Happy Bird-day, Conrad Gesner (Item of the Month)

By Rebecca Pou, Archivist

Gesner_historiae_v3_1585_395-bMarch 26 marks the birthday of the man behind one of my favorite books in our collection.

Conrad Gesner was born in Zurich in 1516. His family was not wealthy, but thanks to various benefactors he was able to study and travel to Straussburg, Paris, Basel, and elsewhere. He became knowledgeable in many topics, including linguistics, botany, and zoology. He also received a medical degree and was a practicing physician.

His most famous work, Historia Animalium, is a well-illustrated, enormous encyclopedia on animals. The work was influential not only due to the quality and quantity of the woodcuts, but also because of its descriptions. Gesner relied heavily on existing works about animals, but he also included his own observations and enlisted many contributors who provided descriptions and specimens.1,2

Five volumes were published in total, the first in 1551 and the last, posthumously, in 1587. The first volume was on quadrupeds that gave birth to live young, the second on quadrupeds that laid eggs, the third on birds, the fourth on fish and aquatic animals, and the last on serpents. Since it is Gesner’s bird-day (get it?), we’re celebrating with some of his flying friends from Liber III of the Historia Animalium. In our copy, a 1585 edition, the woodcuts are hand-colored and many of the birds’ French names were added in by an early reader.

Click on an image to view the gallery:


1. Locy, William A. The growth of biology. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1925.

2. Locy, William A. Biology and its makers. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915.

Tuning in to Tuberculosis

By Danielle Aloia, Special Projects Librarian

WNYC-LogoTo mark World TB Day, we are going to tune in to the 1950s radio series “For Doctors Only.” Selections from this series and several others produced by The New York Academy of Medicine and WNYC were recently digitized and cataloged by the Academy and the New York Public Radio (NYPR) Archives.

The program “The Biological and Social Aspects of Tuberculosis” was the 26th Hermann M. Biggs Memorial Lecture, held at the Academy in 1951.The lecture was given by Pulitzer Prize-winning author René Jules Dubos in honor of physician and public health champion Hermann Biggs and his contribution to the control and elimination of tuberculosis (TB).

At the beginning of his career, Dubos focused on developing antibiotics. But after his first wife, Marie-Louise, died of pulmonary TB in 1942, he changed the focus of his research. His lab determined a way to more quickly culture strains of tubercle bacilli, which led to a better understanding of their virulence and properties. In 1946, he married Jean Porter, who worked alongside him in his lab. Dubos likely based his lecture on the research he did for his book The White Plague, which he published with his wife in 1952.1

Oil portrait of Hermann M. Biggs by Renwick, held in our Oil Portrait Collection.

Oil portrait of Hermann M. Biggs by Renwick, held in our Oil Portrait Collection.

In the lecture, Dubos discussed Biggs’ contribution to tuberculosis prevention in the 1900s. Biggs graduated from Cornell in 1881. In his dissertation, “he expressed his conviction that filth and poor hygiene were the primary causes of contagious disease and microorganisms were only byproducts of disease.”2

Dubos pointed out in his lecture that when Robert Koch discovered the Tubercle bacillus in 1882, it revolutionized the perception of TB. It was no longer a social disease but a biological one. The bacteriological era had begun!

Biggs was quick to realize the profound effect of this germ theory. He formulated a practical way to control TB, shifting the emphasis from patients passively taking physicians’ orders to actively participating in the eradication of the disease as a community through the following formula:

  1. Check the spread of the infection and minimize contacts
  2. Help humans develop higher resistance
  3. Educate to mobilize the community to take action

His TB-control formula began the anti-tuberculosis movement, which eventually led to the formation of the National Tuberculosis Association in 1905.3

In 1889 Biggs and his colleagues “presented to the Health Department of New York City a communication calling attention to the communicability of tuberculosis and recommending that measures be taken to prevent the spread of the disease.” As a result, the Health Department published and distributed a leaflet in large quantities. As noted in A History of the National Tuberculosis Association, “So far as we are able to ascertain, this is the first leaflet ever published for distribution among the general public. It is certainly the first one published and distributed by a health department, and as such marks an epoch in tuberculosis education.”4

The Health Department leaflet, reprinted in Knopf SA. A History of the National Tuberculosis Association: The Anti-Tuberculosis Movement in the United States. New York: National Tuberculosis Association; 1922.

The Health Department leaflet, reprinted in Knopf SA. A History of the National Tuberculosis Association: The Anti-Tuberculosis Movement in the United States. New York: National Tuberculosis Association; 1922.

Over the years, public-health measures helped reduce the spread of TB. Despite these efforts, the population was still susceptible to infection. Mortality rates had been falling faster than infection rates, which Dubos noted in The White Plague. He also showed a connection between industrialization and reduced mortality.

In Dubos, RJ, Dubos J. The white plague: Tuberculosis, man, and society. New Brunswick : Rutgers University Press; 1987.

