The Advent of the New York Surgical Society

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

In last Friday’s episode of The Knick, the main character, Dr. John Thackery, worries about being upstaged at an upcoming meeting of the New York Surgical Society. Indeed, that was (and is) a real society. It met at the New York Academy of Medicine, and NYAM’s archives hold its early minute books.

A portrait of Dr. Robert Fulton Weir.

A portrait of Dr. Robert Fulton Weir.

The New York Surgical Society was founded in 1879 at the home of prominent surgeon Dr. Robert Fulton Weir, later a president of The New York Academy of Medicine. By the early 20th century, membership had grown from an initial 12 members to 60. Its early founders were also instrumental in the establishment of the American Surgical Association in 1880. The surgeon on whom the Thackery character is based, Dr. William Halsted, was a member, as he worked in New York until joining the faculty at Johns Hopkins in 1889.

Schedule of papers in the New York Surgical Society Minutes, 1880-1897.

Schedule of papers in the New York Surgical Society Minutes, 1879-1897. Click to enlarge.

The rise of surgical societies reflected a two-fold movement: the increasing prominence of surgery within the medical profession, coupled with increasing medical specialization overall. That is, surgery was becoming glamorous, and more and more surgeons wanted to mingle, and learn from, like-minded professionals. General medical societies date at least from the 1840s—NYAM and the American Medical Association were both founded in 1847, and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia a full 60 years before that. But in the 1870s and 1880s, specialized medical societies began to flourish, motivated by sociability and professional advancement. Presenting papers on their work, members began building a publication record and a reputation. Societies prized innovation and skill—in some organizations, priority for one’s work could be established through the minute books of the meetings, even before publication.

The New York Surgical Society still exists. Find out more about it here.

On Presenting Resisterectomy

Chase Joynt, co-author of today’s guest blog with Dr. M. K. Bryson, will present Resisterectomy at our October 18th festival, Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500.

Chase Joynt, left, and Dr. M. K. Bryson, right.

Chase Joynt, left, and Dr. M. K. Bryson, right.

Chase Joynt:

I announced my desire to find a collaborator for my then-still-hypothetical project Resisterectomy at every available opportunity. Lulls in dinner party conversation were filled with the always laughter-stopping question: “Does anyone know someone who has had a mastectomy and a hysterectomy who might be willing to talk about their experiences?” Anecdotes shared about eccentric distant relatives who happened to be both cancer survivors and watercolor painters were followed up with: “Do you think that person might be interested in working on a project with me?” And friends unfamiliar with the artistic process of starting a project from a place of utter-not-knowing (and/or perhaps at best “a hunch”) continued to entertain my quest suspiciously, albeit with sympathy. The most frequent reactions to my casual inquiries were blank stares and occasional bursts of conversational sarcasm directed at the seemingly impossible identifactory requirements of the project’s specificity. One day however, after lobbing the question into a blue-couch-filled Toronto living room, I was met with an animated, sarcasm-free answer: “You need to talk to my friend Mary Bryson.” Within hours of sending Mary the initial “Hello, how are you, might you be interested in chatting about these things?” e-mail, I was met with some necessary and critical resistance.

Dr. M. K. Bryson:

When I first heard from Chase (“I am looking for a woman who has had both a mastectomy and a hysterectomy.”), I was simultaneously deeply skeptical and intensely interested in his project. And even though I really did not, and do not, “feel like a woman” I assumed that because of Chase’s up-front trans* alliances, the complexities of our potential dialogue would find plausible vocabularies if not any shared experiences. I don’t in any case expect shared experiences no matter how self-evident they may appear to be. And besides, I had by then had at least a year’s worth of experiences interviewing participants in the Cancer’s Margins research project—Canada’s first ever nationally funded research project focused on LGBT experiences of breast and gynecologic cancer.

I knew several things by then about bodies, cancer, and the impact of mastectomy and hysterectomy. For one thing, my research interviews confirmed what I learned from my own cancer experiences—that for people with histories that overlap in minor or major ways with trans* health, the simple “fact” of the double-duty these surgeries take up—that mastectomy and hysterectomy are both cancer surgeries and also surgeries related to trans* health—means that these surgeries are already much more culturally complex than is typically within healthcare providers’ understanding and training. I knew that gender is very definitely implicated in how cancer patients experience cancer-related treatments and surgeries generally, and very specifically, that cancer patients’ histories of gender will shape what is meaningful about mastectomy and hysterectomy in ways that reveal the impact of trans* culture in the larger world of gender. I have always been very fond of exploring both/and relationships that organize how people located in precarious communities experience our lives and therefore, how organizations and institutions that create systems of care need to think about caring for marginalized people.

CJ:

It has been two years since our first meeting, and Resisterectomy continues to tour galleries, festivals, and schools internationally. In May 2014, we were invited to present the work as a part of the Sexuality Studies Summer School at the University of Manchester. Unbeknownst to the organizers, the occasion marked the first time since its creation that we were able to talk about the work together in public. As a result of living and working on opposite coasts, we rely on Skype and DropBox for our project-related intimacies, and I often tour and speak alone. Presenting a collaborative work alone is a complicated and precarious endeavor. How can I speak to the specificities of the project without problematically narrating (and therefore truncating) the experiences of someone else? And yet simultaneously, how can I protect that person by speaking to the assumptions so easily made about their experiences on account of their physical absence from these encounters? After our presentation in Manchester, Mary approached me at the reception with a smile, “I didn’t know you talked about the fact that this project was hard!” I smiled, “If there is one thing that every person in every room has thus far agreed upon, it is that talking about this project is hard,” I said.

JOYNT_RESIST_POSTER

Resisterectomy poster.

