The Private Lives of Galileo

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

February 15, 1564, is Galileo’s birthday according to the Julian calendar; in our Gregorian calendar the date is February 26. Our collections hold two of his books published during his lifetime: Dialogues on two world systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican (1632) and Discourses on two new sciences (1638). The first was the book that got him into trouble with the Church, eventually leading to his sentencing and house arrest for his defense of Copernicus’ sun-centered astronomy. The second was in a sense his vindication, a physical treatise that was a summation of his investigations into the strengths of materials and the motions of bodies. As Galileo was forbidden to publish, the manuscript was smuggled abroad and appeared in Leiden, away from the censoring arm of the Church.

The mid-nineteenth century saw a flowering of biographical works on Galileo and other scientists. Biographies of scientists allow many things to happen: first of all, they become the occasion to do some popular science writing. Second, they often lend themselves to a progressive narrative, positioning a discovery, insight, or theory into a triumphant march of knowledge and improvement, undertaken against regressive forces of oppression. Finally, biographies provide narratives that shed light on individual motives and character, holding up personal qualities as keys to broader cultural and social understanding.

Galileo Galilei (1564–1642).  Frontispiece of Allan-Olney, The Private Life of Galileo, 1870.

Galileo Galilei (1564–1642). Frontispiece of Allan-Olney, The Private Life of Galileo, 1870.

Nineteenth-century biographies of scientists did all three. But often they did so in ways that defy our expectations.

One early effort in English was David Brewster’s The Martyrs of Science (1841), subtitled “The Lives of Galileo, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler.” A noted Scottish natural scientist (who had written a biography of Isaac Newton some 10 years previously), Brewster refused to follow the usual script for discussing Galileo: noble scientific reason versus conniving religious superstition. While the theme of “science versus religion” was present in his biography, a stronger argument was that Galileo brought his calamities on himself, and all the worse for the rest of us! Galileo evinced cowardice for giving in to the Inquisition: “what excuse can we devise for the humiliating confession and abjuration of Galileo?”1 Adding cowardice to his rashness, his sarcasm, and his boldness, Galileo ensured that the cause of truth—the reality of Copernicus’ sun-centered system—was set back for centuries:

One of the most prominent traits in the character of Galileo was his invincible love of truth. . . . His views, however, were too liberal, and too far in advance of the age which he adorned; and however much we may admire the noble spirit which he evinced, and the personal sacrifices which he made, in his struggle for truth, we must yet lament the hotness of his zeal and the temerity of his onset. . . . Under the sagacious and peaceful sway of Copernicus, astronomy had effected a glorious triumph over the dogmas of the Church; but under the bold and uncompromising sceptre of Galileo all her conquests were irrecoverably lost.2

After Brewster’s book, Galileo studies began in earnest, notably in Italy in the 1850s and ’60s. Of particular interest was Galileo’s correspondence with his daughter, a Franciscan nun, Suor Maria Celeste.3 Twenty-seven of her letters were published in Florence in 1852, and 121 in 1863. The correspondence formed the basis for an anonymously published biography, The Private Life of Galileo (1870). The author was Mary Allan-Olney, an Englishwoman, about whom nothing more has been found except her books: the novels, Junia (1878), Estelle Russell (1880), and Harmonia (1887); a two- volume travel narrative of life in Virginia under Reconstruction, The New Virginians, (1880); and The Private Life of Galileo.


Title page of Allan-Olney, The Private Life of Galileo, 1870. “Galileo’s Tower” is his house at Arcetri, outside Florence, adjacent to the convent where his daughters resided, and where he remained under house arrest after his condemnation.

Allan-Olney focused her biography on the celebrated trial. The biography’s backdrop was the first Vatican conference, running 1868 through 1870, which affirmed the infallibility of the Pope. She wrote that Galileo’s sentence had not been signed by the Pope, thus leaving it in the realm of the fallible!4 She concluded her book with two appendices, translations of the Inquisition’s sentence and Galileo’s abjuration.

Galileo’s daughter, Suor Maria Celeste (1600–1634), via the University of Maryland.

Galileo’s daughter, Suor Maria Celeste (1600–1634), via the University of Maryland.

