Global Celebrations of Vesalius’s 500th Birthday

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

From the frontispiece of Vesalius’ Fabrica.

Not in New York? Plan a trip and attend our “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500” Festival on October 18! You can read our guest curator Riva Lehrer’s thoughts on the Festival here, and get a sneak peak of a virtual dissection demonstration by Kriota Willberg; and Brandy Schillace on Naissance Macabre; as well as more information about Vesalius and his Fabrica. Keep an eye out for more Vesalius 500 guest posts to come.

But, much as we’d like to see you here on October 18, you don’t have to be in New York to celebrate Vesalius’ 500th birthday.

We always welcome visitors to make an appointment to visit our rare book reading room and examine our copies of the Fabrica and its companion volume, the Epitome (in addition to the rest of our collection). Those elsewhere can find beautiful colored digital versions of the Fabrica from the University of Basel Library and the Epitome at University of Cambridge Library’s digital library. The publishers of the new English language edition of the Fabrica also have some wonderful material online.

In addition, there are multiple birthday celebrations for Vesalius across the globe this year. Travelers can visit Leuven for the Unravelling the Body. The Theatre of Anatomy at the Leuven Museum, or the international conference Towards the Authority of Vesalius: Representations of the Human Body in Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Dec 3–5); join the Vesalius Continuum Conference on Zakynthos, the Ionian Island on which Vesalius died (Sept 4–8 ); visit Down to the Bones: Celebrating 500 Years of Innovation (Jul 11–Oct 9) at the University of Utah libraries; see Discovering the Human Body at Anatomical Museum in Basel, as well as the only existing skeleton known to have been dissected by Vesalius (Sept 12–Mar 2015) and explore Vesalius and His Worlds: Medical Illustration during the Renaissance at the Huntington library (Dec 12–13). Vesalius was born on Dec 31, 1514; if the events of 2014 were not enough, keep an eye out for the St. Louis meeting celebrating Vesalius in 2015 (Feb 26-28). (Apologies to anyone whose event we’ve missed! The Karger Fabrica site has a great, and constantly updated list of Vesalius 500 events.)

“The Pest at the Gate”: Typhoid, Sanitation, and Fear in NYC

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

The relationship between medicine and public health could be a complex one at the turn of the last century. In particular, the question of how to deal with infectious disease epidemics demanded that medical professionals and city officials grapple with sanitation and cleanliness, city infrastructure, water supplies, and garbage and sewage. Epidemics also raised questions of individual autonomy and the proper role of government. In response to these issues, Boards of Health emerged in many American cities in the second half of the 19th century. The New York Metropolitan Board of Health was the first, founded in 1866 after a campaign by Dr. Stephen Smith and The New York Academy of Medicine.

Poultney Bigelow, The Pest at Our Gates, ([New York] : Merchants’ Association of New York, [1908])

Bigelow Poultney, The Pest at Our Gates, (New York: Merchants’ Association of New York, 1908)

Relations were often fraught between the different groups responsible for the city’s health. Many physicians resented the interference of city-nominated health officials (many of whom they considered corrupt and/or incompetent) into the medical domain; health officials blamed doctors for failing to report cases of infectious diseases; and families regarded hospitals with suspicion and did their best to keep their ill relatives out of them.

The diseases most feared by New Yorkers included cholera, typhus, and typhoid fever. Between 1898 and 1907, at least 635 New Yorkers died from typhoid, with cases of the disease in the thousands.1 Typhoid spreads through water supplies contaminated with infected fecal matter. It can be transmitted via contaminated food or water, and more rarely, through direct contact with someone infected with the disease. As such, sources of the illness in late 19th-century New York were many and largely invisible, as the investigative journalist and author Poultney Bigelow described in 1908 in “The Pest at Our Gates”: typhoid sources ranged from the “placid, perilous Potomac” to “the deadly house fly,” “the fish and oyster menace” and the “perils that lurk in ice.”2 Fear of typhoid pushed public health initiatives and legislation to ensure safe water and food, adequate plumbing, and proper sewage control.