In Dubos, RJ, Dubos J. The white plague: Tuberculosis, man, and society. New Brunswick : Rutgers University Press; 1987.

Complete eradication of the disease was almost impossible. Instead, Dubos suggested two ways to attack the progression of the disease: 1) decreasing risk of infection and 2) boosting resistance. To do this, thought Dubos, researchers must focus on fostering new and unorthodox ways to determine resistance to infection and adventure into unexplored fields.

Dubos stressed in his lecture that it was imperative to investigate the human and environmental factors that determine resistance to infection. But according to the Global Tuberculosis Report 2014, “tuberculosis (TB) remains one of the world’s deadliest communicable diseases. In 2013, an estimated 9.0 million people developed TB and 1.5 million died from the disease.” Today, efforts to prevent and control TB infection are similar to those championed by Biggs and Dubos: drug-resistant surveillance, community-based TB activities, and collaboration across sectors in research and policy-making.


1. Hirsch JG, Moberg CL. Rene Jules Dubos 1901-1982. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences; 1989. Available at: http://www.nasonline.org/publications/biographical-memoirs/memoir-pdfs/dubos-rene.pdf. Accessed March 20, 2015.

2. Dubos RJ, WNYC (Radio station : New York NY). Biological and Social Aspects of Tuberculosis. New York : WNYC; 1951. http://www.wnyc.org/story/biological-and-social-aspects-of-tuberculosis-26th-hermann-m-biggs-memorial-lecture.

3. Knopf SA. A History of the National Tuberculosis Association: The Anti-Tuberculosis Movement in the United States. New York: National Tuberculosis Association; 1922.

4. Knopf SA. A History of the National Tuberculosis Association: The Anti-Tuberculosis Movement in the United States. New York: National Tuberculosis Association; 1922.

Lost and Found

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

David Livingstone (1813–1873), in Livingstone, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, opposite page 1.

David Livingstone (1813–1873), in Livingstone, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, opposite page 1. Click to enlarge.

“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

One of the great phrases of the 19th century and the butt of many jokes, the words were apparently first spoken when journalist Henry Morton Stanley came to an African village in 1871 on a quest for the elusive Scottish missionary, Dr. David Livingstone, not seen for many years, whose birthday we celebrate today, March 19.

It seems such a non sequitur: one white man enters a village in the middle of Africa—it was Ujiji, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, near the town of Kigoma, Tanzania—walks over to the only other white person for hundreds of miles, and either feigns uncertainty about his identity, or approaches him with mock humility. Stanley recorded the scene in his book, How I Found Livingstone, and attributed the phrase to shyness:

I would have run towards him, only I was a coward in the presence of such a mob [of onlookers]—would have embraced him, only he being an Englishman, I didn’t know how he would receive me, so I did what cowardice and false pride suggested what was the best thing—walked deliberately to him, took off my hat, and said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

“Yes,” said he, with a kind smile, lifting his cap slightly.

I replaced my hat on my head, and he puts on his cap, and we both grasp hands, and then I say aloud: “I thank God, Doctor, I have been permitted to see you.”

He answered, “I feel thankful I am here to welcome you.” 1

How did Livingstone get to Africa, and why was there such a fuss about finding him?

Medicine was one part of the path—Christianity was the other. As a young child growing up in Blantyre, Scotland, Livingstone (1813–1873) became entranced by the missionary movement. In this he was influenced by his father, Neil, a traveling tea salesman and fervent churchman. The younger Livingstone coupled his Christianity with a love of science and the outdoors, and, prompted by the church circles in which he moved, developed a desire to serve as a missionary. Of very poor means and a mill worker from his early teens, bright and ambitious, Livingstone set out to achieve his goal. In his mid-20s, he undertook two years of courses of medical lectures at Anderson’s University Glasgow, 1836–1838. Accepted provisionally as a missionary by the London Missionary Society—a more vigorous and evangelical group than that in the established church—he took further medical training in London, 1839–1840, including at Charing Cross Hospital—as well as theological study. He obtained a license to practice, then started out. His first choice, China, was closed to him due to the Opium Wars, and at the end of 1840 he instead left for South Africa.2

The term “medical missionary” is a freighted one. Consider that at the time Livingstone trained, the germ theory of disease had not yet been established; neither had antiseptic procedures. The causes, even the identities, of the major tropical diseases had not yet been worked out. Antibiotics and antifungal medications were decades off; rehydration therapy for cholera and similar diseases had not yet been determined. For a venture into Africa, about the only specifically useful item in Livingstone’s arsenal was quinine, to battle the symptoms of malaria, part of Western therapeutics since the 17th century. Most of what he could do was palliative care—dressing wounds and providing beds to make room for healing.

Title page of Livingstone, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa.

Title page of Livingstone, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. Click to enlarge.

