The New York Academy of Medicine at 175

By Paul Theerman, Director

The 1830s and ’40s were years of ferment in the United States. Politically, a sea change began in 1828 with the election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency and a break with the political elites of the Eastern seaboard. Socially, the years were ones of great transformation, as new immigrants promised to alter the country’s makeup. The decades saw huge technological innovations as well, with the spread of railroads making new regional and national connections, and the newly invented telegraph shrinking information gaps. Science took on a new cultural value across the western world, manifested in the United States with the founding of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846 as a scientific research institute, followed two years later by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The Constitution and By-Laws of the
New York Academy of Medicine,
adopted January 6, 1847

The founding of the New York Academy of Medicine was part of this ferment. A group of prominent physicians in the city met informally on December 12, 1846, to see if there were interest in creating a new organization dedicated to promoting “orthodox” medicine. On January 6, 1847, the group met again to adopt a Constitution and By-Laws, to which 132 physicians affixed their signatures. At the group’s next meeting, a week later, the donation of Martyn Paine’s Medical and physiological commentaries (1840) began the Academy Library. That venture was one of the avowed purposes of the Academy: It was organized to separate “regular” from “irregular” medical practitioners such as homeopaths and other unorthodox physicians, and to provide for intellectual growth and sociability.

The new “Rare Book and History Room” in the 1930s

The Academy stood apart from the different medical societies that had arisen in New York City. Briefly, the New York County Medical Society and other county and state societies chiefly, though not exclusively, were concerned with credentialing and the business of medicine. These concerns were not absent from the Academy, or from others like the Philadelphia College of Physicians (1787), and the Richmond Academy of Medicine (1820). But the academies were more about mutual regard, professional development, and, in the tradition of the grand academies of Europe and our own National Academy of Sciences (1863), advising government on technical matters. This NYAM did throughout its history: helping to establish the city’s Metropolitan Board of Health in 1866, assisting in the creation of a chief medical examiner’s office in 1915, advising on city sanitation in the 1920s and ’30s and on maternal mortality in 1933, and providing expert opinion about marijuana as a “gateway drug” in 1944.

A teacher is observed demonstrating proper toothbrushing techniques to a group of kindergarten children

By the end of the 20th century, the Academy had moved beyond advising government to jump-starting its own programs for healthy aging, schoolchildren’s health, and healthy cities overall, and promoting urban health studies around HIV/AIDS and 9/11. By the early 21st century, working toward health equity became the goal, with a multitude of paths forward. Most recently the Academy has added its efforts to combatting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mary Ann Payne, MD, NYAM’s First Woman President, 1987-1988

Throughout 2022 the Academy is celebrating its 175th anniversary. Today we launch a new online timeline of Academy milestones, exploring these and other high points of our history. A new series of programs, “Then and Now,” will look at signature areas of Academy work in current and historical context. We are planning a Celebration of the Library open house for the fall. Throughout the year we will be mounting blog posts on highlights and figures in Academy and Library history. We invite you to read, visit, and participate . . . so stay tuned here and on the website for more to come.