Help! I’m Buried Alive!

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

“The most horrible torture which a human being may be exposed to is undoubtedly to be buried in a state of lethargy, that is to say, alive, and wake up in his coffin, finally to die, with the consciousness of helplessness, and with the awful sufferings upon which it is unnecessary to dwell.”1

So begins the pamphlet “Premature Burial: Its Prevention” by Emile Camis, which he read at a meeting of the Medico-Legal Society in December 1899.

Camis, a Parisian lawyer, described an apparatus invented by his client, Count Michel de Karnice Karnicki, called “Le Karnice.” The device, he claimed, “could do away with the uncertainty of establishing death and save people buried alive.”1

Le Karnice, unactivated by movement within.

Fear of premature burial was widespread in the late 1700s through the 1800s; sensational accounts caused the fear to remain common in France even after it abated elsewhere in Europe.2 The phobia may have stemmed from a growing understanding of the process of death, along with awareness of the causes of contagious diseases leading to the quick removal of bodies during epidemics—prematurely, some feared.2,3 This phobia (taphephobia) led to the patenting of 22 safety coffins in the United States and more than 30 in Germany.2,3 But the most popular safety coffin was “Le Karnice.”3

As explained, movement inside the coffin caused air and light to enter. Outside the coffin, the movement triggered the rise of a ball and the sound of a bell. In addition, “an iron tube, through which air and light passes, as soon as the patient moves, becomes a speaking tube, carrying sound with great force.”1

Le Karnice, activated.

Camis continued, “The most authorized professors, the most renowned physicians, the most competent hygienists who have tried the ‘Karnice,’ have been unanimous in their appreciations favorable to its immediate application.”1

Those must have been ghoulish product testing sessions.

Happy Halloween!


1. Camis, E. (1900). “Premature burial: its prevention.”

2. Bondeson, J. (1997). A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

3. Dibble, C. (2010). The Dead Ringer: Medicine, Poe, and the fear of premature burial. Historia Medicinae, 2(1). Retrieved October 29, 2013 from

Congratulations, Captioners!

At our Festival of Medical History and the Arts on October 5, we asked attendees to submit captions for three images from items in our collection. Today, we’re happy to announce the winners of the competition, who will receive high-quality prints of the captioned image. We’ve included original captions with the images, where available, to help show how they appear in context (although the Festival attendees did not get to see them).

The first image comes from William Cheselden’s Osteographia, or The Anatomy of the Bones, published in London in 1733. Linda Kleinman wrote the winning caption.

“I’ve had enough of your lip!”

I’ve had enough of your lip!

The second image appears in Konrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium Liber IIII, published in Zurich in 1558. Samuel Luterbacher wrote the winning caption.

“I knew I should have never trusted Dr. Moreau.”

I knew I should have never trusted Dr. Moreau.

The final image, produced by Egbert van Heemskerck II circa 1730, appears in the George Osborne Mitchell Medical Scrapbook. This picture inspired the strongest pool of captions. But Iana Dikidjieva’s caption stood out from the pack.

“It appears to have been curiosity.”

“It appears to have been curiosity.”

Congratulations to the winners!

“A Passionate Statistician”: Florence Nightingale and the Numbers Game

In conjunction with its exhibit, “Extraordinary Women in Science & Medicine: Four Centuries of Achievement,” the Grolier Club is holding a symposium on October 26, 2013, to which all are welcome. The exhibition and symposium explore the contributions of 32 women, one being Florence Nightingale, to science and medicine. The exhibition features NYAM’s copy of one of Nightingale’s statistical charts. In today’s blog post, Natasha McEnroe, director of London’s Florence Nightingale Museum, explains their significance.

Florence Nightingale. Reproduced by courtesy of the Florence Nightingale Museum.

Florence Nightingale. Reproduced by courtesy of the Florence Nightingale Museum.

The Victorians loved nothing better than to measure and classify, trying to discover natural laws through the data they recorded, and Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was no exception in sharing this general enthusiasm. Having gained celebrity status from her nursing work at the infamous Barracks Hospital at Scutari, the British base hospital in the Crimean War (1853-1856), Nightingale returned to England with her health permanently broken down. Determined that the appalling treatment of the soldiers during the war should not be repeated, she spent the rest of her life conducting a political campaign for health reform from her bedroom. One of the ways her campaigning was groundbreaking was in the use of statistics.

