; and the Paul Klemperer Fellowship in the History of Medicine to Anastasiia Zaplatina, Bielefeld University, for her project “The American Soviet Medical Society (1943–1947): Academic Exchanges between Allies and Their Cold War Legacy.” Congratulations to both recipients!
Sean Purcell plans to dig deeply into the Library collections to find visual materials related to early twentieth-century tuberculosis research for an upcoming video art installation. He is especially interested in questions of how and why visual materials such as microscope slides, photographs, illustrations, and specimens were used in medical research, and who the subjects were.
Anastasiia Zaplatina will be looking at archival and published materials related to the American-Soviet Medical Society, and at the Joseph Wortis Soviet Medicine and Psychiatry Papers as part of investigating the impact of this short period of collaboration between individuals in both countries, and specifically whether collaboration ultimately laid the groundwork for increased competition.
We invite all interested researchers regardless of academic affiliation to apply for one of the Library’s research fellowships. Our 2024 fellowship application process will open early in the summer of 2023, with an application deadline at the end of August and a decision in October, for a month’s residence at the Library during the following calendar year. Each fellowship provides $5,000 in support. At the conclusion of their time at the Library, each Fellow gives a presentation and writes a blog post on their work. For background on how these Fellowships arose, see The Faces Behind Our Fellowships; and for more information about the focuses of the awards, including a list of previous awardees and their projects, take a look at the Library Fellowships pages.
By Paul Theerman, Arlene Shaner, Bert Hansen, and Melissa Grafe
On Tuesday, October 18, three esteemed librarians and historians will gather—virtually—to discuss the history and prospect of medical libraries. The event features the Library’s own Historical Collections Librarian, Arlene Shaner, speaking on the development of our collections; historian of medicine Dr. Bert Hansen, on how libraries helped shape the development of medicine through history; and Dr. Melissa Grafe, head of the Medical Historical Library at Yale School of Medicine, on the future of historical collections such as the Academy Library’s. If you are interested in attending, please register here. To learn about what these speakers will present, keep reading!
Arlene Shaner, “‘A Rich Storehouse’: The NYAM Library’s Extraordinary Collections”
Arlene Shaner, our first panelist, will talk about the evolution of the NYAM Library and its collections, starting with Isaac Wood’s gift of his set of Martyn Paine’s Commentaries to the brand-new organization on January 13, 1847. What he and the early Academy Fellows had in mind was a working collection of books and journals that they would create for their own use. Because the Academy had no home of its own, and very little money, the collections grew at a very modest pace for the first few decades.
The purchase of a building in 1875 provided space for the collections to grow. The generosity of Dr. Samuel Smith Purple, who donated over 2000 journal volumes of his own after the Academy moved into its West 31st Street brownstone (at left), coupled with the 1878 decision of the Fellows to open the Library to all who wished to use it, dramatically changed the Library’s trajectory.
It opened the door to what Librarian Janet Doe later referred to as “a snowball of gifts which has rolled down through the years, gathering momentum and throwing off new snowballs that roll into other libraries.”
Shaner will offer a brief overview of some of the major gifts that helped the library become one of the most important history of medicine collections in the country, if not the world, and also tell the much less well known story of how the Library contributed to the growth of many other collections. She will also look briefly at how changes in the way information is disseminated have transformed, and continue to transform, the NYAM Library.
Bert Hansen, “The Academy Library’s Contributions to American Medicine.”
Our second panelist, historian Bert Hansen, notes that his earliest memories picture libraries as storehouses of precious treasure, an image reinforced by an architecture that made them look like giant-sized strongboxes or jewelry boxes. Built of large stone blocks and fortified like a castle, libraries he fondly recalls include the main public libraries in Chicago, Newark, and New York City, plus Butler Library at Columbia and the Morgan Library from his college years (as seen below, with NYAM the sixth). The decorated, jewelry-box style often continues inside with marbled lobbies and wood-paneled reading rooms.
But for this presentation, Hansen has gone in a new direction, focusing his attention on the kinds of contribution that libraries like that of NYAM have made to education and the world of learning in serving people who would never enter the building to examine the treasured volumes. In the recent past, virtual use through digitization has become common and will surely expand in the future. But his look at the prior century and a half will highlight other, sometimes-forgotten modes of service as examples of NYAM’s—and other research libraries’—many contributions to American medicine.