Just as Brewster wished to make character the touchstone of the story, so did Allan-Olney. She saw Galileo as paterfamilias, benevolent toward his pupils as well as his children and family.5 And if rashness and ambition were Galileo’s besetting sins according to Brewster, for Allan-Olney these were a too-generous spirit and a naiveté towards the ways of the world. She brings out the richness and softness of the letters that Suor Maria Celeste wrote her father (his letters have not survived), and highlights the generosity that Galileo showed to his son, daughters, and pupils. If Galileo has “secret enemies in court” and is subject to the “ill will of the Jesuits”6, he nonetheless supports his extended family, often in the face of their ingratitude. His pupils no less benefited from his generosity, as Allan-Olney often attests, but in their case it was from his generosity of mind:

This letter [sent by pupil Paolo Aproino] is another instance of the undying attachment which Galileo’s pupils felt toward their great teacher. Aproino refers to the time he spent in Padua while studying mathematics under Galileo in terms of enthusiasm, and thanks God daily “that he had for his master the greatest man the earth had ever seen.”7

Allan-Olney ends her biography with these words:

Pages might be filled with expressions of gratitude and affection such as these, culled from the correspondence of Galileo’s disciples. And truly, the great master himself might adjudge them to be of higher value as a testimony to his merit, than the marble monument under which his body now lies in Santa Croce [church, in Florence].8

To this day, Galileo sparks interest—two major biographies were published within the last five years.9 And, like these two 19th-century authors, each writer needs to come to terms with the man behind the story. Only these days, character is not held to be the key.


1. Brewster, Martyrs, p. 94.

2. Brewster, Martyrs, pp. 117–18.

3. Letters to Father: Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo, 1623–1633, translated and annotated by Dava Sobel (Walker Publishing Co., 2001), especially p. xiii.

4. Allan-Olney, Private Life of Galileo, p. 260.

5. The stretching of Galileo’s life to fit a mid-19th-century ethic shows its strains. The hero of this story, Galileo, showed his concern for his daughters—all three of his children were illegitimate, but his youngest, a boy, was legitimized to allow him a place in society—by placing them as vowed nuns in a monastery when they were 13 and a bit younger (the birthdate of the second daughter is in doubt). The letters between Galileo and his oldest child show signs of real affection, though, which Allan-Olney then uses as the center of her work.

6. These are chapter subheads in Private Life of Galileo.

7. Allan-Olney, Private Life of Galileo, p. 208.

8. Allan-Olney, Private Life of Galileo, p. 298.

9. John Heilbron, Galileo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); and David Wootton, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

What Woodcraft for Women, Taxidermy, and Raising Pigeons Have in Common

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

This is part of an intermittent series of blogs featuring advertisements found in our collection. You can find the entire series here.

Between the covers of our books, you can sometimes find small delights: advertisements.

Most frequently, these ads list an array of other books available from the publisher. Publishers began advertising in their publications as early as 1551. By the 1650s, they included their title lists in the beginning and/or ends of books. These lists could lead to strange juxtapositions of titles, suggesting that the same reader might be interested in a huge range of topics and genres.1

Such a variety of titles can be found in Laurens P. Hickok’s Empirical Psychology; Or, the Human Mind as Given in Consciousness (second edition, 1854), Solon Robinson’s How to Live: Saving and Wasting, Or, Domestic Cookery Illustrated (1889), and John K. Anderson’s How to Heal by Nature’s Potent Methods (1899). Ads promote books as diverse as Ancient Magic, Magnetism and Psychic Forces, Heads and Faces; How to Study Them, and Spencerian Penmanship. Click on an image below to enlarge and view the gallery.

A favorite publisher list appears in Katherine G. Pinkerton’s Woodcraft for Women (1916). Part of the Outing Publishing Company’s Outing Handbooks series, this book ends with a list of all 56 Outing Handbooks titles—80 cents per volume, plus 5 cents for postage. Titles range from Taxidermy to Raising Pigeons to The Canoe—Its Selection, Care and Use.

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But the book with the best ads (in my opinion) is Chilton’s One Thousand Secrets and Wrinkles (187-?). Dick & Fitzgerald, Publishers’ catalog must be seen to be believed, including The Art and Etiquette of Making Love alongside The Amateur Trapper and Trap-Maker’s Guide. Click on an image below to enlarge and view the gallery.