Reproduced by courtesy of the Florence Nightingale Museum.

St Thomas’ Hospital, London, home of the Nightingale Training School for nurses. Reproduced courtesy of the Florence Nightingale Museum.

Nightingale’s love of mathematics was apparent from an early age and was an interest  encouraged by her father, who took the responsibility of educating his daughters into his own hands. Her parents’ social circle brought the young Nightingale into contact with many of the most brilliant minds of the age, including Charles Babbage, whose own passion for numbers (and not a little pedantry) is shown in a letter to Alfred Tennyson in response to the poem The Vision of Sin:

‘In your otherwise beautiful poem, one verse reads,
Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born.

…If this were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth, the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death. I would suggest that the next version of your poem should read:
Every moment dies a man,
Every moment 1 1/16 is born.
Strictly speaking, the actual figure is so long I cannot get it into a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry.’

Just weeks after her return from the Crimean War in 1856, Nightingale secured a Royal Commission from Queen Victoria investigating the health of the British Army. Nightingale herself was involved in every step of the Commission’s investigations, working with the statistician William Farr to illustrate graphically that more British troops died of disease during the war than in battle. Farr encouraged Nightingale to compare statistics on mortality rates of civilians with that of soldiers, showing that whether at war or at home, soldiers demonstrated a higher mortality rate.  He wrote to Nightingale, “This I know…Numbers teach us whether the world is ill or well governed.”  Nightingale pioneered what is now called evidence-based healthcare and in 1858 she was the first woman elected to the Royal Statistical Society.

Chart from Florence Nightingale’s A contribution to the sanitary history of the British army during the late war with Russia (London, 1859)

Chart from NYAM’s copy of Florence Nightingale’s A contribution to the sanitary history of the British army during the late war with Russia (London, 1859).

A devout woman, Nightingale saw statistics as having a spiritual aspect as well as being the most important science, and believed statistics helped us to understand God’s word. Influenced by the ethos of Victorian vital statistics, her greatest legacy can be seen in improved public health, reformed nursing education, and in her innovative polar area graphs and other work in statistics. In Nightingale, this most eminent of Victorians, we can see the combination of the two great passions of her age—a compulsion to classify and a desire to improve by reform. What made Nightingale remarkable were the personal qualities of fierce intelligence and energy that enabled her to pursue these passions with the immense determination for which she was famed.

Shadow Journals: The Story of Medical Advertising (Part 3 of 3)

Today we have the third and final part of a guest post written by David Herzberg, Ph.D., who will present “The Other Drug War: Prescription Drug Abuse and Race in 20th-Century America” on Tuesday, October 22. Read part one here and part two here.

We don’t have a definitive history of medical advertising (dissertators, take note!). In fact, the world of medicine barely appears in the standard histories of advertising beyond 19th-century patent medicines. We know all about the key campaigns that transformed the wider advertising industry: Uneeda Biscuit and Oleo margarine in the Progressive Era, Wonder Bread and Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, the Volkswagon Beetle in the 1960s, and so forth. The annals of medical advertising begin promisingly with a chapter on patent medicines but then basically peter out.

"The obvious anxieties that preoccupy many middle-aged minds often obscure a coexisting depression." From JAMA, volume 209, number 1 (September 22, 1969). Click to enlarge

“The obvious anxieties that preoccupy many middle-aged minds often obscure a coexisting depression.” From JAMA, volume 209, number 1 (September 22, 1969). Click to enlarge.

Obviously any such history would need to be based, in part, on the records of a medical advertising company or the in-house marketing arm of a pharmaceutical company. But they also require access to the advertisements themselves, in the context in which they appeared—i.e., among other places, in medical journals.

It’s not just historians of medical marketing who need the advertisements. Anyone interested in the history of medicine, or of medicine’s relationship to society at large, should care about them. The ads and the articles talked to each other, either through their joint acceptance of larger cultural beliefs or through vigorous debate when professional and profit-seeking agendas clashed. Advertisements also provide a bridge to connect such medical histories to broader developments, via the same links that contemporaries deplored. “They sell medicine like soap!” raged witnesses before Congress in the 1950s, believing that this was argument enough to win the day. This same observation, less polemically framed, might tell us as much about soap and the consumer culture as it does about medicine.