Melissa Grafe, “Preservation, Access, and the Future”
Our final panelist, librarian and historian Melissa Grafe, glimpses into the future of medical libraries and the role of physical collections in an increasingly online world. Grafe looks at the ways that technology has become deeply integrated in both medicine and in the libraries that support the medical community. Grafe will connect these modern currents to the rich trove of materials that NYAM assembled over 175 years, and the larger history that has made NYAM’s library one of the major collections connecting medical history to the present.
Nancy Spiegel, the University of Chicago Library’s bibliographer for art and cinema, writes:
In the late 18th century, a new vision of the library arose within the context of expanding literacy, and the increased publication of books and journals for the general reading public. Enlightenment architect Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728–1799) envisioned a grand design in his proposal for a French National Library in 1785. In Boullée’s presentation, the state would take responsibility for the collection, ordering, and dissemination of all available information to its citizens.
The design for the main reading room featured a vast, barrel-vaulted ceiling and a modern shelving arrangement: stacked galleries of books over flat wall-cases. These seemingly endless bookcases were open and easily browsable, in dramatic contrast to the earlier medieval system of chaining that bound both books, and readers, to a specific location. Visitors are free to wander about and converse in small groups, but there is no provision of study desks or chairs for extensive research in this idealized environment.
Now “175 years young,” the NYAM Library is one of the most significant historical medical libraries in the world. In an earlier post, we looked at how we came to that position. Now I’d like to look to explore where we are now, and where we might go in the future.
Every good special collections library has a distinct identity, focused around its collections. This is ours: we are a research library holding medical and public health literature ranging from the earliest days of printing to the early years of the 21st century. Though formed by many forces, our collection now exists to serve the advanced academic humanities researcher in a variety of disciplines, chiefly the history of medicine and public health. Much of our collection is rare, such many of the books published before 1800, or the 6,000 journal runs found in fewer than four libraries throughout the country; some of it is unique, such as the Smith papyrus, the ancient Egyptian surgical text, and the 9th-century cookbook, Apicius’ De re culinaria. To support this identity, we continue to add to our collections, selectively, focusing on books and other materials that are not found locally, and may be rare nationally. This year so far, we have added seven rare and historical books, including a 17th-century treatise on the plague, an 18th-century book on retaining one’s reason into old age, and a 19th-century promotional pamphlet on curing chronic disease. Collecting physical books remains crucial. Not all the medical literature of the past has been digitized, and reading the bare information contained in the words of the text does not begin to exhaust the experience of learning from a physical book.
Supporting academic research into the collections is important. The Library awards two residential fellowships annually, the Audrey and William H. Helfand Fellowship and the Paul Klemperer Fellowship, each supporting a month’s work. Our application period for 2023 Fellowships just closed and our review committee is now working through the applications. Through our participation in the academic group, the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine (CHSTM), we serve as a venue for their fellows as well, both short-term exploratory visits as well as longer term research trips.
Why support academic research? Historical scholars lay the groundwork and generate the ideas that will inform discussions in the years to come. The discipline of history provides a particular lens through which to understand our society today—and the role of medicine and public health in shaping society and being shaped by it, a central concern before the COVID-19 pandemic, brought even more sharply into relief since. Scholarly research may start in the rarefied atmosphere of academia, but that’s where concepts are developed and refined, and then honed through vigorous debate. As ideas emerge, they are picked up by thought leaders and informed citizens, and they help to shape the shared understanding and open debate of a healthy society. The Library does its part, not only in supporting academic scholars, but also in presenting their work: both our Fellows’ works-in-progress talks, part of their fellowship experience, and in lively series of more popular yet academically based talks . In 2018 we started the programmatic series Race and Health, followed in 2022 by Then and Now, pairing academic historians with public health researchers and policymakers, so that each may learn from the other, and the audience may learn from both.
What’s next for the Library in its support of academic work? Certainly continuing to add to the collections; and certainly continuing to award fellowships and welcome researchers. We will also continue our work behind-the-scenes: cataloging our holdings, so that everyone will know that we have them, and conserving our books, so that researchers of the future can use them too.
But the future should not be just more of the same! We want to support our academic researchers better going forward. How can we not just support individual researchers, but develop and sustain a creative intellectual community that can spark ideas and deepen understanding? How can we find the hidden voices in our collections, which have been smoothed over by the descriptive practices of the past? How can we supplement those voices now, by going beyond the printed word? These are all serious questions. Over the next decade, I hope we can dig more deeply and understand our collections better, to serve our users better. I hope we can find a way to support more research in our reading room, and even commission oral histories, as history starts just in the last moment.