The specters of cholera, yellow fever, and smallpox recoil in fear as their way through the Port of New York is blocked by a barrier on which is written "quarantine" and by an angel holding a sword and shield on which is written "cleanliness." Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Cholera, yellow fever, and smallpox recoil in fear as a quarantine barrier and an angel holding bearing a shield of cleanliness blocks their way through the Port of New York. Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Fear of infectious disease often overlapped with fears about the changing face of the city and nation. As Alan M. Kraut explores in Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes and the Immigrant Menace, the relationship between immigration and public health in the United States has historically been informed by nativist debates about the identity of the nation and its ethnic makeup, fears about the potential limitations of scientific medicine, and the public health impact of immigration.3 As the gateway to America for hundreds of thousands of new immigrants, New York City became a focus for questions of quarantine and infectious disease. Epidemics, particularly of cholera, prompted many public health reforms in the city, especially increased scrutiny of immigrant arrivals at quarantine stations, including Ellis Island, where officials assessed arriving immigrants for their physical and mental health between 1892 and 1924.

In the case of typhoid, the specter of the foreigner as the reservoir of disease came to be personified by the Irish-born Mary Mallon, so-called “Typhoid Mary.” Mallon was a cook whose employment history in the kitchens of wealthy New Yorkers matched a spate of typhoid outbreaks in those same households in 1906. Mallon was a healthy carrier of typhoid, and was put under enforced quarantine by the Board of Health, which she vigorously resisted. On her release in 1909 she took multiple aliases and continued to work as a cook until 1915, when she was again detained and kept in isolation until her death in 1932. To some, Mallon was “the most dangerous woman in America”; to others, she was a symbol of the undermining of individual liberties by the government.4

In the case of typhoid fever, a combination of new vaccine technology and improved sanitation measures (particularly water chlorination) saw cases in the United States drop dramatically in the early 20th century. However, as is the case for many preventable infectious diseases, typhoid remains a problem in parts of the world with less developed public health infrastructure. On a global scale, medical and governmental responses to public health issues continue to exist in an uneasy tension with broader political and social concerns.


1. John Duffy,  A history of public health in New York City (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1968), p566

2. Poultney Bigelow, The Pest at Our Gates, (New York: Merchants’ Association of New York, 1908)

3. Alan M. Kraut, Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes and the Immigrant Menace (New York: Basic Books, 1994), pp 1-9

4. Judith Walzer Leavitt, Typhoid Mary: captive to the public’s health (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996); Alan M. Kraut, Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes and the Immigrant Menace (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 97-104.


The Fabrica of Andreas Vesalius: Object of the Month

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

This year we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the birth of Andreas Vesalius with our fall festival, “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500” on October 18. So much has been written on the Fabrica and its importance that it can be difficult to know where to begin. Why do Vesalius and his work remain so important to contemporary scholarship and anatomical study? The answer lies in his first and most famous book, De humani corporis fabrica. The title is translated as On the Fabric of the Human Body, although the “fabrica” in the original title can be best understood in terms of “craft”, “workings,” or “fabrication.”1 In other words, in this book Vesalius is interested in the functions of the body as a living system. Seven “books,” or sections, lay out the different systems and functions of the body, beginning with bones and ligaments and ending with the brain and sensory organs.

The frontispiece to the 1543 Fabrica in our collection.

The frontispiece to the 1543 Fabrica in our collection. Click to enlarge.

As the frontispiece makes clear, Vesalius wanted the Fabrica to demonstrate the importance of reviving hands-on anatomy as central to medical knowledge and practice. The Fabrica was a landmark publication, representing a turning point in the European understanding of the body and a new level of beauty and accuracy in its depiction in anatomical texts. At the time of its publication in 1543, Vesalius was a professor at the University of Padua, one of Europe’s best known medical schools. Only 28, Vesalius came from a long line of physicians. Like many of his forebears, he subsequently entered the service of the Imperial Court of Charles V, to whom he dedicated the Fabrica. He worked closely with his printers, wood carvers, and artists to ensure the accuracy and beauty of the over 300 woodblock images in the book.2 The Fabrica was exceptional in terms of both production and content, and its iconography, principles, and pedagogical approach were rapidly incorporated into medical thinking and teaching.

While the Fabrica is now remembered as the point at which a new, “modern” emphasis on direct observation and experimentation replaced deference to ancient authorities, Vesalius was careful to ensure that his erudition in the classical tradition was on display. Quotations of Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew texts point both to his determination to show the breadth of his knowledge and to the expertise of his typesetters. Vesalius used such authorities to place himself in an established tradition, even as he questioned aspects of accepted Galenic thought.

The frontispiece to the 1555 Fabrica in our collection. Click to enlarge.

The frontispiece to the 1555 Fabrica in our collection. Click to enlarge.