1. Raven J. The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade 1450-1850. New Haven: Yale University Press; 2007:283. Available at: Accessed February 4, 2015.

Censoring Leonhart Fuchs: Examples from the New York Academy of Medicine

Hannah Marcus, today’s guest blogger, is a PhD candidate at Stanford University studying the history of censorship in Early Modern Europe.

In 1559, 32 years after Martin Luther started the Reformation by posting his Ninety Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Pope Paul IV published the papacy’s first Index of Prohibited Books. The list banned more than 500 authors and proclaimed that Catholic readers could no longer own or read books written by heretics. Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566) was one of many Protestant authors whose works were banned by the Index of Prohibited Books. And yet, Fuchs was no theologian and his published works were not about religion. Leonhart Fuchs was one of the great botanists and doctors of the 16th century.

Within months of the first prohibition, Catholic readers and ecclesiastical officials alike realized that Fuchs’s books were important resources for physicians, despite their author’s religion. Thus began a process of compromise that lasted for more than a century in Italy: with permission from Church authorities, Catholic readers were allowed to keep their copies of Fuchs’s books if they removed his name from text.

The New York Academy of Medicine Library owns a number of copies of these censored works, and these copies reveal a great deal about how Italians lived with and circumvented the culture of censorship. The order to remove Fuchs’s name could take a variety of forms, and NYAM has a remarkable assortment of examples.

The most common way to censor a name or passage from a book was simply to cross it out with ink. In these two examples we can see copies of books from which Fuchs’s name has been blacked out with a pen and ink and then clearly washed off at a later date (on the left) and blacked out with ink using a paintbrush (right). The sloppiness of the paintbrush and speed with which the name has been canceled indicates that the expurgation, that is the removal of the name, was probably done by an inquisitor or Catholic official who was censoring many books in rapid succession.

Left, Fuch's Claudii Galeni Pergameni, 1549?. Right, NEED ID.

Left, De sanitate tuenda libri sex, 1541. Right, De humani corporis fabrica, 1551. Click to enlarge.

In contrast to the inquisitor who sloppily painted over Fuchs’s name, this book owner took pains to transform the letters of LEONHART FUCHS into a jumble of nonsense characters. This is an incredibly unusual practice, but another example of the technique can be found in a copy of Conrad Gesner’s book On Animals kept at the Stanford University Special Collections. It is likely that both books were owned and censored by the same person.

Looking at this copy of Fuchs’s works from 1604, we get the sense that the reader was more interested in complying with the letter of the law than its spirit. The thin line through the author’s name does little to mask the huge characters on the title page.

Fuchs, Operum didacticorum, 1604.

Fuchs, Operum didacticorum, 1604. Click to enlarge.

Gluing a piece of blank paper over prohibited text was another way to expurgate a book. As a technique it also left an obvious space where the prohibited words or names had been. In many examples, like that of Fuchs’s portrait from his 1542 History of Plants, a later owner has used this blank space to write in the author’s name where it was originally printed.

Fuchs, De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, 1542. Click to enlarge.

Fuchs, De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, 1542. Click to enlarge.

Censorship laws forced readers in Catholic Europe to alter their books in ways that have left lasting traces more than 400 years later. We can also see that as rigidly as these rules were laid down, their execution betrays a variety of impulses on the part of readers and censors. Expurgation was meant to correct a book and remove what was harmful, not to destroy the whole object. In a way then, expurgation made it possible for these books to avoid the inquisitors’ bonfires and find their way eventually to the corner of East 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue, bearing on their pages the scars of their histories in Counter-Reformation Europe.

Presentations Announced for the Fifth Annual History of Medicine Night: Insights from the Early Modern Period

The New York Academy of Medicine’s Section on History of Medicine will hold the “Fifth Annual History of Medicine Night: Insights from the Early Modern Period” on March 11 from 6:00 pm–7:30 pm at NYAM, 1216 Fifth Avenue at the corner of 103rd Street. Register to attend here.
RBR shelfPresenters will address historical topics relating to medicine with a focus on the Early Modern period.  This year’s presenters are:

Barbara Chubak, MD
Urology Resident (PGY-5), Montefiore Medical Center
“Imagining Sex Change in Early Modern Europe”

Jeffrey M. Levine, MD
Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine and Palliative Care
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
“A Fresh Look at the Historiated Initials in the De Humani Corporis Fabrica”

