A Finer Sight Can Scarcely Be Imagined: Curtis’ Botanical Magazine (Item of the Month)

By Rebecca Pou, Archivist

It’s been a cold and snowy January, and with almost two months of winter still to come I’m drawn to the botanical selections in our collection. My choice for item of the month is a periodical, the Botanical Magazine (most commonly known by its later title, Curtis’ Botanical Magazine).

“Elizabeth Christina, one of the daughters of Linnaeus, is said to have perceived the flowers to emit spontaneously, at certain intervals, sparks like those of electricity, visible only in the dusk of the evening, and which ceased when total darkness came on.” (Plate 23, volume 1 reissue, 1793)

“Elizabeth Christina, one of the daughters of Linnaeus, is said to have perceived the flowers to emit spontaneously, at certain intervals, sparks like those of electricity, visible only in the dusk of the evening, and which ceased when total darkness came on.” (Nasturtium, plate 23, volume 1, 1793.) Click to enlarge.

In addition to being a very beautiful publication, the Botanical Magazine is notable for being the longest running botanical periodical featuring color illustrations of plants.1 The first issue of the magazine was published in 1787 by William Curtis (1746-1799) and today it is published by Kew Gardens.1,2 Curtis, an apothecary turned botanist, was the botanic demonstrator to the Society of Apothecaries at Chelsea in the 1770s.2,3 He also gave public lectures and maintained a botanic garden in London.2 Before the Botanical Magazine, Curtis began publishing the Flora Londenensis, a grand, folio-size work documenting local plant life. This proved too costly and Curtis gave up the venture in 1787.2,3

The Botanical Magazine; or, flower-garden displayed : in which the most ornamental foreign plants, cultivated in the open ground, the green-house, and the stove, will be accurately represented in their natural colours was smaller and more affordable than the Flora Londenensis; Curtis created it in response to demand for a publication concerning foreign plants.2,3 Most of the plants represented in the early volumes are from Europe, Eastern North America, and the Cape of Good Hope.   According to Hemsley, author of A new and complete index to the Botanical magazine, “Scarcely any very striking or noteworthy subjects appeared, and new species . . . were exceedingly rare,” but this did not hinder the magazine’s sales. The work was quickly a success, selling 3,000 copies a month. Volumes 1-6 were later reissued, presumably due to their popularity (some of our volumes are reprints).2

Each monthly issue contained three hand-colored plates accompanied by descriptive text.2 An exception, Strelitzia, had a fold-out plate and more in-depth description. As you will see below, variation in format was not something Curtis took lightly. The majority of the early illustrations were drawn by Sydenham Edwards.2,3 While the plates are the highlight of the magazine, Curtis’ enthusiasm for the plants is also engaging, and so each image is accompanied by a quote from the plant’s description.

Click on an image to view the gallery of plates. Enjoy, and stay warm!


1. Kew Royal Botanical Gardens. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. Available at: http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/research-data/publications/curtis-botanical-magazine. Accessed January 23, 2015.

2. Hemsley, W. Botting. A new and complete index to the Botanical magazine. London: Lovell Reeve, 1906. Available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=OlhNAAAAYAAJ&pg=PR3#v=onepage&q&f=false. Accessed January 23, 2015.

3. Curtis Museum Alton. William Curtis the Botanist. Available at: http://www3.hants.gov.uk/curtis-museum/alton-history/william-curtis.htm. Accessed January 23, 2015.

Table Reading

Our October 2014 “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500″ festival guest curator, artist and anatomist Riva Lehrer, describer her first experience with cadavers and how that shaped her thinking about bodies, anatomy, and art.

"In the Yellow Woods," by Riva Lehrer. Click to enlarge.

“In the Yellow Woods,” by Riva Lehrer. Click to enlarge.

The first time I ever saw a cadaver was a day in early September of 2006. The light was perfect—a glowing blue and gold herald of the coming Jewish New Year. I walked into lab behind Dr. Norm Lieska, head of Gross Anatomy at University of Illinois at Chicago, and a group of M1 students, all gangly in their brand-new starched white coats and spotless scrubs. The laboratory was a sort of extended corridor, comprised of a series of interlocking rooms, lit by high, industrial windows like those in an old factory. Burnished shafts of sunlight slanted across the rows of steel tables, skimming across the unzipped body bags. Each contained a cadaver that had been preserved and prepped for student exploration. For the main, though, they were pristine; head and hands demurely wrapped, all original parts on board.

I’d been warned that I might be nauseated or disgusted by the bodies. I braced myself to be sickened by the miasma of chemicals in the air. I did not expect to be overwhelmed by the sheer generosity represented in that room. Twenty-five people had decided that we needed to understand the human body in the most direct and unmediated way. They’d signed donation papers that gave us the right to read the history of their own flesh. I felt the impact of that gift even from my first steps into lab.