The second great strand of the Library’s work is connecting the public with our collection. Our work is broad-based. Our practice of hosting school groups and providing tours goes back decades. While we had to pause this work during the pandemic, we then started “Virtual Visits”: online explorations of collection materials around a common theme. This past year, class visits have started up again in earnest, opening the worlds of the past through our books and images—for college students—while we offer everyone drop-in tours on the first Monday of each month.
Engaging with the physical book is important—for everyone, and for many reasons. In an increasingly digital world, we tend to think of facts, ideas, opinions, and images as disembodied—unmoored from the circumstances of production, distribution, and presentation—and therefore, mistakenly, as more authoritative. The reality of books (even acknowledging how books’ have their own ways of asserting authority) helps bring matters down to earth. Beyond that, books have a particular beauty. But this I mean not only the beauty of a well-crafted binding, or a pleasing or dramatic illustration, or a fine type-face—though I do mean those qualities, best appreciated with an authentic piece, not a facsimile, digital or otherwise. Part of the beauty of books comes rather from different qualities: its heft; a variety of different sizes of books; the thinness or thickness of the paper, and its quality, brightness, look, and feel; an exemplary job of printing and binding, or, alternately, signs of wear caused by generations of use; or even the gradual unfolding of the text as one turns from one page to the next—or bounces around, going forward and backward, engaging with the text physically while one engages with it intellectually. I should add: to appreciate the book is not to disparage the digital revolution—digital texts provide ways of advancing both intellectual and aesthetic life that are different from traditional books. In many ways digital books are better, but in many ways they are not—their experience is often “flatter.” As a society, we have room for both experiences of knowledge.
Libraries like the Academy’s are well-positioned to provide an exemplary experience of books and other library materials. Our collection is both deep and broad, even with its medical focus. And while many people may not have had an experience of a Renaissance-era oversize anatomical atlas, say, or 19th-century patent medicine ads, or 20th-century pamphlets on improving one’s health, because these materials are no longer common—well, we have them! Beyond this, though, current teenagers’ chief literary experience may well be digital, a trend that only promises to grow. We can provide students, and lifelong learners as well, with an experience not otherwise readily available: not just the book itself—though we can do that—and not just the content of the book—though we can do that, too—but also the deeper experience of understanding the book: how it came about, how it was used, how it’s made, and how it’s conserved. As other libraries empty their shelves and go all-digital, the Academy Library has an increasingly rare and valuable perspective to offer.
How can we do this better? We could engage more people in more ways. Digital products reach a broad swath of people and can draw them to the Library for an in-person experience. Hybrid models could be explored and exploited, for example marrying larger digital exhibits on expansive themes, with smaller physical displays and personal tours. We could explore taking our materials out to the community, rather than always asking people to come our way. We could make a concerted effort to find ways for all facets of society to encounter our collections. All these are possibilities, many of them being investigated and developed elsewhere. We should be actively exploring what works for us at the Academy Library.
I’m excited about the Academy Library, not just what we are doing now but what lies ahead of us. Keep connected and see what comes next!
On Wednesday, September 21, the Academy Library celebrates its achievements and looks to the future. Join us for a festive evening with a chance to meet the NYAM Library Team and explore a special display of some of our rare treasures. Register here.
This post is the third in a four-part series showcasing notable figures in the history of the Academy Library, as we celebrate our 175th anniversary. The first post focused on Dr. Samuel Smith Purple, and the second post featured Dr. Archibald Malloch.
By Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian
After Frank Place (1880–1959) passed away in September 1959, The Academy Bookman, a publication of the Library’s Friends of the Rare Book Room, published an unsigned tribute to him and his 40 years of devoted service to the Academy Library. “Frank Place to many Fellows of the Academy was the Academy Library,” it notes. “Some have said that they often stopped in the Library first to see Frank Place, and then to use the resources of the Library.” Even now, more than 75 years after he retired, we regularly use some of the guides that Place originated to answer questions about the collections.
Place grew up in Cortland, New York, and made his way to New York City to earn a degree at the Pratt Institute Library School, from which he graduated in 1902. Three years later he joined the Library staff at the invitation of Librarian John Brownne, taking on the afternoon and evening shifts (the Library stayed open until 10:30 pm at that time), when all of the readers were Fellows or Members. Place was a keen observer and an enthusiastic amateur photographer, and we have him to thank for much of what we know about how the Library looked and functioned while the Academy was still in its building on West 43rd Street and during the first two decades after we moved into our present building in 1926.