John E. Jacoby, MD, MPH
Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
“On the Life of Dr. Robert Levett: The Philosophy of Primary Care”

Nina Samuel, PhD
Center for Literary and Cultural Research
University of Berlin
“The Art of Hand Surgery”

Michelle Laughran, PhD
Associate Professor of History
Saint Joseph’s College of Maine
“The Medical Renaissance among Three Plagues: Epidemic Disease, Heresy and Calumny in Sixteenth-Century Venice”

Sharon Packer, MD
Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
“Epidemic Ergotism, Medieval Mysticism & Future Trends in Palliative Care”

Part two of this lecture series, “History of Medicine Night: 19th– and 20th-Century Stories,” will take place on May 6, 2015.

Darwin and Behavior

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

Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Charles Darwin. From Munchener medizinische wochenschrift, Blatt 239, 1909. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Charles Darwin was born on this day in 1809. The influence of this “most genial of geniuses,” to quote Stephen Jay Gould, continues.1

What has become more prominent in recent years is the field of evolutionary psychology, which promises a fully naturalistic account of the development of mind as well as body. But Darwin as well as other early 19th-century naturalists held that behavior was an integral part of evolution. Darwin’s precursor, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, made behavior central to his mechanism for species change. His provided an account of the giraffe, whose incessant and continued stretching of the neck resulted in its slight lengthening, which transferred to the next generation—perhaps through the rush of “gemmules” from the somatic cells to the germ cells, as Darwin surmised in his Lamarckian moments. Over generations, this stretching led to the long-necked animal we have today. Behavior produces bodily change. Darwin posed nothing less, but he proposed the mechanism of natural selection: minute changes in the body or its use, if advantageous to producing offspring that inherit those changes, will over time fix the changes in a population.

Marsh, O. C. "Polydactyle horses, recent and extinct."  American Journal of Science and Arts. New Haven: 1879.

O.C. Marsh. “Polydactyle horses, recent and extinct.” American Journal of Science and Arts, 1879.

Early accounts, and frankly, the way that evolution is often presented in high school classrooms, tend to obscure this. Much late 19th-century work emphasized establishing the fact of evolution, while downplaying the mechanism. Naturalists often focused on comparative anatomy alone, without a behavioral component. For example, one of the more famous “proofs” of evolution is the sequence of horse skeletons that Othniel C. Marsh of Yale set out in 1879—fossil bones put side-by-side.2 Even 20 years ago or so, Gould identified three central disciplines as the cornerstones of modern Darwinism: paleontology, developmental biology, and population genetics3; none of these had much to say about the way that living creatures interact with their environment.

But Darwin did. He served as a naturalist in the field during his four-year trip around the world on H.M.S. Beagle, and he was constantly seeing the living world as a whole. Yes, the specimens he collected eventually made their way to museum drawers, but he always recorded the back story. In his most famous example—the finches of the Galápagos—he was aware of how beak shape was linked to eating patterns, a behavioral characteristic, and how both interacted with the particular environments of each island.

Darwin, Charles. The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London: J. Murray, 1872

Charles Darwin. The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. London: J. Murray, 1872

Darwin, Charles. The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London: J. Murray, 1872.

Charles Darwin. The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. London: J. Murray, 1872.

Darwin always explored behavior. Chapter 7 of his masterwork, On the Origin of Species (1859), was devoted to “Instinct.” In later books, notably The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) and The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), he elaborated his discussion of the evolution of behavior. But in all these books he looked at the “higher” animals, and that could be taken to mean that some element of purposefulness was at work. That is, as with Lamarck’s giraffe, a conscious agent may seem to be choosing a particular evolutionary path, rather than a path emerging by means of natural selection and other mechanisms. So Darwin famously looked at “lower” forms, connecting in them bodily structure, behavior, and environment. He worked on the zoology of barnacles as his major contribution to understanding the Beagle specimens. Above all, he was a botanist, writing books on the movement of plants, and on insectivorous plants, among other efforts. One of his last productions was on earthworms, including “observations on their habits.” His research brought home the three-fold connection of body, behavior, and environment in the evolution of new species, even in creatures that no one could consider conscious or willful.

From Darwin, Charles. Insectivorous Plants. New York: Appleton, 1904.