Along with his systematic exploration of all aspects of human anatomy, Vesalius’s demonstration that authorities such as Galen had made errors in their claims about human anatomy (in part due to reliance on animal dissection) was one reason the book rapidly assumed such extraordinary significance (although not universal acceptance). Despite its detractors, the Fabrica had an immediate impact; even with Vesalius’ best efforts, it was plagiarized and copied throughout Europe.3

Covers of the two Fabricas in our collection. The 1543 volume, left, has alum-tawed pigskin over wooden boards with elaborate decorative tooling and stamped designs and two brass fore-edge clasps. The 1555 edition, right, is bound in a contemporary parchment binding over stiff pasteboards with a single panel stamp. Click to enlarge.

Covers of two Fabricas in our collection. The 1543 volume, left, has alum-tawed pigskin over wooden boards with elaborate decorative tooling and stamped designs and two brass fore-edge clasps. The 1555 edition, right, is bound in a contemporary parchment binding over stiff pasteboards with a single panel stamp. Click to enlarge.

We are in the enviable position of owning multiple copies of the Fabrica as well as its companion piece the Epitome, a briefer volume designed for students with enlarged illustrations to aid the identification of individual features. In addition, we also hold multiple copies of the Icones Anatomicae, an extraordinary 20th-century artifact created in 1934 by The New York Academy of Medicine and the University of Munich, using the original 1543 wood blocks to reproduce illustrations from the Fabrica and Epitome (this was the last time images were taken from the woodblocks; returned to Munich, they were subsequently destroyed by Allied bombing during WWII). All of these volumes will be available to view at the festival on October 18. You will also be able to learn more about Vesalius and his work: Daniel Garrison will discuss translating the Fabrica for the new English-language edition, Arlene Shaner will explore the story of the Icones Anatomicae, and Drs. Jeff Levine and Michael Nevins will provide a guide to the possible stories hidden in the changes made to the Fabrica frontispiece between the first and second editions.


1. Harvey Cushing, A Bio-Bibliography of Andreas Vesalius (New York, Schuman’s, 1943), p73; Daniel Garrison, “Why Did Vesalius Title His Anatomical Atlas “The Fabric of the Human Body”?”

2. The identity of the artist responsible for the wood blocks remains unclear, although many have argued that Jan Stephan Calcar, a student of Titian, was responsible. See Vivian Nutton’s introduction at

3. More details about the life and impact of Vesalius can be found online in Vivian Nutton’s introduction and other essays at Northwestern’s Annotated Vesalius project: and in C. O’Malley, Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, 1514-1564 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964).

Calculating Lifetimes: Life Expectancy and Medical Progress at the Turn of the Century

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

“We now live in a time of endless possibility. More has been learned about the treatment of the human body in the last five years than was learned in the previous 500. Twenty years ago, 39 was the number of years a man could expect from his life. Today, it is more than 47.”1

So says the fictional character Dr. John Thackery on the first episode of Cinemax’s The Knick, a show set in New York in 1900. So the years and ages are thus: in 1880 newborn boys could expect a life of 39 years; in 1900, 47 years. And that’s about right. The technical term is life expectancy—the number of years that one could expect to live, with no substantial change of conditions. Dr. Thackery refers, grandiloquently, to those substantial changes of conditions that caused a dramatic increase in life expectancy in the developed world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a steady increase thereafter. By 2010 U.S. life expectancy at birth stood at about 76 years for men, 81 years for women, with an average of 79 years overall.2

William Farr. Courtesy of the John Snow Archive and Research Companion.

William Farr, circa 1850. Courtesy of the John Snow Archive and Research Companion.

The individual who put such statistical work on a firm footing, institutionally and intellectually, was William Farr (1807–1883), statistician in Great Britain’s General Register Office from 1839 to 1879. The British government set up the Register Office in 1837 as part of a reform agenda to provide for civil—rather than parish-based—registration of births, marriages, and deaths. Farr was a medical doctor of modest background who found statistics fascinating. Three times Farr prepared life tables for England and Wales, providing life expectancies divided along gender and geographical lines, and basing his work on the burgeoning data collected in his office and through the expanded decennial censuses beginning in 1841. He was also instrumental in checking and confirming John Snow’s famous geographical detection of the source of the London cholera outbreak of 1853, based on mortality statistics.3