Once in South Africa, Livingstone traveled first to Kuruman, a missionary outpost set up by fellow Scot Robert Moffat. After marrying Moffat’s daughter, Mary, Livingstone and his wife established Kolobeng mission in Botswana in 1847. At this time, they intended to live among Africans in order to convert them, to provide for their medical needs, and to compete with African religious leaders and healers. In the book that made his reputation, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (1857), Livingstone imaginatively plays out a dialogue between a Western “medical doctor” and an African “rain doctor.”3 The worldviews were mutually incomprehensible and the competition fierce, especially after conversion stopped one of the village leaders from his rainmaking work. In the ensuing three-year drought, Christianity itself was on trial. The drought did not end, there were raids by Boers (Dutch settlers), and the Africans left. In 1852, Livingstone closed his mission and sent his wife and children to England.4

In his years in southern Africa, Livingstone found that his true calling did not lie in the work of the solitary missionary:

Sending the Gospel to the heathen must . . . include much more that is implied in the usual picture of a missionary, namely, a man going about with a Bible under his arms. The promotion of commerce ought to be specially attended to, as this, more speedily that anything else, demolishes that sense of isolation which heathenism engenders . . . . My observations on this subject make me extremely desirous to promote the preparation of the raw materials of European manufactures in Africa, for by that means we may not only put a stop to the slave-trade, but introduce the negro family into the body corporate of nations, no one member of which can suffer without the others suffering with it. . . . [F]or neither civilization nor Christianity can be promoted alone. In fact, they are inseparable.5

"The missionary's escape from the lion." In Livingstone, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, opposite page 13. Click to enlarge.

“The missionary’s escape from the lion.” In Livingstone, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, opposite page 13. Click to enlarge.

He eventually captured his new vision with the phrase, “Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization.”6 Medicine was part of it all: supporting healing as part of the compassion that Christianity enjoined; providing health in support of commerce, maintaining both healthy places and healthy people; and being an integral part of Western civilization, and by example, persuading others of that civilization’s value and truth. This was all caught up in his new mission: through Christianity, Western civilization, and commerce to bring slavery to an end.

For this purpose, Livingstone began to explore the great unknown territories of Africa. His first expedition lasted from 1852 to 1856, running across Africa from Angola to Mozambique. He was the first westerner to see Victoria Falls, the world’s largest waterfall, and was regaled by the London press and the Royal Geographical Society on his return. He resigned from the London Missionary Society and went back to Africa as head of the government-sponsored Zambezi Expedition, 1858–1864, to explore the commercial possibilities of the Zambezi River valley. It failed—Livingstone had great ideas but little skill in leading others. After two years in England, he returned to Africa alone in order to seek find the source of the Nile. From 1866 until his death in 1873, he wandered, chiefly in the Congo and along Lake Tanganyika.

Victoria Falls, , in Livingstone, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, opposite title page.

Victoria Falls, in Livingstone, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, opposite title page. Click to enlarge.

Only the barest of notes came out, requesting supplies and medicines. Livingstone was often in a desperate state, ill, hungry, and without help. Stanley’s visit reinvigorated him, though he would not accompany the journalist back to the coast. Within 18 months, Livingstone was dead, at the age of 60. His African servants removed his internal organs, salted the body, dried it in the sun, and took it to the coast for transport to England. In a grand funeral, the body was buried in Westminster Abbey in April 1874.

When Stanley came out of the forest to greet Livingstone, it was not just the brash American finding the kindly medical missionary. It was rather the shrewd journalist coming to face to face with the embodiment of an idea: that exploration would lead to commerce, commerce to civilization, both to the triumph of Christianity, and all to end slavery. Strength of will was all that was needed for success, and medicine was bound up deeply in it. In Livingstone’s case, will was not enough, and his efforts gave out. The link of commerce, Christianity, and civilization continued into the next century, but would eventually falter as well. Medical missions continue, some religious and some not, but Livingstone’s grand vision is now greatly tempered.


1. Henry Morton Stanley, How I Found Livingstone: Travels, Adventures, and Discoveries in Central Africa, including Four Months Residence with Dr. Livingstone (London: Sampson, Low, Marston, Low, and Searle, 1872), p. 412, quoted in Daniel Liebowitz, The Physician and the Slave Trade: John Kirk, the Livingstone Expeditions, and the Crusade Against Slavery in East Africa (New York: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1999), p. 156.

2. For the particulars on Livingstone’s life, and detail about his medical training, see “Livingstone Online: Exploring the Manuscripts of David Livingstone” (accessed March 18, 2015), and particularly “David Livingstone’s Life” and “David Livingstone’s Medical Education.”

3. David Livingstone, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa: Including a Sketch of Sixteen Years’ Residence in the Interior of Africa, and a Journey from the Cape of Good Hope to Loanda on the West Coast; Thence across the Continent, down the River Zambesi, to the Eastern Ocean (London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1857), with the dialogue on pages 23–25.