Charles Darwin. Insectivorous Plants. New York: Appleton, 1904.

Here then is the origin of evolutionary psychology. From the tropisms of plants and the habits of worms, to all of living nature, it is not only that our bodies that are evolving and changing in response to nature, but how we use our bodies as well: our conscious minds, but also our perceived instincts, and even our unconscious thoughts and feelings. Evolutionary psychology is built on this.


1. S. J. Gould, “Darwinian Fundamentalism,” The New York Review of Books, June 12, 1997, at, accessed February 11, 2015.

2. O. C. Marsh, “Polydactyle Horses, Recent and Extinct,” American Journal of Science, 3rd ser. 17 (1879): 499–505.

3. Ibid.

Tattoo Removal: Method or Madness?

By Danielle Aloia, Special Projects Librarian

Hambly WD. The History of Tattooing and Its Significance. London: H.F. & G. Witherby; 1925.

In: Hambly WD. The History of Tattooing and Its Significance. London: H.F. & G. Witherby; 1925.

Tattoos—including body painting, puncturing, and scarring—have been around for thousands of years, going back at least to ancient Egypt. Egyptian puncture tattoos have been found dating to between 2000 and 4000 B.C.E. Tattoos have embodied cultural expression, sexual provocation, identification, and artistic expression.1

Tattoo removal may be be as old as tattoos. One of the oldest known descriptions is from c. 500, by Aetius of Amida, which is included in Medicae Artis Principes (you can read the description in translation on the Ask the Past blog). He describes a chemical procedure of potassium nitrate and turpentine. In the 1928 article “A Study of Tattooing and Methods of its Removal,” author Marvin Shie suggests that burning the design “with a hot iron” was the earliest surgical procedure and “when the dead skin sloughed off, it took the mark with it but usually left a bad scar in its place.”2

Reasons for removal are varied and personal and often motivated by wanting to “disassociate from the past.”3 In 1898, Ross Hall Skillern wrote, “After the novelty wears off, some of these [tattooed people], becoming not only tired, but ashamed of the disfigurement, immediately seek a doctor to have it removed.”4

Hambly WD. The History of Tattooing and Its Significance. London: H.F. & G. Witherby; 1925.

In: Hambly WD. The History of Tattooing and Its Significance. London: H.F. & G. Witherby; 1925.

Some of the regretful traveled far and wide for their body art. By the late 1600s, Western sailors were showing up at ports with tattoos often obtained in the South Pacific and New World. From this cultural exchange came intriguing stories of removal. As described in an article in The Atlantic, one buccaneer had the Kuna people of Panama tattoo a design into his cheek in 1681, a choice he later regretted. Unfortunately, all removal attempts failed, “even ‘after much scarifying and fetching off a great part of the Skin.’”5

Removal remained a difficult procedure even 240 years later. In the 1920s, removals were grouped under three classifications: surgical, electrolytic, and chemical.6 Most of these techniques were ineffective, leading to scars, chronic pain, and disfigurement. Surgical removal was the most invasive and left scars thought to be more unsightly than the tattoo itself.7 Electrolytic forms of removal included a heated needle inserted “into the tattoo mark a sufficient number of times to cause blanching of the surface…this forms a superficial eschar which drops off in the course of a week or so, taking the pigment with it.”8 As an alternative to these procedures, tattoo cover-ups could change or alter an unwanted design.

Here is an example of chemical removal as explained by Marvin Shie in 1928, with images:

The use of tannic acid and silver nitrate…the most satisfactory. A 50 per cent solution of tannic acid in water is then tattooed into the design…the area is also painted with the tannic acid solution…as the tattooing progresses. Then the area is washed with cold water. Sterile petrolatum is applied, to prevent discoloration…Then a stick of silver nitrate is rubbed vigorously over the area forming a think black deposit of silver tannate. This is all wiped off and washed with cold water. The point is to have the silver tannate penetrate the corium (or dermis) layer of the skin so that the tattooed area becomes hard and dry, and slowly separates from the deep layers of the corium. In about twelve days the edges are free, and in fifteen or sixteen days, the black, dry slough comes off in on piece resembling thin piece of leather. This contains the epithelium, the silver tannate in the corium, the superficial layers of the corium, and the tattoo pigment.9

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The chemical removal process has not gone by the wayside, but is generally not a recommended procedure today.