The dark vinyl of the body bags appeared as if gilded. This was the last moment they would all appear the same. We would pull down the zippers, and reveal the wild variations within. I am not in any way a religious person, but I thought: if I felt this kind of awe in synagogue, I’d be a very different kind of Jew. I was at the lab as part of my position as visiting artist in Medical Humanities at the Medical School of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Each cadaver in Gross Lab was assigned to a team of about 10 students; at the start of the semester I’d been assigned to one such team. These students worked on the same person for the entire year. Scalpels peeled away each archeological layer, skin down to the deepest core. It was a bizarre form of intimate knowledge—both closer and more abstract than their inhabitants had had in life. I began to focus on comparing the bodies from table to table, and to show the members of my team that each cadaver had its idiosyncrasies. None of them were ringers for the photographs in their Color Atlas of Human Anatomy.

"Theresia Degener," by Riva Lehrer. International Human Rights lawyer Theresia Degener is one of the drafters of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. As a member of the German generation of children whose mothers were given thalidomide, Degener  accomplishes all she wants to do through a range of inventive strategies.  Click to enlarge.

“Theresia Degener,” by Riva Lehrer. International Human Rights lawyer Theresia Degener is one of the drafters of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. As a member of the German generation of children whose mothers were given thalidomide, Degener accomplishes all she wants to do through a range of inventive strategies. Click to enlarge.

In all the time I was there, though, I never saw a body anything like mine. I was much too intimidated to ask why. Perhaps a body that was too different from those dissection pictures could not function as a primer? (Oddly enough, when I visited a different cadaver lab last year, a bare scoliotic spine was on a table in the back of the room, picked clean of the body in which it had dwelt).

I was the visiting artist in Medical Humanities at the Medical School of the University of Illinois at Chicago for four years, during which I taught figure drawing and portraiture for med students. I’ve gone on to teach those classes at Northwestern University School of Medicine, and as the professor of anatomy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (I’m on leave now to pursue other projects). Each year of teaching and study has only increased my sense of wonder at what a living body can do. All bodies (human and animal) are so densely woven with function, yet can accommodate such dysfunction.

I’ve asked my students at both medical schools whether I’m the only disabled person they interact with outside of clinical rotations. The answer is yes. I wonder if my professional presence changes what they think when they begin clinicals, though I also wonder if they begin silent diagnoses when I walk into the classroom. My SAIC students do often seem startled on their first day. (Though maybe that’s just an effect of the tables full of bones. Hard to tell with the young and ironic.) They may not have medical knowledge, but they are trained observers, and mine is the body at the center of the room, at least until our model climbs onto the platform in his/her birthday suit.

Riva Lehrer with students at SAIC in 2012.

Riva Lehrer with students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2012.

For years, I was the elephant in the room. Eventually, I stopped pretending I wasn’t there and began to use myself as an exemplar. This doesn’t come easy—sometimes, my attempts at coping through humor sound like outtakes from Young Frankenstein—but it does produce a willingness on the part of students to ask uncomfortable questions. As the cadavers prove year after year, normal is a matter of degree. Our bodies let us live so many ways. Healing is creativity made manifest.

I’m writing this just before another New Year. I hope that 2015 brings you joy of your own mysteries, and that you will follow those secret trails through your own glowing, shadowed, and gilded rooms.

That Sex Book at Downton Abbey

By Anne Garner, Curator, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

Mary Crawley hands Anna Bates a book by Marie Stopes in Downton Abbey.

Mary Crawley hands Anna Bates a book by Marie Stopes in Downton Abbey.

When Downton Abbey’s Mary Crawley decides to go away for the week with her beau, she sends her maid, Anna Bates, to the pharmacy equipped with a slim little volume. “I have a copy of Marie Stopes’ book,” she tells Anna. The purpose of the errand is to obtain birth control. The book that Anna shows the pharmacist’s wife is probably Wise Parenthood.1

It is early 1924. Anna’s embarrassment at her errand and the disapproval of the pharmacist’s wife are not inconsistent with the social climate of the time. By the end of World War I, attitudes towards sex and birth control were changing. And yet, the public dialogue about sexual matters was still in many ways as it had been in the previous century. During the Victorian era, notions of female identity were tied up in the absolute categories of wife and mother on the one hand, or prostitute on the other. There was little room for nuance, and public acknowledgement of the sexual lives of a large number of single and married women was completely off the table. A reticence to speak about sexual matters persisted at the family level, where sex was not typically discussed between parents and children, and, in many cases, between husbands and wives. Access to accurate medical information about sexual activity was often restricted to doctors. The effect was poor information and general anxiety on the topic.