Farr was not the first to determine how to calculate life expectancy: that feat is general accorded to Edmond Halley, the early modern astronomer who predicted the return of the comet that bears his name. But while not the first to approach the topic, Farr may have been the most serious and articulate advocate of life expectancy as a measure of national health:

Since an English life table has now been framed from the necessary data, I venture to express a hope that the facts may be collected and abstracted, from which life tables of other nations can be constructed. A comparison of the duration of successive generations in England, France, Prussia, Austria, Russia, America, and other States, would throw much light on the physical condition of the respective populations, and suggest to scientific and benevolent individuals in every country—and to the Governments—many ways of diminishing the sufferings, and ameliorating the health and condition of the people; for the longer life of a nation denotes more than it does in an individual—a happier life—a life more exempt from sickness and infirmity—a life of greater energy and industry, of greater experience and wisdom.4

A life table from Vital Statistics.

A life table from Vital Statistics. The table, published in 1843 as part of the fifth report, refers to the year 1841.

Farr expected “a noble national emulation,” that is, a competition for best life expectancy, to generate as much enthusiasm as “victories over each other’s armies in the field.” His vision—at least of comparative data—came true: today the World Health Organization provides life expectancies for 194 countries.5

The cover of the NYAM edition of Vital Statistics.

The cover of the NYAM edition of Vital Statistics.

The centrality of Farr’s work to the mission of The New York Academy of Medicine led to NYAM’s reprinting Vital Statistics: A Memorial Volume of Selections from the Reports and Writings of William Farr (1885) in 1975.

As for Dr. John Thackery’s paean to modern medicine: it is a bit misplaced. He was right in stating that medical treatments, and especially surgical techniques, made great advances in his time. But that fact didn’t account for the change in life expectancy. Instead, “old knowledge” was more important: people fell ill and died due to poor sanitation, inadequate diet, dangerous working conditions, and the risks of childbirth and infancy. For example, in 1850 life expectancy in Massachusetts for newborn boys was 38, while 20-year-olds could expect to live to 62, 40-year-olds to 68, and 60-year-olds to 76. By 1900, the comparable figures are: newborns, 48; 20-year-olds, 61; 40-year-olds, 67; and 60-year-olds, 74.6 The situation for newborns improved greatly over the course of 50 years, but for older cohorts, little changed. Over time, the great dangers in childbirth and the first years of life had been ameliorated, and better obstetrics was part of the story, but public health made the difference.


1. “The Knick,” Cinemax, Series 1, Episode 1 (aired August 8, 2014), as quoted in NPR, “A New Show about Doctors of Old,” broadcast August 3, 2014,, accessed August 14, 2014.

2. The Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, “State Health Facts: Life Expectancy at Birth (in years), by Gender”, accessed August 14, 2014.

3. This and other information on Farr are from the editors’ “Introduction” (pp. iii–xiv), and the original “Biographical Sketch” (pp. vii–xxiv, separately paginated), in Vital Statistics: A Memorial Volume of Selections from the Reports and Writings of William Farr, with an Introduction by Mervyn Susser and Abraham Adelstein, The History of Medicine Series Issued under the Auspices of the Library of the New York Academy of Medicine, no. 46 (1885; reprint ed., Metuchen N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1975).

4. Vital Statistics, 453, quoting the Registrar General’s Fifth Annual Report (August 1843).

5. World Health Organization, Global Health Observatory Data Repository,, accessed August 14, 2014.

6. Historical Statistics of the United States, 1789–1945: A Supplement to the Statistical Abstract of the United States (Washington: United States Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1949), page 45, Series C 6 21. “Vital Statistics—Complete Expectation of Life: 1789 to 1945.”, accessed August 14, 2014.

Virtual Dissection

Kriota Willberg, the author of today’s guest post, explores the intersection of body sciences with creative practice through drawing, writing, performance, and needlework. She will present at our October 18th festival, Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500.

Artistic and clinical examinations of the body share many of the same processes. The artist and the clinician study the body’s mass, look for irregularities in its shape and color, locate bones, joints, and muscles, take notice of the breath. They watch the body and its parts move through space, assess joint alignment, and determine if their subject’s physical parts and relationships are assembled or functioning in a desirable form. The languages for and techniques of analysis vary by discipline but the object of exploration is the same.

"Dhanurasana illustration" by Kriota Willberg

“Dhanurasana illustration” by Kriota Willberg. Click to enlarge.