“The scale calculates the estimated number of treatments based on a standardized set of parameters, such as the patient’s skin type, location of the tattoo, and number and density of tattoo inks.”9

“The scale calculates the estimated number of treatments based on a standardized set of parameters, such as the patient’s skin type, location of the tattoo, and number and density of tattoo inks.”10

Laser treatment has been in use since the 1970s and evolved as the preferred method of removal both because it’s relatively effective and pain-free. In order to provide the best outcome for the laser treatment, the Kirby-Desai scale was introduced in 2009. This provides the health professional with a “tool to estimate the number of treatments needed for removal” based in part on the pathology.10

If you have tattoos or are thinking about getting one, consider the long-term implications. In a 2012 Harris Poll, of the 21% of Americans polled who had a tattoo, 14% regretted getting one. Even though medical treatments for removal have advanced, they are often costly and results are not guaranteed. Always consult a health professional before making a tattoo-removal, or any medical, decision.


1. Hambly WD. The History of Tattooing and Its Significance: With Some Account of Other Forms of Corporal Marking. London: H.F. & G. Witherby; 1925.

2. Shie MD. A study of tattooing and methods its removal. Journal of the American Medical Association. 1928;90(2):94-99.

3. Armstrong ML, Stuppy DJ, Gabriel DC, Anderson RR. Motivation for tattoo removal. Arch Dermatol. 1996;132(4):412-416.

4. Skillern RH. Tattooing–its history, manner of introduction, and method of removal. Philadelphia Medical Journal. 1898;1(25):1166-1167.

5. Odle, M. “The human stain: A deep history of tattoo removal.” The Atlantic. Nov. 19 2013. Available at: Accessed January 8, 2015.

6. Shie MD.

7. Skillern RH.

8. Ibid.

9. Shie MD.

10. Kirby W, Chen CL, Desai T. Causes and recommendations for unanticipated ink retention following tattoo removal treatment. Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. 2013;6(7):27-31.

Recipes for Cooking by Electricity (Item of the Month)

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

In 2015, our programming will focus on food, including a day-long festival on October 17. This is part of a series of blogs featuring the theme.

It’s difficult to imagine a modern kitchen without electric appliances. But in the early 1900s, most people had to be persuaded to use them—often unsuccessfully.

As Doreen Yarwood explains in An Encyclopaedia of the History of Technology, electric cookers made their debuts in the 1890s and catalogs started selling them by 1900. Still, people found them difficult to use. They were unreliable and often burnt out, they weren’t aesthetically pleasing, they were difficult to clean, and it was easy to burn yourself while using them. As so few people had electric current in their homes at the turn of the century, it’s not surprising that it took three more decades for electric cooking to become commonplace.1

But the New York Edison Company saw an opportunity. In 1911, it published Recipes for Cooking by Electricity, a slim cookbook that not only gave recipes (ranging in cost and complexity from toast to lobster a la Newburg), but also specified the cost of the electric current used. The cookbook also included a page with tips for the care of the electric appliances, such as not immersing the heating elements in water, cleaning a warm stove top with Vaseline, and keeping a coffee percolator “sweet and clean” by rinsing it with cold water after each use and boiling water with a tablespoon of baking soda in it each week. The cookbook concludes, “It is a simple thing to cook with electricity and the cost is surprisingly small.”2

Here are some sample recipes:


1. Yarwood, D. (2002). The Domestic Interior: Technology and the Home. In I. McNeil (Ed.), An Encyclopaedia of the History of Technology. London: Routledge.

2. New York Edison Company. (1911). Recipes for cooking by electricity. New York: Edison Company.

Cholera Comes to New York City

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

In December, the Academy hosted the Commissioner’s Medical Grand Rounds Ebola: Past and Present panel discussion. In conjunction with this event, the Center for History prepared a small exhibition on the history of cholera in New York City.

Cholera first reached New York City in June of 1832. Three thousand New Yorkers died within weeks, while an estimated one third of the city’s 250,000 inhabitants fled. The disease hit the working class neighborhoods of lower Manhattan the hardest. Many city officials implicated the residents of the poorest neighborhoods for contracting cholera, blaming their weak character, instead of viewing the epidemic as a public health problem. Competing notions of the cause of the disease’s spread impeded effective response to this initial outbreak. John Snow’s research, tracing the spread of cholera to contaminated water in London, was made public in 1855. Snow’s work, combined with the establishment of the New York Metropolitan Board of Health in 1866, did much to curb the last significant outbreaks in the city, in 1866 and 1892.