Marie Stopes. In Marie Stopes and Birth Control, 1974.

Marie Stopes. In Marie Stopes and Birth Control, 1974.

The publication of Marie Stopes’ Married Love in 1918 marked a deliberate attempt by the author to talk to women directly about the physical aspects of married life. Within these pages, Stopes argued that sex should not only be discussed between partners, but that it should be enjoyed by both men and women equally.

Stopes (1880-1958), a paleobotanist and campaigner for women’s rights, was the author of numerous books on social welfare, many concerning birth control (see Peter Eaton’s valuable checklist for a complete list). Married Love was a kind of self-help book designed to help couples understand each other’s physical and emotional needs. When it was published in March 1918, post-war women embraced the book. The initial 2,000 copy run sold out in the first fortnight. Eaton counts 28 editions, and translations into more than a dozen languages. By 1921, sales had topped 100,000 copies.2 An early ban of the book in America on obscenity charges was overturned in 1931, by the same judge who overturned the ban on James Joyce’s Ulysses (one of our copies contains many clippings saved by an interested reader about the many legal challenges against the book).

An ad for Married Love.

An ad for Married Love, affixed to a small announcement of the publication of “A New American Edition” in 1931, after the court decision.

The title page of Stopes’ Wise Parenthood.

In addition to lawsuits, the publication of Married Love prompted fan letters containing many questions.3 Women wanted more specific instructions on birth control methods. Stopes obliged eight months later, with the publication of Wise Parenthood in November 1918.

Wise Parenthood, a slender volume of 33 pages, describes a number of birth control options, including condoms, withdrawal, and the rhythm method. Her strongest recommendation is for a rubber cervical cap with a quinine pessary. This was smaller than the modern diaphragm, and it fit over the cervix. It was probably this cap that Mary sends Anna to secure for her; in the next episode, she gives “the thing,” as she calls it, to Anna to hide in the cottage she shares with her husband, Mr. Bates.

A reviewer for The Medical Times wrote of Wise Parenthood a month after publication:

“The author ably presents the case for birth control from the scientific point of view. She criticizes several of the more important birth control methods at present employed, and she gives a detailed description of a method which she considers reliable and safe…No medical man or medical woman should fail to secure a copy and read it carefully.”4

By the time of Wise Parenthood’s publication, the use of birth control had some traction with the upper classes. But for the poor, most likely to suffer from lack of access to contraception, it was a different story. Stopes believed that poor families—exhausted, physically spent mothers, hard-working fathers who would now need to work harder, and children—all suffered unnecessarily without access to family planning.

By the early 1920s, Stopes made advocacy of birth control for the working classes her biggest cause.5 In 1921, Stopes opened the first British family-planning clinic in north London. A staff comprised of both male and female nurses and doctors offered free birth control advice. By 1925, the clinic moved to central London, and instituted a mail-order birth control service6 (note to Anna Bates: for future reference, that mail-order service could save an awkward moment or two).

The cover of "Babies and Unrest."

The cover of “Babies and Unrest.”

Stopes founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control in 1921.7 During her lifetime, she published a number of pamphlets advocating birth control use for the poor, including “Babies and Unrest,” for the American Voluntary Parenthood League, founded in 1919 by Mary Dennett. A guide to Dennett’s papers can be found here. Stopes also wrote and edited a newsletter, “Birth Control News,” for many years.

Image from "Babies and Unrest."

Image from “Babies and Unrest.”

Stopes’ legacy was not unproblematic. For much of her life, she was a supporter of the eugenics movement. In her book Radiant Motherhood (1920), Stopes advocates sterilization for those supposedly unfit for parenthood. Despite these challenging views, her birth-control activism translated to real solutions for real families, and radically improved access to contraception for working families everywhere. Her work contributed significantly to a shift towards permissiveness for family planning both in England and America.

One of our two copies of Wise Parenthood has an introduction by the English novelist Arnold Bennett. Stopes herself wrote poetry and novels, many at our library, including the poetry volume Love Songs for Young Lovers. It is worth noting that one of our copies of Wise Parenthood still bears a restricted call number left over from an earlier era (though it is now accessible to the public, bar none).


1.Special thanks to Arlene Shaner, reference librarian for historical collections, for her positive identification of Wise Parenthood as that sex book. Not to mention her devotion to Downton Abbey.

2. “Marie Charlotte Carmichael Stopes.” Dictionary of Medical Biography. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 2007. V. 5. pp. 1195-1196.

3. Stopes-Roe, Harry Verdon with Ian Scott. Marie Stopes and Birth Control. London: Priory, 1974. P. 42.

4. As quoted in an advertisement for the 7th edition, revised and enlarged, of Wise Parenthood, in the 9th Edition (London: Putnam, 1920) of Married Love.