My careers are grounded in the exploration of the body. There was a time when I would take a morning ballet class, teach anatomy in the afternoon, and in the evening either work a shift as a massage therapist or go to a dance rehearsal. To relax on the weekends I would draw musculoskeletal anatomy illustrations for my class handouts.

Drawing, dancing, and massage all require skills in postural assessment. As a massage therapist I also palpate deeper structures, locating them under skin, fat, and other layers of muscle. As a dancer I learned to feel my musculoskeletal structures via movement exercises that isolate muscle groups or coordinate the body as a whole. Through years of building experiential and objective understanding of the body, physical assessment has become second nature to me.

Friction “…Bundle of Fibers” by Kriota Willberg.

“Friction” by Kriota Willberg. Click to enlarge.

Anatomy entertains and delights me everywhere I go. I study the foot and ankle alignment of strangers as they climb the subway steps. I monitor my two amputee cats for the development of functional scoliosis. I measure and palpate the skin and adipose of my husband, or myself, or the cats, as we sit on the couch and watch the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. I comment on Pierce Brosnan’s resemblance in the film to a dissected human subject illustrated in an Albinus anatomy text from 1749.

Tomorrow Never Dies from “The Anatomy of 007” by Kriota Willberg. Click to enlarge

Tomorrow Never Dies from “The Anatomy of 007” by Kriota Willberg. Click to enlarge

The world is an anatomical wonderland. Anatomy is all around us and all we have to do is see it and feel it.

"Pictorial Anatomy of the Cute" by Kriota Willberg. Click to enlarge.

“Pictorial Anatomy of the Cute” by Kriota Willberg. Click to enlarge.

I’m not unique in my perspective of the world of anatomy. There are many people in arts, sciences, and health professions who are skilled at virtual dissection. We can look at you, through your clothing, and through your skin and fat to see the muscle and bone beneath. We share the same skills and sometimes we share the same sense of humor. But our cohort is somewhat rarified. I intend to bring more people into the knowledge and skills that will enable them to join our “club.”

I train others in methods of seeing the body as a clinical or artistic tool. As a part of this instruction, I draw the body on a body. Using a live model, I locate bones and joints, tracing bony landmarks in rinseable ink. Then I locate a muscle’s attachment sites, connect them, and “flesh out” the muscle’s contours and fiber direction.

Willberg anatomy drawing. Model: Wendy Chu

Willberg anatomy drawing. Model: Wendy Chu

Willberg anatomy drawing. Model: Wendy Chu

Willberg anatomy drawing. Model: Wendy Chu

We watch levator scapula lengthen with upward rotation of the scapula. Or the hamstring elongate to seemingly impossible length as the model moves through deep hip flexion. The upper pectoralis major shortens as the lower part lengthens when the model brings her arms overhead. After 27 years of teaching, I am still entranced by these simple movements.

At the Vesalius 500 celebration on October 18, we will look at the body with the double vision of the anatomist. Part live-drawing performance, part slide show/lecture, part conversation, we will explore the (kin)esthetic relationships of our anatomy. I’ll present a narrated slideshow of artworks from A(lbinus) to V(esalius) to enhance and define actual and fanciful relationships of our parts to our whole. A live model and I will create associations between these illustrations and the living body by tracing superficial and deep connections of muscle to movement. The presentation will include opportunities for you (the audience) to ask questions and comment on your own experiences with the study of anatomy.

See you there!

Beard Dipping: New York Medicine 1900 Style

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

After episode one of The Knick, the question on everyone’s lips is of course: what was going on with the beard dipping? A commitment to getting the historical details right is the answer (although we hope for the actor’s sake the liquid wasn’t completely true to life).

Dr. Christiansen (Matt Frewer) preps his beard for surgery, assisted by Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson). Courtsey of HBO-Cinemax.

Dr. Christiansen (Matt Frewer) preps his beard for surgery, assisted by Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson). Credit: HBO-Cinemax.

The surgeons performing the emergency Caesarean early in the episode ran an operating theater following Listerian principles of cleanliness and antiseptic surgery. Joseph Lister (1827–1912) was a professor of surgery at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, who, influenced by Louis Pasteur’s germ theory, looked for methods to remove microorganisms from the environment during surgery. The introduction of chloroform and ether as anesthetic agents in the mid-19th century meant that surgery had become a much less painful process for patients (and allowed surgeons to focus on longer and more complex procedures). However, surgery remained dangerous, with postoperative infection continuing to be a serious, often fatal, problem.