When Place took up his position, the Library contained about 35,000 volumes, thousands of pamphlets, domestic and foreign periodicals, and a steadily increasing number of Paris medical theses. A collection of what he called “old authors” or “classics,” or what we now refer to as rare books, was shelved in the C. (or Classics) case, and a small group of incunabula were housed in a specially purchased metal exhibition case. The Library’s subject card catalog was very new, having been started in 1901, and until 1917, when he received a typewriter, Place hand wrote the main entry cards for the author/title part of the card catalog himself.
“Away back in 1908 I discovered a small batch of portraits of former members of the Academy, steel engravings that nobody seemed to know anything about. It occurred to me that a file of portraits with an index of them in our catalogue was indicated. Why not add to the index such portraits as we came across in books and periodicals, was the next thought?”
By the time he made his remarks, Place estimated that the portrait catalog had grown to include over 8,000 printed or framed images and about 100,000 entries for images in published works, documenting at least 50,000 individuals, and it continued to grow for decades after his retirement. The success of the portrait catalog inspired Place to start the illustration catalog as well, and in the 1960s both the portrait catalog and the illustration appeared as published volumes, purchased by libraries around the country.
In that same talk, Place encouraged librarians to document their own institutions by taking pictures of spaces and staff and labeling them with names and dates. A box of his photographs, taken between 1925 and 1941, does just that.
The box contains snapshots of the West 43rd Street building, as well as of our current building and some of the staff. The photographs document the construction of the 1932 addition that added the rare book room and other spaces, as well as the construction of the Museum of the City of New York and the transformation of the conservatories in Central Park to the more familiar Conservatory Gardens just across the street.
Back in 2015, the Library staff used those early photographs as inspiration and recreated some of them, matching the locations of the new images as closely as possible to their earlier counterparts.
It is worth mentioning two of Place’s other notable achievements, one directly related to the Library and the other a bit less so. Place took great pleasure in collecting and trading bookplates with individuals and other libraries. He organized his bookplates alphabetically in three small two-ring binders, mounting each individual bookplate on recycled pamphlet covers. All three volumes can still be found on the shelves in the rare book room. A few years ago, our conservators, worried about the damage caused by acidic paper backing and the unstable structures, remounted all the bookplates and modernized the original binders. The results of their efforts can be seen here. He also spent many hours outdoors, and co-authored the New York Walk Bookwith Raymond H. Torrey and the physician and illustrator Robert Latou Dickinson, who spent years collaborating with the sculptor Abram Belskie in a Library office. When Place retired in 1945, his Library colleagues presented him with this charming caricature done by Belskie, showing the man in his element, leafing through one of his volumes of bookplates, with a bookworm peering over his shoulder.
“Frank Place 1880—1959.” Academy Bookman 12:2 (1959), pp. 3–4.
Place, Frank. “Records off the Record.” Bulletin of the Medical Library Association 32.2 (1944): 214–16.
Place, Frank. “Reminiscences of the Library.” Academy Bookman 12:2 (1959), pp. 4–6.
By Jamie Marsella, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University, and the Library’s 2022 Paul Klemperer Fellow
Ms. Marsella completed her Fellowship residency in summer 2022 and will present her research by Zoom on September 7 at 4:00 pm (EDT). To attend her talk, “‘Where Once There Was Only Friction’: Religion, Eugenic Maternalism, and the Babies’ Welfare Association, 1908–1920,” register through the Academy’s Events page.
I’ll start this blog post with a confession: before sitting down in the NYAM Rare Book Room, I was worried there might not be enough materials to keep me busy for a full month. How profoundly wrong I was!
I arrived at NYAM to conduct research for my dissertation—an exploration of the New York Babies’ Welfare Association (1912–1920). The BWA was an organization that aimed to standardize maternal and pediatric public health programs while remaining a loose federation of public health and child welfare organizations, including private philanthropic and religious groups.
The Babies’ Welfare Association was created by the New York City Bureau of Child Hygiene in 1912. Neither organization has a stand-alone archival collection, nor do most of the 120+ individual organizations within the BWA. Before arriving, I could not have known that the NYAM Library would hold more relevant materials than I could ever have imagined.
The BWA was abundantly represented within the NYAM collections. This makes sense since, for the first two decades of the twentieth century, the BWA was a well-known, highly publicized organization in New York City. The Chief of the Bureau and President of the BWA, Dr. Sara Josephine Baker (1873–1945), was a household name not only in New York, but throughout the country, with movie reels produced by Fox Studios, a monthly Good Housekeeping column, multiple books on child health and parenting, a regular radio broadcast, and constant coverage in the local and national press.