"In many cases the result of 'empty-nest snydrome.' From JAMA, volume 232, number 2 (April 14, 1975). Click to enlarge.

“In many cases the result of ’empty-nest syndrome.'” From JAMA, volume 232, number 2 (April 14, 1975). Click to enlarge.

This is why it was a historic mistake to cut out the ads. And it’s a mistake that we may still be making: today’s online databases offer a la carte articles without the surrounding advertisements, nearby articles, particular layouts, cartoons, etc. (Medical journals used to have cartoon pages; editorial policy apparently insisted that these mostly be nasty pokes at women patients. These pages, too, were often sliced out by well-meaning librarians.)

As I noted before, the New York Academy of Medicine was the only library I have found that did not cut out the advertisements. And even there policy changed for a while in the 1970s. I still don’t know why they had the prescience to spare the advertisements, but we are lucky that they did. It makes for a precious collection that is unlikely to be made obsolete in the digital era.

Thank You! Festival of Medical History and the Arts Wrap-Up

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health


Our first Festival of Medical History and the Arts was a great success; more than 1,000 people attended and responded enthusiastically to our mix of talks, demos, films, etc. Now that we have had a chance to draw breath, here are a few details from the day:

It’s hard to pick highlights, although of course Dr. Oliver Sacks speaking about his intellectual influences and the patients who inspired his Awakenings was hugely exciting for all of us. We are grateful to Dr Sacks and all the speakers who came and shared their knowledge.

Our guest curators did an amazing job. Lawrence Weschler’s Wonder Cabinet started with a (big) bang, a banjo-accompanied cosmic/neuronal slapdown, and ended with fascinating insights from Riva Lehrer into how an artist’s body can affect her art and her anatomy teaching. In between, spectators had the chance to get a glimpse into the experience of having an epileptic fit; share anatomical adventures; and witness some cringe-inducing treatments suffered by monarchs through the ages.

The cosmic/neuronal smackdown.

The cosmic/neuronal smackdown. Photo by Amy Hart.

Joanna Ebenstein’s Morbid Anatomy presentation of 12(!) talks throughout the day were standing-room only, forcing us to move to a larger room, which filled up just as quickly. The day started with Mexican traditions around death, took a detour to human zoos, wax anatomical models, medical library pleasures, memento mori, and skull theft before ending with the little-discussed practice of bookbinding with human skin.

Sigrid Sarda gives a medical wax moulage demonstration.

Sigrid Sarda gives a medical wax moulage demonstration. Photo by Amy Hart.

Our conservation team prepared a wonderful exhibit of models demonstrating development of the book over time (no human skin involved), as well as a whimsical look at the life of miniature books. We put highlights from our collections on display, and welcomed visitors to our conservation laboratory. Meanwhile, visitors could learn the art of making anatomical wax moulage and see Gene Kelly struggle with combat fatigue.  And the after party cocktails and cartoons were just the things needed to wind down after the long day.

Cocktails and cartoons at the after party.

Cocktails and cartoons at the after party. Photo by Amy Hart.

With so many people, some events did fill up. Particular apologies to those who couldn’t make it on a behind-the-scenes tour. With such overwhelming demand, we’re planning to make them a much more regular feature, so if you missed out you’ll get another chance at a future event. Our two anatomical workshops were also full; for those of you in New York, we are investigating offering courses on a more regular basis, so please let us know if you are interested!

A tour of the Gladys Brooks Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory. Photo by Amy Hart.

A tour of the Gladys Brooks Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory. Photo by Amy Hart.

Pictures from the day are up on our Facebook page, and winners of the caption competition and the raffle will be announced soon.  Meanwhile, keep an eye out for more details of our Performing Medicine mini-fest, coming in the spring. Hope to see you then, if not before for some of our stand-alone events!

Shadow Journals: The Story of Medical Advertising (Part 2 of 3)

Today we have part two of a guest post written by David Herzberg, Ph.D., who will present “The Other Drug War: Prescription Drug Abuse and Race in 20th-Century America” on Tuesday, October 22. Read part one here and part three here.