MKB:

I have been thinking for a while about the academic work that I am doing concerning cancer, gender, and marginalization under the general umbrella of “An Archive of the Talking Dead.” There is something absolutely unique in my experience of talking about cancer research and cancer experiences compared to talking about any other difficult, painful, or harrowing experience. North America is in many ways a culture obsessed with cancer and with mortality—and specifically, with avoiding cancer despite the fact that almost everything we do, like aging or driving a car, is something over which we have almost no control, and which increases our risk of cancer. In Resisterectomy, there is for most people who view the multimedia installation, a story of a trans* person (Chase) and a story of a cancer patient (Mary), both of whom have had a mastectomy and a hysterectomy. But that’s not how I see it at all. I am a trans* person for whom, having a mastectomy did double-duty as breast cancer surgery. However, when Chase and I are in the same space – either because our photographs are hanging on the wall, or our faces broadcast on a screen where the Resisterectomy video feed is playing, then the inevitable assumptions about Who-is-What overwrite what can be made visible in those spaces, and the play with what might be possible is cloaked by conventions. And so there we are.

What is a residual for me, every time I hear about one of Chase’s adventures installing Resisterectomy, or talking about the art with folks, is that he and I have enacted a mode of caring for each other’s responses. Resisterectomy then acts as a kind of Live Case History where a very diverse group of people gets to think, again, about things—about stories—that might benefit from a hell of a lot more energy and creativity. Chase and I took a huge risk in just saying, “Hello. Let’s compare notes. And actually, let’s mix up these stories we think we already know how to tell.” Let’s take great care in the curation of difficult stories—from the Archive of the Talking Dead… Any doctors or nurses in the house? Pay special attention. How could you talk to your patients as if you might be very surprised to learn who they are, and how their life stories are impacted by the changes health inevitably brings? And most of all, learn to enjoy how hard it needs to be. Learn to love what you don’t yet know about me.

Dusting off a Treasure: Cleaning and Rehousing the Ladd Collection

By Emily Moyer, Collections Care Assistant

English Physicians Charles Scarborough and Edward Arris performing an anatomical dissection in 1651. After an original watercolor by G.P. Harding. Click to enlarge.

English Physicians Charles Scarborough and Edward Arris performing an anatomical dissection in 1651. After an original watercolor by G.P. Harding. Click to enlarge.

Accepted as a gift by The New York Academy of Medicine in 1975, the Ladd Collection comprises 671 prints dating from the early 17th century to the first half of the 19th century. The prints, which demonstrate a variety of printing processes including etching, engraving, mezzotint, stippling, lithography, and hand coloring, primarily depict people who have made historically significant contributions to the fields of science and medicine, as well as some medical institutions, procedures, and other health-related topics. William S. Ladd, a former dean of Cornell University Medical College, accumulated the collection during the first half of the 20th century, purchasing many of the prints as deaccessioned duplicates from the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University.

Georg Faber von Rottenman. Engraving by Bernard Strauss. Von Rottenman was a maker of pills in Ratisbon ca. 1648. Click to enlarge.

Georg Faber von Rottenman. Engraving by Bernard Strauss. Von Rottenman was a maker of pills in Ratisbon ca. 1648. Click to enlarge.

Erich Meyerhoff, librarian of Cornell’s Medical Library from 1970 to 1986, recognized the research value of the collection and suggested it be given to the NYAM Library because, as he stated in his correspondence to NYAM librarian Alfred Brandon in 1975, “[NYAM] has the most important collection in the history of medicine in our region, which includes an extensive collection of portraits listed in its ‘Portrait Catalog.’”

The Ladd Collection was previously housed in a basement storage room in 27 flat-file drawers, which were overstuffed, dirty, and causing damage to the portrait mats. Our goals for the project—which began in January 2014 and finished in August 2014—were to clean the portraits, rehouse them to prevent further deterioration, and increase access to the collection by creating a digital inventory and location guide.

Click an image to view the gallery:

To begin, all of the portraits were dry cleaned using a smoke sponge.

SmokeSponge_watermark

Cleaning with a smoke sponge.

Many of the portraits also needed new mats (because the originals were either damaged or unacceptably acidic), as well as new interleaving tissue to replace tissue that had become stained and torn.

Portrait in need of a new mat and interleaving tissue.

Portrait in need of a new mat and interleaving tissue.

We created new window mats for the portraits and hinged them to archival mat board supports using Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste. Because the prints themselves are in good condition, very few needed extensive repairs.

Cutting new mats.

Cutting new mats.

New window mat hinged to archival mat board supports.

New window mat hinged to archival mat board supports.

That said, about 10 of the portraits needed washing in order to remove thickly applied, brittle adhesive residue that was causing damage to the edges of the prints. First, we tested the inks for solubility to determine whether an aqueous treatment was appropriate. Once we determined that the inks were stable, we washed the prints in a slightly alkaline bath.

Prints in a slightly alkaline bath.

Prints in a slightly alkaline bath.

Rather than returning the collection to flat-file drawers, the conservation team made the decision to rehouse the matted prints (alphabetically and according to size) in acid and lignin-free, custom-ordered drop-front boxes from Talas that will be stored in climate-controlled conditions in NYAM’s recently renovated rare book storage stacks.

Prints rehoused in drop-front boxes.

Prints rehoused in drop-front boxes.

Although the collection had been described and cataloged at the time of its acquisition in 1975, it had no online presence and was virtually undiscoverable to the average user. Thus, over the course of the project, staff completed a digital inventory and location guide with the aim of increasing accessibility. This will be made available online soon.

The end result.

The end result.

These prints have importance not only because of their subject matter but also because of their aesthetic and art historical value. As a result of this project, scholars of the history of medicine, art, and printing can now use these prints as primary resources in their studies.

To view the collection or to access the collection guide, contact history@nyam.org or call 212-822-7313.