5. Stopes-Roe, Harry Verdon with Ian Scott, 1974. P. 43.

6. Stopes-Roe, Harry Verdon with Ian Scott, 1974. P. 43.

7. “Marie Charlotte Carmichael Stopes.” Dictionary of Medical Biography. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 2007. V. 5. pp. 1195-1196.

A Letter from Benjamin Franklin

By Danielle Aloia, Special Projects Librarian and Arlene Shaner, Reference Librarian for Historical Collections

To mark Benjamin Franklin’s 309th birthday on January 17, we thought it appropriate to share some information about the Benjamin Franklin letter in our manuscript collection.

Frontispiece of The Memoirs and Writings of Benjamin Franklin, 1818.

Frontispiece of The Memoirs and Writings of Benjamin Franklin, 1818.

When we think of Benjamin Franklin, we usually remember him as a Founding Father, inventor, diplomat, printer, and publisher, but we are less likely to think of him as a medical man. In fact, he had a keen interest in public health and hygiene. He was one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Hospital, wrote a short treatise on inoculation, and even an essay about the health benefits of swimming. He also corresponded with physicians across the globe and with colleagues, family members, and others on medical topics.1

The Academy acquired a Franklin letter, dated December 8, 1752, in 1906, as a gift from Dr. William K. Otis (1860-1906), who inherited it from his father, Dr. Fessenden Nott Otis (1828-1900). Both were Fellows of The New York Academy of Medicine, the father elected in 1861 and the son 30 years later, and both specialized in treating urological disorders. Dr. F.N. Otis was a professor of venereal and genito-urinary diseases at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. He modernized the treatment for urethral stricture by inventing both the Otis Urethrometer and the Otis Dilating Urethrotome, so it should not be a surprise that this particular letter by Franklin interested him.2,3 The letter was published in various editions of Franklins works and writings, in The Medical Side of Benjamin Franklin (1911), and as a facsimile in A Letter on Catheters (1934), with commentary by Dr. Edward Loughborough Keyes.

Front and back of Franklin's December 8, 1752 letter to his brother John. Click to enlarge.

Front and back of Franklin’s December 8, 1752 letter to his brother John. Click to enlarge.

In the letter, Franklin encloses a catheter (not in our collection) and describes its fabrication to his brother John, who was suffering from painful bladder or kidney stones: “Reflecting yesterday on your Desire to have a flexible catheter, a Thought struck into my Mind how one might possibly be made…” Worried that he might not be able to adequately convey his idea through description, Franklin goes on to tell his brother, “I went immediately to the Silversmith’s, & gave Directions for making one, (sitting by till it was finished), that it might be ready for this Post.” He then provides very complete instructions for having the size of the device adjusted by a silversmith should the diameter prove too large, and for using it. Though Franklin’s text suggests that he invented the catheter, Keyes, in the commentary published with the facsimile, quotes a letter from F.N. Otis in which Otis notes that he believes the wording in the first sentence of the letter simply demonstrates Franklin’s familiarity with a similar catheter already being used in Europe.

Transcription of Franklin's letter. Click to enlarge.

Transcription of Franklin’s letter. Click to enlarge.

At the end of the letter, Franklin shares his thoughts about Robert Whytt’s “An Essay on the Virtues of Lime-water in the Cure of the Stone” with John. Clearly both of them had read this book in an attempt to find a treatment that would offer John some relief from his ailment. Franklin responds to what seems to be an earlier query from John about the likelihood that Whytt’s method of treatment would help him. “I have read Whytt on Lime Water,” Franklin writes. “You desire my thoughts on what he says. But what can I say? He relates Facts & Experiments; and they must be allow’d good, if not contradicted by other Facts and Experiments. May not one guess by holding Lime Water some time in one’s Mouth whether or not it is likely to injure the Bladder?” As almost any elementary school student today would be able to report, all the basic elements of the scientific method are conveyed in Franklin’s elegant sentences: the question, the hypothesis, the experiments and observations, and the final conclusion.

In addition to the letter on catheters, the Academy library collections contain many published editions of Franklin’s work, along with a number of secondary sources about him. Please contact history@nyam.org or call 212-223-7313 to make an appointment to visit us if you are interested in exploring one of our most famous and engaging man of letters further.


1. Pepper W. The Medical Side of Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia: W. J. Campbell; 1911.

2. Franklin, Benjamin, John Franklin, and Edward L. Keyes. A Letter on Catheters. Fulton, N.Y: Morrill, 1934.

3. Kelly H.A. Dictionary of American Medical Biography. New York: D. Appleton, 1928.

Innovation in Digital Publishing: A Summary

By Cecy Marden, Wellcome Trust Open Access Project Manager

On January 5, the last day of the 2015 American Historical Association Conference, a panel of people from “other disciplines,” chaired by digital historian Stephen Robertson,  spent two hours discussing innovation in digital publishing in the humanities. The audience did an astonishing job of summarizing the discussion on Twitter which @EstherRawson kindly Storified.