Unlike negative eugenic programs (i.e., sterilization, anti-miscegenation laws) that came to dominate later in the century, early twentieth-century reformers understood eugenic reform as a combination of heredity and environmental conditions. In this framework, improved sanitation, nutrition, and hygiene could improve individuals and enable them to pass on these improvements to their future offspring. The BWA emphasized these changes in the environment, promoting them as eugenic maternalism. In other words, the BWA understood mothers as the family’s first line of defense against disease and, therefore, an essential part in preventing “racial degeneration.” The BWA, therefore, targeted immigrant neighborhoods with the explicit desire to “improve” white-ethnic communities and prevent future supposedly dysgenic generations.
I came to NYAM hoping to better understand why Catholic and Jewish organizations might be interested in participating in this eugenic standardization project and how their participation may have shaped how the BWA understood and operationalized eugenics. I also hoped to clarify the role that Black reformers and patients played within the BWA. Based on what I had gleaned from digitized sources, the BWA’s work with Black philanthropic groups was inconsistent, and their relationships were unclear.
The materials I’ve reviewed at NYAM paint a complicated and nuanced picture. Some religious organizations, like the New York Foundling Asylum and other benevolent institutions run by women religious, understood their own religious missions as Catholics in a way that blended nicely with the assimilationist goals of eugenic maternalism.
Similarly, Jewish organizations like the United Hebrew Charities or the Brooklyn Federation of Jewish Charities understood their work as both a religious mission and an assimilating force. Such groups were eager to associate their religious and cultural practices with Americanism, especially in the face of rising antisemitism.
Most BWA members held a capacious view of their work beyond childcare, health and hygiene, or charitable aid. As I continued to work through the Library’s documents, it became clear that members of the BWA were pursuing something far broader than public health or bodily hygiene. These programs were about “right living”—teaching women and children how to conduct themselves in public and private, how to understand one’s role as a (future) citizen, or how to raise and nurture the future citizens in their care.
Within these different organizational records, there were also small glimpses of public health work specifically targeting the Black community. While the connections between the BWA and Black New Yorkers remained muddled, my time at NYAM has helped me understand this reflects the nature of the work, which was sporadic at best and exploitative at worst. The Lincoln Hospital and Home (a BWA member) is one exception to this general rule. The hospital trained Black nurses, many of whom then worked in the hospital treating both Black and white patients or worked with the Henry Street Settlement House (another member) in their Visiting Nursing Service.
Ultimately, my time at NYAM was invaluable. The materials there allowed me to better understand how the members of the BWA negotiated amongst themselves to create a standardized eugenic program that could encompass different ethnicities and religions.
Over the last 175 years, the Academy Library has built one of the premier medical collections in the United States, expanded its reach beyond the Academy to the world, and reinvented its mission.
Set up at the Academy’s founding in 1847 to support the Fellows’ continuing education, the Library sought to build a collection of the latest medical books and journals. The first item in its collection was Dr. Martyn Paine’s Medical and Physiological Commentaries (1840), followed by many more, growing to over 200,000 volumes today. The centerpiece of the medical library, though, was the medical journal, the avenue to the most up-to-date medical thinking. The Library’s journal collections comprise some 22,000 different journals, published on every continent except Antarctica, in dozens of languages. Collecting was extensive: the journals take up six floors of stacks; both books and journals number over 550,000 volumes. In addition, the Library has collected hundreds of thousands of pamphlets—a favorite 19th– and early 20th-century format—as well as 275,000 medically related illustrations. By the 1950s, the Academy Library was one of the largest medical libraries in the country.
In 1878, the Academy opened the Library to the public, and began to serve not just the Fellows, but also the larger medical community, inquisitive citizens, and historical researchers. By the turn of the 20th century, we were seen as complementing the New York Public Library; our scope reached beyond the city to the tri-state region. By the middle of the 20th century, our range expanded to the nation and beyond, as the Library became part of broader networks of libraries—medical and otherwise—that made our resources available to everyone. U.S. medical libraries coordinated their efforts under the leadership of the National Library of Medicine (which Academy Library director Janet Doe helped organize in its present form). The NYAM Library began to participate in the nationwide medical interlibrary system through NLM’s DOCLINE and, as one of NLM’s Regional Medical Libraries, organized training and outreach efforts for the medical libraries of the northeast. The digital revolution made this expansion possible—the same revolution that now brings medical information to people’s home computers.