4. Livingstone, Missionary Travels, p. 92.

5. Livingstone, Missionary Travels, p. 28.

6. The phrase comes from evangelist Thomas Foxell Buxton, whom Livingstone heard present in London in the summer of 1840, in his last year of preparation. “David Livingstone, 1813–1873,” as part of Princeton University Library’s online exhibition, “To the Mountains of the Moon: Mapping African Exploration, 1541–1880” (2007) (accessed March 18, 2015).

7. Liebowitz, The Physician and the Slave Trade, pp. 164–66.

Roget Beyond the Thesaurus

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

Peter Mark Roget, age 60. In Emblen, Peter Mark Roget: The word and the man, page 108.

Peter Mark Roget, age 60. In Emblen, Peter Mark Roget: The Word and the Man, page 108.

Today, Peter Mark Roget (1779–1869) is best remembered for his eponymous thesaurus. But Roget’s first accomplishments were in the fields of medicine and science. The lauded children’s book The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, which won both a Robert F. Sibert Medal and a Caldecott Honor at February’s ALA Youth Media Awards, inspired me to take a closer look at the man and his achievements. (I highly recommend the book to young readers—and older ones—interested in science and history.)

Roget had many interests. He was a practicing physician, secretary of the Royal Society of London for 20 years, and an original contributor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He invented a slide rule, improved the kaleidoscope and other optical toys and tools, studied the use and effects of nitrous oxide, and wrote books on subjects as diverse as phrenology, electricity, and physiology.1,2

Title page of Animal and Vegetable Physiology, 1834.

Title page of Animal and Vegetable Physiology, 1834.

We hold several of his works in our library, including three of the five editions of Animal and Vegetable Physiology Considered with Reference to Natural Theology.

Roget and his peers believed this two-volume work, first published in 1834, would be his seminal achievement and the foundation of his legacy.1,3 The work was the fifth of eight treatises commissioned in the will of Francis Henry Egerton, the eighth Earl of Bridgewater, who endowed the creation of 1,000 copies of work “on the power, wisdom, and goodness of God, as manifested in the creation; illustrating such work by all reasonable arguments.”1

In less than three years, Roget compiled this 600 page work, “a monument to [his] capacity for work—prolonged, resourceful, highly organized labor.” He “[ransacked] his own library, and the libraries and museum collections of most of the scientific institutions in town, and [drew] on his own writings as well as the current work appearing in British and European journals.”3

“All the bones composing the skeleton in other vertebrate animals exist also in the tortoise.” Animal and Vegetable Physiology, 1834, p. 465.

“All the bones composing the skeleton in other vertebrate animals exist also in the tortoise.” Animal and Vegetable Physiology, 1834, p. 465.

In the first volume, Roget offers a classification scheme taken from the work of French naturalist Georges Cuvier. In the second, he delves into comparative physiology, including an argument—common at the time—that nature’s design proved the existence of God. The volumes contain lovely imagery, though of the 436 illustrations, only about 12 drawings by entomologist George Newport are original to the work.1

“Several detached segments, on an enlarged scale” of the beetle Calosoma sycophanta. Animal and Vegetable Physiology, 1834, p. 321

“Several detached segments, on an enlarged scale” of the beetle Calosoma sycophanta. Animal and Vegetable Physiology, 1834, p. 321

The aim of the work was to bring order to the field of comparative anatomy rather than to present new scientific thinking.3 Roget, a meticulous organizer, wrote in the preface:

“[I] have admitted only such facts as afford manifest evidences of design. These facts I have studied to arrange in that methodized order, and to unite in those comprehensive generalization, which not only conduce to their more ready acquisition and retention in memory, but tend also to enlarge our views of their mutual connexions, and of their subordination to the general plan of creation. My endeavors have been directed to give to the subject that unity of design, and that scientific form, which are generally wanting in books professedly treating Natural Theology…”4

A skeleton of a swan. “In order that the body may be exactly balanced while the bird is flying, its centre of gravity must be brought precisely under the line connecting the articulation of the wings and the trunk…” Animal and Vegetable Physiology, 1834, p. 559.

A skeleton of a swan. “In order that the body may be exactly balanced while the bird is flying, its centre of gravity must be brought precisely under the line connecting the articulation of the wings and the trunk…” Animal and Vegetable Physiology, 1834, p. 559.

Only five years after Roget published Animal and Vegetable Physiology, Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle made its debut, followed in 1859 by his Origin of the Species. Roget’s work became little more than a footnote in scientific history.

But his real legacy-creating work was still to come: In 1852, Roget published the first edition of his thesaurus, the culmination of a lifetime interest in list building. By his death in 1869 at the age of 90, the thesaurus had gone through 28 printings. It has never been out of print.2


1. Kruger L, Finger S. Peter Mark Roget: Physician, scientist, systematist; his thesaurus and his impact on 19th-century neuroscience. Prog Brain Res. 2013;205:173–95. doi:10.1016/B978-0-444-63273-9.00010-1.