Matthew K. Gold (New York City College of Technology and City University of New York, Graduate Center) kicked off proceedings talking about creating well-designed open-source platforms that trace scholarly creation in all its versions and forms. Kathleen Fitzpatrick (Modern Language Association) extended this thread to highlight the social challenges faced by scholarly societies in creating communication platforms for their members. Martin Eve (Open Library of Humanities), Cecy Marden (Wellcome Trust) and Lisa Norberg ( K|N Consultants) discussed approaches to making open-access publication financially sustainable, considering the roles played by publishers, funders, librarians, and institutions in innovative digital publishing in the humanities.

The intentionally short presentations left us with an hour and a half for discussion, which the audience had no problem filling with questions. We ranged over how to overcome the social challenges identified by Kathleen and how to preserve the increasing variety of “stuff” that constitutes scholarly communication. We looked at whether researchers are being rewarded for the innovative work they do, and the fact they are not being rewarded for ongoing projects. We ran out of time before we ran out of questions, so if the Storify, or the blog posts by the panelists, leave you with a burning question please ask it in a comment.

NYAM’s Center for the History of Medicine Joins the National Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine

CHSTM LogosThe Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine has now launched. The Consortium is the new national organization that has grown from the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science (PACHS). The Consortium encompasses 19 institutions, from Washington, D.C., through New Haven, Connecticut, as well as Kansas City and Toronto, with NYAM as one of its two New York hubs (Columbia University is the other).

The Consortium fosters research, study, and public engagement with the history of science, technology, and medicine. It supports a combined fellowship program, where awardees can work at any of the member’s institutions, now including NYAM. More information about the fellowship program can be found here. And it maintains an integrated library catalog, pulling together records from all of the Consortium partners, so that researchers can easily find the holdings of all the member institutions.

The Consortium also produces professional and public events in history. Particularly exciting for the Center is our new role in helping to run the working group for the history of medicine and health. This is one of 10 working groups set up for convening discussions. Starting up on January 16, at 3:30, the first topic is “Ebola in Historical Context,” with presenters James Colgrove of Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and Shobana Shankar of Stony Brook University, both at the New York Academy of Medicine; and David Barnes of the University of Pennsylvania, who will join us from Philadelphia.

To participate, one can come to NYAM, to the consortium offices in Philadelphia—which are patched together electronically—or by videoconference from elsewhere. For further details and to join, contact any one of the conveners, Nancy Tomes of Stony Book University, Keith Wailoo of Princeton, and Paul Theerman of NYAM. More information can be found at the working group website.

Hoping for the Best, but Preparing for the Worst: A Disaster Preparedness Workshop

By Emily Moyer, Collections Care Assistant, The Gladys Brooks Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory

Puzzling over what to do with materials.  Alan Galicki supervises, far right.

Puzzling over what to do with materials. Alan Balicki supervises, far right.

On December 11, Alan Balicki, chief conservator at the New York Historical Society, came to NYAM’s Gladys Brooks Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory to lead an afternoon workshop about the importance of disaster planning, response, and recovery. The Conservation Lab recently rolled out a comprehensive Collections Disaster Plan detailing the proper protocols for dealing with disasters and Alan’s workshop was a great way to cap off this project.

Facilities staff experiment with draping techniques to protect against a leak.

Facilities staff experiment with draping techniques to protect against a leak.

The most common risk that libraries face is flooding due to pipe leaks or severe weather conditions. All the staff from Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health as well as several members from the Facilities Department had the opportunity to see what happens when materials get wet (all items used were set to be discarded). Center staff members were also able to engage in hands-on experimentation on how to dry different items based on their materiality and to ask questions in a non-disaster setting. Staff were encouraged to return to the lab the next day to see how the items had dried and engage in conversation about best practices.

Wet items everywhere!

Wet items everywhere!

VHS, film, and photographs.

VHS, film, and photographs.

We experimented with a variety of materials, including coated paper, leather covers, colored paper, shrink wrapped materials, photographs, audio-visual materials, and blueprints. Staff practiced interleaving soaked books, draping with plastic, and basic techniques for dealing with wet and fragile materials. Workshop participants dried materials using best practices (fanning and interleaving) as well as unorthodox methods (keeping the materials wet and closed) in order to compare the results. It was very instructive to witness how thoroughly books soaked up surrounding water, and how quickly coated paper began to “block,” or stick together, when wet. It was not surprising that some colored papers and Post-it notes bleed when wet, but seeing how quickly and dramatically they reacted to water was a good cautionary lesson. Conversely, it was encouraging to see how effectively shrink wrapping protected items from water.