In the 1990s, like many other leading medical libraries, we took on innovative projects to use the internet to collect new forms of medical information and to reach audiences in new ways. The Library was one of the founders of NOAH (New York Online Access to Health Information), started in 1994 as an early effort to present accurate medical information online. In 1999 it started the Grey Literature Report, an online database gathering and indexing the rarely-collected studies and articles published by foundations and other nonprofits. Through these and many other projects, the Library moved with the times. Even so, as medical books and especially journals moved into the digital realm, and as access to this literature increasingly came through medical schools and hospitals, the NYAM Library found its primary mission supplanted. People got their medical information elsewhere.
Alongside the Library’s mission to provide up-to-date medical information was its promotion of history. From the late 19th century, the Library began to collect the classics of medicine, supporting the public persona, in the words of John Harley Warner, “of the clinician who embodied not only the precision of [the] scientist but also the sensibility of the gentleman,” seeing history “as a wellspring of connectedness.” The Library’s rare book collection grew from donations and exchanges, including among esteemed physician-collectors, such as Sir William Osler and Academy Librarian Dr. Archibald Malloch. A series of remarkable gifts and purchases in the mid-20th century greatly expanded the Academy’s unique and rare holdings: the Edward Clark Streeter Collection of rare medical books, with many from the 15th century; the Margaret Barclay Wilson collection of food and cookery, which brought the 9th-century manuscript cookbook the Apicius to the Library; the Robert Levy collection on 17th-century physician William Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood; the Fenwick Beekman collection on 18th-century Scottish surgeon John Hunter; and perhaps the most valuable of the Library’s holdings, the Edwin Smith Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian work on wounds from about 1600 BCE, the oldest known surgical text in the world. Manuscript and archival collections, such as the Michael M. Davis papers on medical economics, supported historical research as well.
The Academy’s new 1926 building provided dedicated spaces for rare books, and medical history and bibliography; the Academy’s 1933 addition created the Rare Book and History Room for study and seminars, designed after an Elizabethan library. From 1930 on, the Library published its History of Medicine book series, which concluded in 1989 after 53 volumes. Public lectures, some radio-broadcast, explored historical topics. Starting in 1996, the Library hosted a residential fellowship in the history of medicine and public health, and three years later added a second. As that field developed, historians expanded their focus from classic texts to the full panoply of medicine and public health.
As our in-person medical users began to drop away, the Library refocused its efforts to history, building on its premier collections and its century-long work in the history of medicine and public health. The Library’s general collections, the product of over 150 years of active collecting, were now valued for their historical potential. In the first decades of the 21st century, the Library stopped collecting current medical literature and made history its primary mission. Its Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health opened in 2012, mounting public programs that use history to engage the public around issues of health and medicine.
As the Library looks to the future, we embrace our mission of serving the Academy, the city, the nation, and beyond, preserving the heritage of medicine, and promoting historical understanding. We invite you to join us!
The Academy Library has reworked and expanded its timeline of milestones. Please check it out to learn more of our 175-year history.
 The Library of the Surgeon General’s Office of the U.S. Army was the largest, which in 1956 became the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
 John Harley Warner, “The Fielding Garrison Lecture: The Aesthetic Grounding of Modern Medicine,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 88 (2014): 1–47. The first quotation is from pp. 23–24, the second from p. 22, paraphrasing Sir William Osler.
By Dr. Eileen V. Wallis, Professor of History, California State Polytechnic University—Pomona, and the Library’s 2020 Paul Klemperer Fellow
Dr. Wallis completed her Fellowship residency in summer 2022 and will present her research by Zoom on August 2 at 4:00 pm (EDT). To attend her talk, “California and the Search for Medical Legitimacy, 1850–1880,” register through the Academy’s Events page.
As true of many researchers, the hunt for historical primary and secondary sources for my book project, “California and the Politics of Disability, 1850-1970,” has led me down many paths. This book project uses Los Angeles County as a case study to understand how the interplay between state and county governments shaped the lived experiences of Californians deemed “mentally disordered” from 1850 to 1970. “Mentally disordered” was not a socio-medical category, but rather a bureaucratic one. It is, however, still a useful construct for understanding the ways in which California’s politicians, doctors, and progressive reformers lumped together populations experiencing what today we would consider two distinct categories of disability—mental illnesses and developmental disorders—for their own convenience. These were also the two populations arguably most vulnerable to institutionalization in this era, as well as the ones least likely to leave primary sources behind them. The time span of this study was chosen because it encompasses the rise of institutions for the disabled in California; the shift in them from care custodialism; the era of overcrowding, abuse, and crisis; and the ultimate dismantling of most state institutions for the disabled, a process that began in the late 1950s and culminated with the passage of the Lanterman Disability Service Act in 1969 and the beginning of the era of deinstitutionalization.