2. Bryant J, Sweet, M. The right word: Roget and his thesaurus. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers; 2014.

3. Emblen DL. Peter Mark Roget: The word and the man. London: Longman; 1970.

4. Roget PM. Animal and vegetable physiology considered with reference to natural theology. London: W. Pickering; 1834.

Got Food?

Evelyn J. Kim, today’s guest blogger, is an author and writer working on issues of food and food justice through the lens of science. Trained as a historian of science, her work has been in the The New York TimesScientific American, and The Atlantic. She is our guest curator for this year’s programming, Eating Through Time.

Les Aphorismes de Brillat-Savarin. From the Margaret Barclay Wilson Collection.

Les Aphorismes de Brillat-Savarin. From the Margaret Barclay Wilson Collection.

“Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es” (Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are)

– Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), Physiologie du Goût ou: Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante

“Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food” – Attributed to Hippocrates

What do you do every day, beyond sleeping, breathing and thinking? You eat! This year, The New York Academy of Medicine is proud to announce its programming theme for 2015: Eating Through Time.

CHM-ETT-Logo1_VertTop Chef. The Salt. Lucky Peach. Grub Street. Modernist Cuisine. And thousands upon thousands of food blogs. Unless you’ve been living underneath a rock, food seems to be all around us. On television, on the web, in art, in books, in science…Food seems to be having its own “moment” as form of cultural currency. But lest anyone think that this is a new phenomenon, food has always been with us, from pre-history to the present, a basis of our bodily, social, economic, and historical selves.

To that end, we are sponsoring a whole year of activities around food, including guest lectures at the Academy and panel discussions at this year’s Food Book Fair, culminating in a full-day festival at the Academy on October 17, 2015. Based on the Academy’s collection of more than 10,000 volumes on food and health, the festival will include speakers, demonstrations, and performances centered on the topic of food. Featured speakers include our keynote speaker, famed chef Jacques Pépin, food historian Dr. Ken Albala, and Nordic Food Lab’s Joshua Evans, as well as the Culinary Institute of America and Harvard School of Public Health’s Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives program.

This year’s programming will encompass not only contemporary debates surrounding food, medicine, and culture, but also the historical linkages that undergird much of those discussions. We will ask chefs, historians, writers, and public health experts their perspectives on not only food’s past influence but also what’s in store in the future for us as eaters and as a society.

Marx Rumpolt, Ein new Kochbuch, 1581.

Marx Rumpolt, Ein new Kochbuch, 1581.

To kick off this year’s programming, our inaugural lecture on March 17 will feature historian of science Dr. Steven Shapin from Harvard University. Dr. Shapin has written on several topics, from Dr. Robert Boyle to the role of business in scientific research, and his current interests lie in the history of dietetics. His lecture, entitled “Beef-Eaters: A Cultural History of Food and Identity” exemplifies the complicated nexus between our dietary habits and our social identitiesand is a perfect start to this year’s theme.

We’re excited about this year’s programming and we hope to see you at any or all our events. Visit www.nyam.org/events for event details and registration, and follow this blog for more delicious tidbits on our year in food.

Adenoids and American School Hygiene in the Early 20th Century

Kate Mazza, today’s guest blogger, received her doctorate in US history from the Graduate Center, CUNY. Her dissertation, “The Biological Engineers: Health Creation and Promotion in the United States, 1880-1920” examines the ideas and progress of the interrelated health reforms of physical education and school hygiene. She has published an article, “Distracted At School: Aprosexia, ADHD and Adenoids in American Culture” in the Journal of American Culture.

NYTimesHeadlines_AdenoidsAs the school year came to a close in June 1906, a panic swept through New York’s Lower East Side. According to newspaper reports, hundreds of parents, mostly Eastern European immigrants, ran to about a dozen local schools believing that their children were going to be harmed or murdered by doctors. Some people broke windows, some hit school workers, many yelled and cried and all demanded to see their children. At each school, children were eventually dismissed early, and, to the great relief of the frightened parents, were unharmed. A similar course of events took place in Brownsville, Brooklyn the next day.1 These events came to be known as the “adenoid riots” because they occurred a week after students had undergone surgeries, apparently without incident, to remove enlarged adenoids at Public School 110 in the Lower East Side.

What caused the riots? Most accounts of the time blamed the immigrant population, stating that they were subject to panics, suspicious and ignorant of modern medical practice, and incensed and saddened by recent news of the Bialystok pogroms. Reporters also commented that local doctors intentionally spread rumors that children were being harmed because they saw free school and city services as a threat to their business.

Modern scholars, sympathetic to the immigrant’s perspective, have analyzed the events as a reaction against coercive means of assimilation.2 Yet while “Americanization” certainly played a role in this health initiative, school medical inspection affected children of all classes and ethnic groups in the United States and abroad. The confusion, fear, and misunderstanding of the adenoid riots was caused, in part, by erroneous beliefs about the implications of enlarged adenoids (masses in the back of the nasal cavity that can help fight infection), the methods used in NYC, and the zealousness of the hygienists to find and root out adenoids.