Paper, cloth, and leather materials.

Paper, cloth, and leather materials.

Alan gave a thoughtful presentation on real-world dangers faced by libraries, and impressed the group with his capable and pragmatic approach to disaster planning. Thanks to everybody for a great learning experience, and especially to Alan for his time and expertise.

Fifth Annual History of Medicine Night: Call for Papers

A wooden caduceus symbol shown in NYAM rare book reading room

A caduceus symbol donated to our rare book reading room

The New York Academy of Medicine’s Section on the History of Medicine and Public Health is pleased to announce its upcoming Fifth Annual History of Medicine Night, to be held on March 11, 2015 from 6:00–7:30 pm. The event will take place at the Academy, located at 1216 Fifth Avenue at the corner of 103rd Street.

We are inviting all those interested in presenting to submit an abstract concerning a historical subject relating to medicine.

Please note the following submission requirements:

  • Abstracts (not to exceed 250 words) should be submitted together with authors’ contact details and affiliations.
  • Abstracts must be submitted no later than January 30, 2015

Selected speakers will be asked to prepare a presentation of no more than 12 minutes, with an additional 3 minutes for questions/discussion. Papers selected for presentation will be determined by a panel of History of Medicine Section members and staff of The New York Academy of Medicine.

Abstracts should be submitted electronically to Suhani Parikh at sparikh@nyam.org.  Questions may be directed to Suhani via email or phone (212-419-3544).

NYAM’s Culinary Highlights

On Monday, The Recipes Project featured an interview with Curator Anne Garner about the print and manuscript historical recipe books in our collection. We’re delighted to republish the interview, conducted by Michelle DiMeo, on our blog.

Could you give us an overview of the print and manuscript historical recipe books in NYAM’s collection? Can you offer any search tips for finding them in your catalog?

At the heart of our culinary holdings is the Collection of Books on Foods and Cookery, presented to NYAM by Margaret Barclay Wilson in 1929. Wilson was professor of physiology and honorary librarian at Hunter College; she also advised the city of New York on food economy during wartime.

The Wilson collection includes about 10,000 items, including the Apicius manuscript (see below), menus and pamphlets that demonstrate the way cookery changed over time, and a large collection of printed books, beginning in the 16th century. Included here are works by Scappi, Platina, and Carême as well as many other milestones in culinary printing.  Especially exciting are the wide variety of everyday cookbooks we own that show what daily cooking was like in a range of households, across the world. Using our collections, you can also trace the changes that occur when people have access to new innovations—refrigeration, for example, or the gas range.

9th-century manuscript De re culininaria (sometimes De re coquinaria), attributed to Apicius.

9th-century manuscript De re culininaria (sometimes De re coquinaria), attributed to Apicius.

We have strong collections related to diet regimens and cooking for health, as well as cookbooks published during wartime when resources were scarce. More general texts on home economics and household management include much on cooking. Books on farming, viticulture and beer-making round out our strong print holdings.

The centerpiece of our food manuscripts is Apicius’ De re culinaria, one of two existing copies of an early Roman cookbook mixed with medical recipes, agronomical observations, and house-keeping advice. Our copy was penned at the monastery at Fulda (Germany) around 830 AD.

NYAM holds some significant early modern manuscript recipe books. Can you tell us more about these and give a couple of highlights?

Our library holds 36 manuscript receipt books, dating from the late 17th through the 19th century. The bulk of the manuscripts are German and English. The remaining manuscripts are American, Austrian, French, and Dutch. One of my favorites is the Choise Receipt book from 1680, which includes recipes for fruit preserves, baked goods, mead and beer, as well as hearty pudding and meat dishes. You’ll also find here a recipe ensuring a quick childbirth—central ingredient, baked eel livers!—as well as many other medical recipes. A tantalizing recipe for a “gam of cherries” is notable because the OED dates the earliest usage of “jam,” in any form, to 1736, almost sixty years after the date of this manuscript.

Index of late 17th-century manuscript A Collection of Choise Receipts.

Index of late 17th-century manuscript A Collection of Choise Receipts.

Elizabeth Duncombe’s manuscript offers recipes from a later period (1791). Food historian Stephen Schmidt has cooked several of these recipes, with delectable results! Highlights include a fish sauce more French than English in spirit (akin to today’s beurre blanc), and recipes for pigeon, hedgehog and potted mushrooms. References to milking and to cows suggest that this was the cookbook of a farm household, and not a city residence.

Could you tell us a bit more about the Pine Tree Manuscript Receipt Book Project?

