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