In Gulick and Ayres, Medical inspection of schools, 1917 (2nd ed.), page 4.

“Mouth breathing means adenoids; adenoids mean deadened intellects.” In Gulick and Ayres, Medical inspection of schools, 1917 (2nd ed.), p. 4.

In 1887, Amsterdam physician A.A. Guye connected enlarged adenoids to aprosexia, or the inability to pay attention, along with poor memory and headaches.3 This idea laid the foundation for associating adenoids with academic failure, disobedience, and truancy. Over the years, physicians also linked enlarged adenoids to deafness, poor voices, trouble sleeping, colds, weight loss, restlessness, chest and mouth deformity, mouth breathing, ear disease, and even tuberculosis.4

By the early 1900s, many involved in the growing school hygiene movement in the United States were convinced that enlarged adenoids were a common impediment to learning. In 1905 New York City became one of the first cities to inspect students for enlarged adenoids along with ear, nose, and throat problems. This more thorough physical examination was added to examinations for contagious diseases that had taken place since the 1890s in a number of cities.

"Mouth breathers before adenoid party." In Allen, Civics and Health, 1909, p. 55.

“Mouth breathers before ‘adenoid party.'” In Allen, Civics and health, 1909, p. 55.

Chief Medical Inspector of the New York City Department of Health, Dr. John C. Cronin, spearheaded the expanded medical inspection. He claimed that at PS 110, 137 children out of 150 in a specialized class of so-called “backward,” “incorrigible,” and “truant” children had enlarged adenoids.5 As the end of the school year approached, 56 children had had them removed, with 81 remaining. Cronin arranged to have the students convalesce in the countryside with the Society of Improving the Condition of the Poor at the end of the school year. Yet Cronin also wrote later that “it was then thought justifiable to get information as to what scholastic results would be obtained if these children were operated on collectively.”6 Seemingly frustrated, he brought in three doctors from Mount Sinai hospital to perform the operations at the school, after obtaining permission slips from parents. Cronin stated that doctors performed operations on 81 children in 84 minutes.7 While it was typical to do these surgeries quickly and without anesthesia or after care, these operations were done at an exceedingly rapid pace. From various accounts, children left the schools bleeding profusely. The riots occurred a week later.

"Mouth breathers immediately after 'adenoid party.'" In Allen, Civics and Health, 1909, p. 46.

“Mouth breathers immediately after ‘adenoid party.'” In Allen, Civics and health, 1909, p. 46.

Despite the rioting, Cronin publicized the efforts at PS 110 as an outright success. He held that all but four of the students had significant mental and physical improvement. He wrote: “From dullards, many of them have become the brightest among their fellows, after the operation.”8 A New Jersey doctor commented that removal of adenoids “has been followed by such wonderful improvement of the body and mind as to make recital sound like romance. The story of public school No. 110 in New York City, is almost beyond belief except to those who are familiar to it.”9 Medical and educational journals were filled with accounts of transformation through adenoid surgeries, many referencing PS 110.

As they preached their belief in transformation through surgery, these doctors and hygienists continually bolstered the idea that presence of enlarged adenoids caused poor scholarship and deviance. This association is clear when looking at hygiene statistics. When medical inspections took place in Northeastern urban centers, adenoids were found in roughly 30% of students. However, when the students were in a reformatory or a specialized class, like the students at PS 110, numbers climbed to 90%.

"Throat inspection in the Orange, N. J. schools." In Gulick and Ayres, Medical inspection of schools, 1917 (2nd ed.), p. 148.

“Throat inspection in the Orange, N. J. schools.” In Gulick and Ayres, Medical inspection of schools, 1917 (2nd ed.), p. 148.

Even while the “adenoid craze” was in full swing, many parents did not abide by the prescriptions of medical inspectors to have their children undergo various treatments and adenoidectomy. When “defects” were found in school medical examinations, the rate of compliance was usually less than a third, as inspectors in various cities including Cleveland, Chicago, and Bridgeport, Connecticut remarked in the 1900s and 1910s.10

During the 1910s, the faith that experts had in the radical transformation of students through adenoidectomy began to wane. Walter Cornell, a leading advocate of the surgeries, found that his study group did not succeed academically after the surgeries as was expected, and wrote in 1912 that this case “certainly explodes the theory that the removal of adenoids is the panacea for all juvenile delinquencies.”11 Others began to see similar results.

"Typical adenoid faces showing mouth breathing, flattened noses, and protruding eyes." In Gulick and Ayres, Medical inspection of schools, 1917 (2nd ed.), p. 170.

“Typical adenoid faces showing mouth breathing, flattened noses, and protruding eyes.” In Gulick and Ayres, Medical inspection of schools, 1917 (2nd ed.), p. 170.