The 36 early modern manuscripts described above were all in need of both conservation and cataloging. All items needed basic stabilization and dry cleaning; in some cases, the bindings needed to be replaced with historically and structurally suitable materials. All can now be used by the public without worry of further damage. They’ve also been cataloged, and can be found by searching online here.

Both the conservation work and the cataloging was funded by the Pine Tree Foundation, overseen by Szilvia Szmuk-Tanenbaum. Szilvia is a bibliophile and a culinary enthusiast, and has been wonderfully generous to us.

I heard that “Food” is NYAM’s 2015 programming theme. Do tell us more! How will recipes be included?

We’re thrilled that our 2015 programming will focus on the history of food and food systems, working with historian and writer Evelyn Kim. Throughout the year there will be food-related events, culminating in our October Festival where we will offer a mixture of talks, demonstrations, and workshops, with noted chefs and writers. In April, we will also be participating in the Food Book Fair in Brooklyn. We will be drawing on our historical cookery collection for insights into changing ideas about food and health, nutrition, diets and more. Watch our blog for images, recipes and details of lectures and workshops to come.

NYAM’s Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health (which includes the Library) hosts the blog Books, Health, and History. Could you give us an overview of some blog posts that were related to historical recipes?

Food historian Stephen Schmidt did a wonderful post for us on a recipe for bread crumb gingerbread. The recipe can be found in a manuscript cookbook from the early 18th century but is adapted from a much older recipe for a contemporary audience. Schmidt writes about the evolution of gingerbread as a stomach settler in the 17th-century to its 18th-century incarnation as a sweet dessert cake, made with molasses. Our manuscript offers recipes for both the old and the new gingerbread. Schmidt speculates that the old was probably made at Christmastime, the new, in everyday cooking.

Another highlight includes a blog featuring a staff member’s photo-documented chronicle of her experiences making Mother Eve’s Pudding, featured in this recipe book, and a post on the recipe itself, which is cleverly—and sometimes cryptically—told in verse. Other highlights include posts offering recipes for an authentic 1914 Thanksgiving dinner and on a pamphlet, the “Canape Parade,” featuring a procession of winsome vegetables.

A recipe in verse for Mother Eve’s Pudding, late 18th-century.

A recipe in verse for Mother Eve’s Pudding, late 18th-century.

Louis Braille and His System: The Quest for a Universal Script

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

“Louis Braille,” in J. Alvin Kugelmass, Louis Braille: Windows for the Blind. Frontispiece by Edgard Cirlin.

“Louis Braille,” in J. Alvin Kugelmass, Louis Braille: Windows for the Blind. Frontispiece by Edgard Cirlin.

January 4 is the birthday of Louis Braille (1809–1852), the founder of the embossed dot system of representing letters that bears his name. Started in France and adopted world-wide, by the mid-20th century Braille had become the hope for a universal system of writing for the blind, a dream that by the early 21st century had faded away.

Born sighted, at the age of three Braille was blinded in an accident. He was sent to one of the premier schools for teaching the blind, the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles, in Paris, where he excelled and became a teacher at an early age. By the time he was 16, Braille worked out his system of encoding language in raised dots. It swept away other systems, which usually tried to retain the shape of the letters of the Latin alphabet, using either large metal type or embossed letters, chiefly for the benefit of the teachers and patrons.1

Braille’s innovation was related to “night writing,” a system developed by Charles Barbier in the French infantry in Napoleonic times to communicate without sound as part of tactical warfare. Night writing was phonetic, however—perhaps on the premise that most soldiers were illiterate. Louis Braille was literate, and intended his system for the literate. Each written letter corresponded to some arrangement of six dots, arrayed three high and two wide. With 6 dots to work with, there were 64 distinct possibilities—more than enough for letters, numbers, punctuation, and more. And encoding was simple: the dots were raised on the page by pressing or punching through from behind, allowing the blind to write as well as read.

“Position of Hand preferred by Best Readers,” in Kathryn E. Maxfield, The Blind Child and his Reading, opposite p. 54.

“Position of Hand preferred by Best Readers,” in Kathryn E. Maxfield, The Blind Child and His Reading, 1928, opposite p. 54.

A competing English system of encoding text for the blind, using symbols close to legible letters. In William Moon, Light for the Blind, 1879, opposite page 66. Click to enlarge.

A competing English system of encoding text for the blind, using symbols close to legible letters. In William Moon, Light for the Blind, 1879, opposite page 66. Click to enlarge.

Braille’s system eventually forced out its competitors. But as the system spread, problems of local use arose. Although Western European languages all used the Latin alphabet, different languages have slightly different character sets: some added umlauts, accents, and cedillas; others dropped letters; and yet others added non-Latin letters.