This story of medical journal advertising is typically cast as what historians call a “declension narrative,” a tale whose main arc tracks a decline from the honorable virtues of past generations to the immoral venality of today. In this telling, commerce and marketing slowly colonized the therapeutic endeavor, transforming from the noble pursuit of health into an untrustworthy, buyer-beware precinct of the larger consumer culture.

But this story can also be told very differently.

After all, there had always been advertisements in the medical journals, and subscribers had always been able to see them—they had no librarians to slice-and-dice for them. Subscribers read the articles in the context of having also seen the ads.

From JAMA, volume 207, number 11 (March 17, 1969)

“For the ‘Cheater Eater.'” From JAMA, volume 207, number 11 (March 17, 1969). Click to enlarge.

What might they have drawn from the experience of flipping through the unexpurgated journals? Well, historians have had a field day analyzing the messages of particular ads or particular articles. But the overall structure of the journals also sent its own message. When subscribers flipped past the bundle of advertisements before the table of contents to the ad-free material within, they saw to their satisfaction that commerce had been carefully contained where its self-interested values would not contaminate the real work of medicine—the empirical pursuit of truth, the professional sharing of new ways to alleviate illness and suffering, etc.

And yet, as historians have repeatedly demonstrated, commerce, especially the pharmaceutical kind, had long been a powerful force in medicine. From Parke-Davis’ hyping of cocaine in the 1880s, to Smith Kline French’s careful orchestration of research on amphetamine in the 1930s and 1940s, to Carter Product’s “launching” of minor tranquilizer Miltown with a public relations campaign worthy of a Hollywood starlet, drug companies and their marketing departments are ubiquitous in the history of medicine if you look for them. Their influence was only heightened, ironically, by their loud protestations that their marketing campaigns had no influence on physicians’ therapeutic decisions—doctors, they said, were obviously far too smart and well educated to be swayed by Madison Avenue gimmickry. Few physicians were inclined to argue with such logic, and so the marketing hoopla remained paradoxically below the radar, relatively free of scrutiny or regulatory oversight.

From JAMA, volume 207, number 10 (March 10, 1969). Click to enlarge.

“A sleeping pill for night squawks.” From JAMA, volume 207, number 10 (March 10, 1969). Click to enlarge.

From this perspective, we might all have breathed a sigh of relief when the 1950s rolled around and medical journals finally came clean, giving advertisements the pride of place they had long ago earned and beginning the process by which Americans would come to recognize, and grapple with, the centrality of commerce in their medical system. It is no accident that formal regulatory control of medical advertisements was finally given to the FDA less than a decade later.

Shadow Journals: The Story of Medical Advertising (Part 1 of 3)

Today we have part one of a guest post written by David Herzberg, Ph.D., who will present “The Other Drug War: Prescription Drug Abuse and Race in 20th-Century America” on Tuesday, October 22. Read part two here and and part three here.

It’s a historian’s nightmare: librarians spent the better part of a century diligently cutting out and throwing away some of the most important parts of the journals they received each week before binding and shelving them. Precious historic material—capstone work by some of the nation’s brightest and most creative minds—was destroyed by the very people devoted to preserving it, and destroyed only more thoroughly because of those peoples’ good intentions and zealous work ethic. Why would they have done such a terrible thing?

This is no hilariously nerdy horror movie. It really did happen all across America for most of the 20th century. As far as I can tell, the New York Academy of Medicine stood almost alone in deciding—who knows why—not to rip out the advertisements in their medical journals. We owe them sincere thanks for this.

From JAMA, volume 204, number 4 (April 22, 1968)

“‘Deprol helps brighten the depressed patient’s world.” From JAMA, volume 204, number 4 (April 22, 1968). Click to enlarge.

It’s pretty clear why most librarians cut out the ads, and it wasn’t just to preserve space on their shelves. Back in the day, the medical profession prided itself on being insulated from crass commercialism, and major journals like the Journal of the American Medical Association not only insisted on approving each advertisement, it also lumped together all the ads in an easily removable bunch before and after the main body of the journal. Ads were thus clearly identifiable as separate and unrelated to the pristine knowledge housed in the journal’s interior. Why would a good medical librarian save them?