Medical inspection, particularly in New York City, came under fire, as many complained that examinations were too superficial and inaccurate and that enlarged adenoids were overdiagnosed. In one investigation, for example, the same group of children was examined by two different inspectors. The first inspector found that 70 students needed adenoidectomy, the second found that 96 did, with only 49 students in common.12

For school and city authorities, adenoid surgeries were an appealing, cheap, convenient way to reform education by changing the child, rather than overhauling the educational system. It is not surprising that they were overdiagnosed or misdiagnosed. While the adenoid riots took place at the beginning of the “adenoid craze,” they illustrate a general suspicion of these new hygiene practices and of the school’s new role in public health.


1. “East Side Parents Storm the Schools,” New York Times, 28 June 1906, pg. 4; “Throat-Cutting Rumors Revive School Rioting,” New York Times, 29 June 1906, pg.9.

2. For an interesting view of the adenoid riots, see Alan Kraut, Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes and the Immigrant Menace (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).

3. A.A. Guye, “On Aprosexia, Being the Inability to Fix the Attention and other Allied Alterations of the Cerebral Functions caused by Nasal Disorders,” Journal of Laryngology and Rhinology 3 no.11 (December, 1889):499-506.

4. For example, see Macleod Yearsley, Adenoids (London: The Medical Times, 1901); 39-74; W.E. Casselberry, “Facial and Thoraic Deformities Incident to Obstruction by Adenoid Hypertrophy in the Naso-Pharynx,” Journal of the American Medical Association 15 no. 12(September 20, 1890): 417-420; W.L. Grant, “Some Common Conditions of the Nose and Naso-Pharynx Demanding Operative Interference,” Philadelphia Medical Journal 2 no.16(October 15, 1898):798-799; Allen T. Haight, “Naso-Pharyngeal Adenoids as a Causative Factor in Ear Diseases,” Journal of the American Medical Association 33 no. 26 (December 23, 1899): 1577-1578.

5. John J. Cronin, “The Physical Defects of School Children,” The Journal of the New York Institute of Stomatology 2 no. 4(December, 1907):280.

6. Ibid., 280.

7. “Medical Attention in Public Schools,” American Gymnasia and Athletic Record 3 no. 6(February, 1907):125.

8. John J. Cronin, “The Doctor in the Public School” The American Monthly Review of Reviews 35 no. 4 (April, 1907): 438.

9. F.C. Jackson, “The Medical Supervision of Schools” The New Jersey Review of Charities and Corrections 7 no. 3 (March, 1908): 84.

10. Luther Gulick and Leonard Ayres, Medical Inspection of Schools (New York: Russell Sage, 1909, ed.), 102; Florence A. Sherman, “Medical Inspection in Bridgeport (Conn.) Public Schools,” Fourth International Congress on School Hygiene 4(August, 1913):394; Mrs. Edward W. Hooke, “To Save All Babies,” The American Club Woman 10 no. 6(December, 1915):117.

11. Walter Cornell, Health and Medical Inspection of School Children (Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company, 1912), 278.

12. A Bureau of Child Hygiene: Co-operative Studies and Experiments by the Department of Health of the City of New York and the Bureau of Municipal Research (Bureau of Municipal Research, 261 Broadway: September, 1908): 13.

Proposed 1920s Orphanage Study Just One Example in History of Scientific Racism

By Michael Yudell, interim chair and associate professor at the School of Public Health at Drexel University. Originally published in The Conversation.

In the late 1920s, scientists hatched an outrageous plan to settle a question at the heart of American racial thought: were differences between racial groups driven by environment or by heredity? In other words, was the racist social order of the time – white over black — an inevitable and genetically driven outcome? Or did the environment in which all Americans lived create the deep disparities and discord between races that defined the social, economic and political reality of the United States?

A committee on “Racial Problems,” jointly sponsored by the venerable National Research Council and the Social Science Research Council, discussed an experiment: create racial orphanages, separate institutions where children of different races would be received as close to birth as possible. The idea was to compare white and black children under similar conditions. Scientists could closely monitor the institutionalized children as they developed to figure out whether differences were due to innate characteristics or environmental influence. Nursery schools and foster homes were proposed as places of comparative study too, but most of committee’s discussions focused on the idea of racial orphanages.

Morton and contemporaries believed differences in skull size among races explained variance in intelligence. Here scientists fill skulls with water to measure capacity. Morton filled them with lead shot.
Washington Matthews

Science has made claims about race in America since the late 18th century, when Thomas Jefferson hypothesized that the differences between races are “fixed in nature.” In the 19th century, anthropologists such as Samuel Morton argued for a racial hierarchy of intelligence and believed human races evolved from separate origins. Eugenicists tried to quantify the hereditary nature of race difference in the early 20th century, using their science to develop social policy, including forced sterilization and anti-immigration laws. Racism has indeed left its stain on scientific thought.