Early on, British English Braille and American English Braille diverged. Though British and American printed English share a single alphabet, it is subtly different from French. At the time, the French considered W almost as a “loan letter,” and it was made an addition to the regular alphabet. Thus French Braille followed that order and set up the letters so that X followed V, and W was last. Nineteenth-century British Braille followed the French pattern, while American Braille put the W after V, while using the French Braille character for X. Thus W, X, Y, and Z were differently rendered in British Braille and American Braille, and Braille productions of the two countries were mutually incomprehensible. (A similar situation had developed between Egyptian Arabic and Algerian Arabic.) An 1878 conference sorted it out, enshrining Louis Braille’s original transliterations as the international standard. 2

Braille systems extended worldwide, encompassing not only alphabetic systems using Latin, Cyrillic, Arabic, and Hebrew letters, but also ideographic ones. Chinese Braille made the letters represent spoken Chinese words, conveying meaning by a combination of phonetic expression and context. Local usages remained a problem, though, and by the middle of the 20th century, the community of instructors of the blind were looking for “world Braille.” Initially prompted by the proliferation of Braille systems in India, UNESCO organized a meeting in Paris in 1950. The conference led to the establishment of the World Braille Council, which chose Sir Clutha Nantes Mackenzie (1895–1966) as its chair.3 Mackenzie was well known in the Braille world. A New Zealander, blinded at the battle of Gallipoli in World War I, he was director of the New Zealand Institute for the Blind from 1921–1938, and then variously worked in India, the United States, China, Malaysia, Uganda, Egypt, Aden (now Yemen), and Ethiopia on issues of blindness.4

“World Braille Chart,” World Braille Usage, 1953 p. 74. The full chart is four pages, extending to the right to cover Arabic, Hebrew, Devanagari, Swahili, and Indonesian, and down to cover the balance of the Latin alphabet, along with accented letters and a few marks of punctuation, 44 Braille characters in all.

“World Braille Chart,” World Braille Usage, 1953, p. 74. The full chart is four pages, extending to the right to cover Arabic, Hebrew, Devanagari, Swahili, and Indonesian, and down to cover the balance of the Latin alphabet, along with accented letters and a few marks of punctuation, 44 Braille characters in all.

Cover of World Braille Usage, 1953.

Cover of World Braille Usage, 1953.

In 1953 he and the Council issued World Braille Usage: A Survey of Efforts towards Uniformity of Braille Notation (Paris, UNESCO), both a history of the development of Braille and, as its subtitle indicates, a survey of usage and a plea for uniformity. Two further editions of the report—1990 and 2013—expanded greatly the countries and languages covered. The 2013 edition presented different Braille renderings for 133 languages. But by that edition, the authors also acknowledged that the long-sought uniformity was not to be found. Unlike the earlier works, no attempt was made in the book’s organization to show commonalities of Braille letters across languages: instead each language is separately represented. “While there is still interest in universal agreement on characters that are used throughout the world, the emphasis now is on unification within languages, as driven by Braille authorities and other organizations.”5 The work was decentered from Europe: Latin letters were no longer the standard, and, instead of the World Braille Charts that marked the 1953 edition—derived from Louis Braille’s French—the 2013 editions began with a Braille “International Phonetic Alphabet.” Unity proved elusive, when faced with linguistic self-determination.

What is the future of Braille? Text-to-speech technologies have reduced Braille fluency. But technology has also increased Braille usage, with better ways of producing Braille texts, as well as ways of interacting with computers and smart phones.6 Nonetheless, over the last 50 years, American Braille literacy has dropped from 50% in school-age blind children, to about 10%. As a medium of cultural expression, Braille’s future is far from certain. But it’s had a 180-year run, quite remarkable for a technology!


1. The Moon System of Embossed Reading, developed by Englishman William Moon (1818–1894), used simplified letters based on the Latin alphabet, but Braille proved better for most.

2. Other complications came as some assigned the Braille letters with the fewest dots to the most common letters—much like Morse code assigns the shortest symbols to the most common letters—and thus both changed Braille’s assignments, and made the new ones language-dependent, as letter frequency differs between languages.

3. See Gabriel Ferrer, The Story of Blindness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), pp. 116–17; “International Meeting on Braille Uniformity,” in World Braille Usage (Paris: UNESCO, 1953), pp. 141–45.

4. “Sir Clutha Nantes Mackenzie,” An Encyclopedia of New Zealand 1966, in http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/1966/mackenzie-sir-clutha-nantes, accessed December 18, 2014.

5. World Braille Usage, 3rd (Washington, DC: UNESCO, 2013), p. viii. http://www.perkins.org/assets/downloads/worldbrailleusage/world-braille-usage-third-edition.pdf, accessed December 18, 2014.

6. Ibid., pp. viii-ix.