We all know what happened next. Sometime during the consumer culture revolution of the 1950s, when commerce stopped being crass and instead became a beacon of liberty in the fight against communism and a practical organizing principle of most American institutions, consultants advised the American Medical Association to embrace journal advertising. Ads began to proliferate, and they became bigger, more colorful, and ever more dependent on emotionally charged images to convey the kinds of before-and-after miracles of Madison Avenue. Then, one day, they broke out of their quarantine and began to appear in between articles throughout the journal. Advertising became so ubiquitous, and so important, that a separate “Index of Advertisers” was provided in the back of JAMA to help readers locate the ads just like the table of context helped them locate the articles. In a sense, the ads became a shadow journal alongside the articles, providing more digestible (and typically more optimistic) reports from the cutting edge of medicine.


Triavil: Tranquilizer-antidepressant for the anxiety/depression complex.” From JAMA volume 194, number 8 (November 22, 1965). Click to enlarge.

It was only a matter of time until ads became so thoroughly enmeshed that it was no longer possible to cut them out without also removing parts of articles. Librarians continued to try, however: as late as the 1970s and 1980s, they diligently sized up each page and sliced out whatever advertising they could. Those decades are especially frustrating for historians, if you ask me. We can see the appetite-whetting first and last page of, say, an eight-page mega-advertisement on Valium and “the modern man,” but the meat of the sandwich was long ago pilfered.

Winsome Fetal Skeletons Bearing Scythes: Monro’s Traité d’ostéologie of 1759: Guest post by Morbid Anatomy

A note from the Center for the History of Medicine & Public Health: This is the last post in Morbid Anatomy‘s guest series leading up to our Festival of Medical History and the Arts. If you’ve enjoyed these posts as much as we have, don’t despair! Tomorrow’s event holds a full day of lectures and activities from Morbid Anatomy, Lawrence Weschler, and the Center. We hope you can make it! See the full schedule here.

FrontispieceThe NYAM rare book collection holds a gorgeous copy of the first French edition of Alexander Monro’s (1697–1767) celebrated Traité d’ostéologie (or “Anatomy of Bones”). Monro was trained in London, Paris, and Leiden before going on to become the first professor of anatomy at the newly established University of Edinburgh. It was under his leadership, and that of his successors, that the school went on to become a renowned center of medical learning.

Monro originally published this book without images, thinking them unnecessary after William Cheselden’s lavishly heavily-illustrated Osteographia, or the anatomy of the bones of 1733 (more on that book at this recent post). The very fine copperplates you see here were added to the French edition by its translator, the anatomist Jean-Joseph Sue (1710–1792).

My favorite image in the book is a kind of memento mori–themed tableau morte of winsome, scythe-bearing fetal skeletons enigmatically arranged in a funereal landscape (images 1–3). I also love the frontispiece in which a group of plump putti proffer anatomical atlases and dissecting tools under the oversight of a skeletal bird (above).

This post was written by Joanna Ebenstein of the Morbid Anatomy blog, library and event series; click here to find out more. All images are my own, photographed at the New York Academy of Medicine.

A Renaissance Man at Work: Volcher Coiter’s “Externarum et internarum principalium humani corporis” of 1573: Guest post by Morbid Anatomy




One under-seen and fascinating book to be found in the NYAM rare book collection is Externarum et internarum principalium humani corporis partium tabulae published by Dutch Renaissance man Volcher Coiter (1534–1576) in 1573. Not only was Coiter renowned as an anatomist, surgeon, and physician accomplished in the fields of physiology, ornithology, and embryology; not only did he establish the study of comparative osteology and describe cerebrospinal meningitis before any of his peers; he was also an artist, and signed many of the finely drawn copper engravings in his books, including those you see here.


All images are my own, photographed at the New York Academy of Medicine, save the painted portrait of Coiter, which was sourced here. The caption, attributed to Dorothy M. Schullian, reads: “Coiter’s portrait (1575) in oils, attributed to Nicolas Neufchatel and representing him demonstrating the muscles of the arm, with the écorché he had constructed on his left and a shelf of medical classics behind him, is preserved in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, at Nuremberg; there are later portraits at Weimar and Amsterdam.” (source for caption here)

Sources: Lessico Volcher CoiterWikipedia

This post was written by Joanna Ebenstein of the Morbid Anatomy blog, library and event series; click here to find out more.