The committee on “Racial Problems” was no different. Its 1930 report alleged the racial orphanage experiment could “throw light” on how heredity and environment influenced health, vigor, intelligence and sociability. To do this, scientists would try to improve the condition of the black children in the study by altering environmental factors, including shielding the children from racism, offering improved nutrition, and providing better educational opportunities than they might otherwise have had.

The idea for the experiment came from Dr Joseph Peterson, a psychologist at George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville (now part of Vanderbilt University). Peterson wrote extensively on racial differences in intelligence. He proposed that the experimenters have “complete control” over children enrolled in the study from birth through schooling years.

The study would have experimented on children similar to those who lived at the segregated Colored Orphan Asylum in New York.
Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services

At a 1930 meeting to discuss the proposal’s feasibility, concerns were raised on a number of issues. Could the differences in care between the black and white children be controlled for? Could the children be shielded from the racist world around them? And how would children be recruited into such a study?

Recruitment proved to be a sticking point. In a chilling exchange, psychologist Knight Dunlap from Johns Hopkins and Clark Wissler, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, discussed “the difficulty of obtaining children.” Dunlap worried about the “difficulty in getting a perfect sampling of children away from their parents.” Wissler’s response: “Suppose you took infants completely at random. If we are interested in the question of how much the actual life creates bias, shouldn’t you have random selection?” The committee went on to debate whether it would be more “desirable in this study to take orphans, in order to be free from the home environment” or whether “taking negro children away from negro families” would be better for the proposed experiment.

What Dunlap and Wissler meant when they talked about “taking” children from black families isn’t clear. Whether they wanted to forcibly remove black children from their homes or had in mind some form of consent or some incentive, is unknown. It’s ironic that the closest the committee came to any level of concern for the children was wondering what would happen to black children raised in an environment shielded from racism once they became adults, left the orphanage, and experienced the full force of American racism.

By today’s standards, such an experiment seems preposterous and disgraceful. Preposterous because of the implicit and explicit racism that shaped and limited such a study. Disgraceful both because of the inferiority committee members ascribed to an entire race – even while debating an experiment to see if that alleged inferiority was or was not innate – and because there was no consideration of the ethical implications of placing children in an orphanage under experimental conditions.

The only good news in this history is that the study never went forward. By 1931, the idea for racial orphanages died.

Blood being drawn from one of the Tuskegee study subjects.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Yet, at that same time, preparations were beginning for another awful and unethical racial experiment. Beginning in 1932, the notorious “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” was in the earliest stages of its forty year study. Like the proposed racial orphanages experiment, it was a federally sponsored project and assumed that traits believed to be unique to African-Americans and whites were worthy of both study and expense.

These studies of race — proposed and actual — assumed difference and inferiority. Such presumptions fueled unethical behavior, from the denial of effective medical care for the men in the Tuskegee Study to the proposal to take children from their families to place in an orphanage. It is somewhat heartening that neither study would win approval today thanks to ethical safeguards put in place in part because of the fallout from the Tuskegee Study.

Though the deeply rooted racism of the proposed racial orphanages experiment is today largely absent from science, science still struggles with the meaning of race. Today mainstream scientists utilize race in studies of human evolutionary history, to study the distribution of health-related traits within and between groups, and to use an individual’s ancestry to help determine the best medical treatments.

But this too is not without controversy. Many scientists argue that race is an imprecise marker of human genetic diversity and a poor proxy for predicting disease risk or drug response. As experiments like the racial orphanage and Tuskegee studies remind us, the scientific and social meanings of race are inseparable. The use of race in scientific study is problematic at best and dangerous at worst.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Become a Friend of the Rare Book Room

We are excited to announce the re-launch of our Friends of the Rare Book Room program, with new Friends levels and benefits bringing you access to more events and opportunities for engagement with our world-renowned collections. Our rare book room is home to some of our rarest and most significant holdings, forming the heart of our collections. You can make an appointment to visit the rare book room by e-mailing history@nyam.org or calling 212-822-7313.

NYAM_RBR_106By becoming a Friend of the Rare Book Room you’ll support our mission of preserving and promoting the heritage of medicine and health though our public programs and outreach activities; the acquisition, conservation, and cataloging of remarkable historical materials; and digitization of our key treasures. And you’ll join an engaged group of supporters, passionate about preserving our collections.

We’ll be announcing exciting new additions to our programming throughout the year, including special Friends events. In the meantime, please save the date for the March 31 and April 14:

On March 31 we will welcome Dr. Vivian Nutton, Professor Emeritus of the History of Medicine at University College, London, who will speak on “Vesalius Correcting Vesalius.”

Our annual Friends lecture on April 14 will feature Nick Wilding, our 2013–2014 Klemperer Fellow in the History of Medicine. His lecture, “On the Circulation of the Book: The Early Reception of Harvey’s De motu cordis,” will draw on research done in the rare book room.

Friends’ contributions make a huge difference to us, allowing us to better care for our collections and make them as widely accessible as possible to everyone who wishes to use them. Please consider supporting our efforts!