Disabled Americans are frequently absent from or hidden within the historical record. The study of sickness and disability, Gracen Brilmyer writes, is often marked by “layers of absences, subtleties, inaccuracies, and perspectives that are embodied in records, archives, and the lack thereof.” However, because the New York Academy of Medicine Library began collecting so early, and because the Academy’s interests were so wide-ranging, it has amassed a strong collection of materials of use to anyone interested in the history of disability in the United States. Interestingly, many of the items it holds related to and in some cases created by Californians cannot be found in collections in the Golden State, but only in New York City at the Academy Library.
In 1965, two researchers working for California’s Department of Mental Hygiene, Esther Pond and Stuart Brody, produced a report called “Evolution of Treatment Methods of a Hospital for the Mentally Retarded.” Focused on what was then-called the Sonoma State Hospital in Sonoma County, California, the state’s oldest institution for the developmentally disabled, this report was officially California Mental Health Research Monograph no. 3. It was prepared specifically for use by the Department, printed on cheap paper, given only a pink paper cover, and was likely expected to be, eventually, discarded. The Department certainly could not have anticipated that it would still exist, more than fifty years later, tucked away in a filing cabinet in the New York Academy of Medicine Library.
Indeed, a remarkable number of materials generated by California’s Department of Mental Hygiene, which operated all of California’s state asylums and institutions for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled through the late 1960s, found their way into the Library’s collections. Another example is the 1950–1952 Biennial Report of the California State Department of Mental Hygiene. Like “Evolution of Treatment Methods,” this report has only a paper cover and is held together with staples. It is, however, lushly illustrated with photos, charts, and graphs, including a page featuring both then-Governor of California Earl Warren (soon to be Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court) and Department head Frank Tallman commenting favorably about the work then being done. Because it covers the years 1950 to 1952, the Biennial Report captures California’s asylums and institutions as the state both embarks on a massive post-war building spree but is also beginning to look for quicker ways to “treat and release” individuals. The report excitedly discusses the use of invasive treatments and psychosurgeries such as electroshock (now known as electroconvulsive therapy or ECT), insulin shock, and lobotomies as heralding a promising new era of medical treatment. The modern reader, of course, knows this is not what would ultimately happen. To read such a report today is jarring, but it is, nonetheless, a valuable snapshot of a key transitional moment for both California and indeed for the care of mentally ill and disabled Americans nationwide.
Many of these items are only discoverable by using the Library’s printed catalog, as they were acquired before the advent of online catalogs and have not yet been included in the Library’s projects to convert its printed catalogs to digital form. Some are what is known as ephemera, items that were created for a “specific, limited purpose” and for “one-time or short-term use.” In the last two decades historians have found them to be an incredibly rich source of information, often capturing information about people (women, African Americans, the working classes, etc.) who are “rarely visible in archival collections or mainstream publications.” These absences become more profound the farther back in time one travels. Thus, scholars often make use of institutional and medical reports like Pond and Brody’s and the Biennial Report to try to excavate from within them as much as possible about the lived experiences of Californians in state institutions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
For the researcher interested in American disability history, the Library’s printed catalog volumes lead to a treasure trove of primary sources, and well-worth exploring alongside the online catalog. When combined with its other holdings, the New York Academy of Medicine Library’s collections show tremendous promise for furthering our understanding of the history of disability in the United States.
 English authorities used the term in similar ways, although usually without including mental illness. For a discussion of that context, see Mark Jackson, The Borderland of Imbecility: Medicine, Society, and the Fabrication of the Feeble Mind in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000).
 Gracen Brilmyer, “Towards Sickness: Developing a Critical Disability Archival Methodology,” in Journal of Feminist Scholarship Volume 17 Issue 17 (Fall 2020): 27.
 Sonoma State Hospital began in the 1870s as California’s first state Home for Feeble-Minded Children, a name which unfortunately tells us a great deal about how these individuals were perceived by society at the time. It later became the Sonoma State Home, the Sonoma State Hospital, and finally the Sonoma Developmental Center.
 The nature of such items unquestionably poses challenges for librarians and archivists, both in their physical care and in how to catalog them. Rebecca Alternatt and Adrien Hilton, “Hidden Collections within Hidden Collections: Providing Access to Printed Ephemera,” in The American Archivist Volume 75, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 2012): 173.