[Scrapbook of Clippings]. Official Reports of the Board of Health during the Cholera, in the City of New York, in the year 1832.

[Scrapbook of Clippings]. Official Reports of the Board of Health during the Cholera, in the City of New York, in the year 1832.

[Scrapbook of Clippings]. Official Reports of the Board of Health during the Cholera, in the City of New York, in the year 1832.

The first case of cholera in New York City was reported on June 26. A scrapbook collection of broadside reports, spanning July 8–August 23, documents the catastrophic results of that first summer’s outbreak. The street addresses and the number of dead at each address are given, as well as the number of new cases and the number convalescing in hospitals at Park Street, Greenwich Street, Crosby Street, Rivington Street, the Alms-House, and elsewhere.

Batchelder, J. P. Cholera: Its Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment, considered and explained. New York: Dewitt & Davenport, 1849.

Batchelder, J. P. Cholera: Its Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment, considered and explained. New York: Dewitt & Davenport, 1849.

Batchelder, J. P. Cholera: Its Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment, considered and explained. New York: Dewitt & Davenport, 1849.

The 1832 arrival of cholera in the United State inspired a host of publications by physicians about the disease. By 1849, many New York physicians had accepted that cholera was “portable,” if not contagious. This pamphlet, by the eminent New York lecturer and surgeon J. P. Batchelder, documents a moment when the medical community was studying the spread of epidemic diseases in earnest, but the science was not yet understood. In a section on causes, Batchelder enumerates a long list of populations susceptible to the disease, including those suffering from hunger and those exposed to the night air. Our copy of this pamphlet was presented by the author to the Academy, and bears the Academy’s early bookplate.

[Collection of manuscript notes, related to the 1854 cholera epidemic in New York City.]

[Collection of manuscript notes, related to the 1854 cholera epidemic in New York City.]

Collection of manuscript notes, related to the 1854 cholera epidemic in New York City.

The second major outbreak of cholera in New York occurred in 1854, when the disease again reached epidemic proportions, killing 2,509. The Board of Health established temporary hospitals throughout the city to accommodate the large number of patients. This volume contains 27 orders for hospitalization during the epidemic of 1854, most of them hastily written on scrap paper. According to the notes, this patient, Mary Riley, delayed going to the hospital and died the following day at home.

“The Cholera and Fever Nests of New York City.” Illustrations from the Healy Collection. 1866.

"The Cholera and Fever Nests of New York City." Illustrations from the Healy Collection. 1866.

“The Cholera and Fever Nests of New York City.” Illustrations from the Healy Collection. 1866. Click to enlarge.

The Metropolitan Board of Health was established in 1866, the year these illustrations were published. The Board was instrumental in identifying sanitation problems that made the city’s poorest neighborhoods most vulnerable to cholera outbreaks. An early board publication describes these cholera nests in vivid terms: “There is such an utter neglect of ventilation and adequate means for daily scavenging and purification of the tenement blocks, that they invite and perpetuate the most pernicious infections…They are perpetual fever nests, ready to nourish and force into deadly activity any fomites or contagium that may chance to find lodgment in them.”1

Peters, Dr. John C. “Routes of Asiatic Cholera.” Harper’s Weekly [New York] 25 April 1885. Illustration from the Healy Collection.

Peters, Dr. John C. "Routes of Asiatic Cholera." Harper's Weekly [New York] 25 April 1885. Illustration from the Healy Collection.

Peters, Dr. John C. “Routes of Asiatic Cholera.” Harper’s Weekly [New York] 25 April 1885. Illustration from the Healy Collection. Click to enlarge.

New York physician John C. Peters produced several informative maps showing the movement of cholera across the globe. This map, originally published in 1873, tracks the path of cholera from its origins at the mouth of the Ganges to Europe and on to the Americas. Visible on Peters’ map are the five major 19th-century routes of the disease into New York, in the years 1832, 1849, 1854, 1866, and 1873.


1. Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York, Volume 4. Accessed December 23, 2014, at