Carbolic steam spray used by Joseph Lister, England, 1866-18. Courtesy of the Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

Carbolic steam spray used by Joseph Lister, England, 1866-1870. Courtesy of the Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

In 1867, Lister published an article in which he proposed using carbolic acid (already used to treat sewage) to sterilize the operating room, surgical instruments, bandages, and wounds. Surgeons were encouraged to dip their hands—and yes, their beards!—into carbolic acid before operating.

Working in the midst of a pungent yellow spray that smelled like tar was not ideal and inhaling too much carbolic acid could be dangerous. Lister continued experimenting throughout his career with new sterilization techniques. However he never embraced the idea of gowns, face masks, or gloves.

The use of gloves in surgery was introduced by William Stewart Halsted (on whom Clive Owen’s character Dr. Thackery is based) in the 1890s. A pioneer of antiseptic surgery, one of his surgical nurses (whom he later married) had a bad reaction to the mercuric chloride used as a disinfectant, so he commissioned Goodyear rubber to make her some gloves. The early use of gloves in surgery was not about patient safety, but protecting the medical team. Like any new innovation, reactions were mixed. Some individuals embraced the idea of gloves, while others continued to operate bare-knuckled.

We’re looking forward to the next episode. Let us know in the comments if you have any questions about what’s going on in the hospital and we will get back to you in a future post.

It’s All in the Details

By Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator and Reference Librarian for Historical Collections

"Male Ward E" at Hahnemann Hospital, from the Hospital's May 1901 Report.

“Male Ward E” at Hahnemann Hospital, from the hospital’s May 1901 report. Click to enlarge.

Advertising for The Knick, the HBO Cinemax series that begins tonight, is everywhere right now. The show, which centers on the world of a fictional New York hospital, The Knickerbocker, right at the turn of the 20th century, has been in our sights here in the NYAM Library for months.

Long before the episodes of any historical drama are ready to air, a tremendous amount of research goes into making sure that the settings, costumes, and stories display a level of historical accuracy that will make the show believable. It is part of our mission as a library devoted to the history of medicine to help the show’s researchers discover where the information they need can be found. We don’t do our jobs alone, though, and colleagues at many other area institutions such as the Archives and Special Collections at the Health Sciences Library at Columbia University, the Museum of the City of New York and the Mount Sinai Archives, to name just a few, offered plenty of assistance as well.

There are lots of resources in our collections that Knick researchers explored while the show was under development. A particularly rich source for images and descriptions of hospitals in 1900, the year in which the show begins, are the annual reports produced by medical institutions here in the city. Illustrations of operating theaters, like this one from the Presbyterian Hospital, help designers build accurate sets in which the drama can unfold.

Presbyterian Hospital's operating theater, an image from its 1901 annual report. Click to enlarge.

Presbyterian Hospital’s operating theater, an image from its 1901 annual report. Click to enlarge.

In some instances, written descriptions help answer questions that come up when the photographs themselves don’t provide enough information. The Hahnemann Hospital operating room in the picture below is quite distinctive in appearance, but the actual descriptions of the rooms from the Hospital Souvenir offer lots of extra details: room dimensions; lists of equipment along with information about what everything is made from and where it sits in the space itself; and explanations of how the different rooms are physically connected to each other or separated from other spaces.

A Hahnemann Hospital operating room, from its May 1906 report. Click to enlarge.

A Hahnemann Hospital operating room, from its May 1906 report. Click to enlarge.

Descriptions of Hahnemann Hospital rooms, from the hospital's 1900 Souvenir.

Descriptions of Hahnemann Hospital rooms, from the hospital’s 1900 Souvenir. Click to enlarge.

A group of nurses from the May 1901 Hahnemann Hospital report.

A group of nurses from the May 1901 Hahnemann Hospital report. Click to enlarge

Some of the photographs also show us how doctors and nurses dressed. The nurses with their long white pinafores and puffy hats certainly look more dated than the surgeons in their doctors’ whites. And if you look back at the 1901 image of the operating theater from the beginning of this post, you’ll note that even though the doctors are performing surgery that no one is wearing a mask or gloves. In the Hahnemann Hospital operating room image from 1906, only a few people have gloves on.

We’ll be posting more about early 20th century medical practice on all of our social media platforms as The Knick gets underway, so be sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook. And check our blog on Monday to learn more about the medical history behind The Knick.