 There is debate in the field as to what is and what is not ephemera. Rebecca Altermatt and Adrien Hilton, for example, argue that any kind of government document is not ephemera. However, as this report was not a publication of the state of California itself but of one department within that government, and created for short-term internal use, the question is open for debate. Altermatt and Hilton, 173.
 As disability history and Disability Studies have evolved as research fields, scholars have pushed to move us beyond the medical model of disability, which sees disability as mainly a pathology, as something to be cured, to the social model, which urges an examination of disability as both a social construction and as a lived experience. As scholars Susan Burch and Ian Sutherland explain, “disability is often less about physical or mental impairments than it is about how society responds to impairments.” Susan Burch and Ian Sutherland, “Who’s Not Here Yet? American Disability History,” in Radical History Review Issue 94 (Winter 2006): 128–29.
By Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian
The Library sometimes loans materials from its collections to other museums and libraries for display in their exhibitions. A letter that convicted murderer William Burke (1792–1829) wrote on the eve of his execution is currently on display in the exhibit “Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life,” which opened July 1 at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. Known as the “Resurrection Men,” Burke and his accomplice, William Hare, murdered some sixteen people and sold their bodies to Dr. Robert Knox (1791–1862) for dissection in his Edinburgh anatomy classes. The exhibition examines the circumstances that gave rise to the Burke and Hare murders in 1828 and considers the social and medical history of the dissection of human bodies from Leonardo da Vinci to the present.
Loans require a lot of advance preparation. Arrangements often take a year or more. Our conservator starts by evaluating the item to see if it needs conservation or special handling before we approve anything for loan. She also documents its condition, noting any existing issues or repairs, and in the case of the Burke letter, at the request of the National Museums Scotland, she was asked to hinge the letter to a piece of mount board in advance.
We also ask the borrowing institution to provide a facilities report, a form developed by the American Association of Museums to document the environmental conditions in the exhibition space: temperature, relative humidity, light levels, and security. We consider how long an exhibition will be up; for our contributions to the ongoing exhibit “Activist New York” at the Museum of the City of New York, for example, we rotate the items that are on display. Fine art handlers usually pack the items and bring them to the borrowing institution.
The National Museums Scotland first contacted us about a potential loan of the Burke letter in November 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed things down considerably, delaying the opening of their exhibit by a full year. This loan was particularly complex, because the item is unique and because international loans require extra documentation. Burke’s letter, in his own hand and over his signature, was written on the eve of his execution. In the letter, he admitted to committing sixteen murders with Hare but disavowed various additional murders and thefts that people attributed to him. We had to determine an appropriate insurance value, document the letter’s provenance to demonstrate that the Library is its rightful owner, and arrange for the letter to be safely transported to Edinburgh. Everything is specified in the loan documents, which both institutions sign. On June 7, under the watchful eye of our conservator, art handlers packed the letter in a specially constructed crate and took it to the airport for a flight to London, where it arrived on June 9. There it joined other items intended for the exhibit, and all of them travelled to Edinburgh together, arriving on June 21. The letter was placed in its exhibit case in time for an invitation-only viewing on June 30; the exhibit opened to the public on July 1 and will be up through October 30. Then the steps will run in reverse: a conservator at the National Museums will document the condition of the letter before it is packed in its specially constructed crate again, and once it gets back to our building our conservator will inspect it to verify that no damage has occurred. At that point the letter will return to the collections.
We are very committed to loaning items from the Library to other institutions because we are aware that our materials add so much to any viewer’s experience. One item we don’t readily lend, however, is the Edwin Smith Papyrus. This 3,600-year-old hieratic text is the oldest known surgical treatise. In 2005, it was the centerpiece of “The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt,” an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just down Fifth Avenue. But that was the last time the actual papyrus was loaned. We regularly receive requests to borrow individual leaves of the papyrus, but it is too fragile and the risks are too great for it to travel, especially overseas. So this year, when the papyrus is being featured in three European exhibitions, one in Bonn, a second in Barcelona and Madrid, and a third in Milan, beautifully made facsimile leaves, created from our own high-resolution images, make it possible for the papyrus to be shared with many audiences.
The Library contains many treasures but not everyone can come see them in person. We are happy to loan our unique, surprising, significant, and beautiful books and manuscripts to other museums and libraries, and to be part of their exhibitions—in physical form if we can, and in digital form if we must.