Library Luminaries: Dr. Samuel Smith Purple

This post inaugurates a four-part series, Library Luminaries, showcasing notable figures in the history of the Academy Library, as we celebrate our 175th anniversary.

By Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian

The New York Academy of Medicine started collecting books for a library at its second meeting, on January 13, 1847, when Isaac Wood donated two volumes of Martyn Paine’s Medical and physiological commentaries. The Library now contains over 550,000 volumes; hundreds of thousands of pamphlets; archives; manuscripts; images; all kinds of ephemera; and even a small group of artifacts. The collections span many centuries, from the oldest item in the building, our early ninth-century manuscript of Apicius, De re culinaria, Libri I-IX, to recently published monographs in the history of medicine. The foundation of any great library, however, is the work of dedicated people, both benefactors and librarians. During this year, when we are celebrating the 175th anniversary of NYAM and of the Library, we will tell the stories of some of the people who made the Library into one of the most significant collections of materials in the history of medicine and public health in this country, if not the world.

S. S. Purple, M.D., 1822–1900”
from Portraits of Fellows of the New York Academy of Medicine (1896?)

One of the earliest and most vocal advocates for a Library was Dr. Samuel Smith Purple (1822–1900). Born in Lebanon, New York, Purple was the oldest son of Lyman Smith Purple and Minerva (Sheffield) Purple. His father made a modest living as a tanner and shoemaker, and by the time he turned 13 Purple was often working with him in the shop, limiting his formal education. The family relocated to Earlville, New York, in 1836, and when his father passed away three years later, Purple took over managing the business, supporting his mother and younger brothers. Around the same time, without telling his family, he quietly began studying medicine with the help of the local physician, Dr. David Ransom, who then helped him get a scholarship to attend Geneva Medical College for a year in 1842. The following year a relative, Dr. W. D. Purple, secured financial support for him to attend the lectures at the University of the City of New York, from which he graduated in 1844.

After a few months back home, Purple decided to see if he could succeed in New York City. He worked at the Marion Street Maternity Hospital and the New York Dispensary, and slowly grew a private practice until it provided him with enough stability to buy a house and have his mother join him. Memberships in the New York Pathological Society, the Society for the Relief of the Widows and Orphans of Medical Men, and the New York Academy of Medicine, of which he was a founding Fellow, provided a community of physicians. Through a connection with Dr. Charles A. Lee, one of his professors at Geneva, he became the editor of the New York Journal of Medicine, founded in 1843 by Dr. Samuel Forry, a position he held for a decade before returning more fully to his private practice in 1858.

Purple’s interest in collecting books and pamphlets about medicine was sparked by his relationship with John B. Beck, who taught at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. The two met during Purple’s decade of editorial work at the Journal. Beck “urg[ed] the young editor to avail himself of the opportunity which his position afforded him of securing and preserving every early publication obtainable. At the same time, Beck gave Purple a large number of pamphlets, which really formed the nucleus of the enormous collection he subsequently made.”[1] Not only did Purple put together a stellar collection of books and pamphlets about American medicine, he expanded his interests to serials, and also to the early history of New York.

“Samuel S. Purple, M.D., President of the New York Academy of Medicine, 1875–1879,” from Portraits of Fellows of the New York Academy of Medicine (1896?)

Purple became the president of the Academy in 1875, and in his inaugural address, “Objects and Purposes,” delivered on January 21, he proposed taking on two large tasks. The first was to move the organization into a building of its own, specifically, the brownstone at 12 West 31st Street that the Academy had recently purchased. The Academy moved in a few months later, and the new building created an opportunity for Purple’s main objective: “a great reference Medical Library.” Purple acknowledged that earlier efforts to develop the library had been stymied by lack of space. In the new building, two second-floor rooms were set up for the library, and Purple enhanced the small existing collection by donating 2,000 books of his own.

Two years later, Purple was re-elected president and he devoted almost his entire presidential address to the subject of medical libraries, reviewing the history of every collection he had been able to document in the city of New York and then turning his attention to the Academy. He called for the establishment of a Library Fund; encouraged voluntary donations and the opening of the library to all regular practitioners in the city, not just Fellows; and reminded the audience that “No book or pamphlet is worthless; every word from the mental laboratory of the practical physician contains a fact, or, it may be a statement of facts, which, however darkly concealed or obscured by peculiarities of language or description, will ultimately be unearthed, and serve the genius of practical medicine or medical history.”[2]

To prove his point, he then recounted the story of his rescue of Dr. Samuel Bard’s An enquiry into the nature, cause and cure, of the angina suffocativa, which describes an outbreak of diphtheria in New York in 1770. Purple discovered the pamphlet in “the press-box of a second-hand paper-dealer in this city in transitu to the maw of a paper-mill. Its former owner had sold it for the eighth part of a cent, or at the rate of two cents per pound.”[3] That copy is still here in the Library today, with Purple’s bookplate and an inscription about its provenance. In 1998, at the Christie’s auction of the Haskell F. Norman Library of Science and Medicine, a copy of the same pamphlet sold for close to $3,000, a far cry from an eighth of a cent.

By the end of his second term, Purple had raised the money to expand the Library stacks, and a collection that numbered some 400 items in 1875 boasted over 9,000 by 1880. Thousands of Purple’s volumes continue to reside in the Library today. By 1900, when Purple died, the Academy had moved on to its next home, a new building on West 43rd Street. To honor Purple’s role in creating the Library, the Academy installed a bronze plaque honoring him at the entrance to the reading room. In 1926, the plaque traveled to our current building, where it sits above the door to the Library on the third floor: That plaque reads


BORN JUNE 24, 1822 — DIED SEPTEMBER 29, 1900








We are still grateful to Samuel Smith Purple. His determination, foresight, and devotion to collecting the history of American medicine all contributed to the richness of the collections we continue to use today.


[1] Smith, Stephen. “Memorial Address on the Late Samuel Smith Purple, MD.” Medical Library and Historical Journal. 1903 1(2), p. 110.

[2] Purple, Samuel S. Medical Libraries: an Address Delivered before the New York Academy of Medicine, January 18, 1877, on Taking the Chair as President a Second Term. New York: Printed for the Academy, 1877, p. 18.

[3] Ibid., p. 19.


Flint, Austin, and Samuel S. Purple. Addresses: Dr. Austin Flint’s Valedictory : Dr. Samuel S. Purple’s Inaugural. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1875.

Purple, Samuel S. Medical Libraries: an Address Delivered before the New York Academy of Medicine, January 18, 1877, on Taking the Chair as President a Second Term. New York: Printed for the Academy, 1877.

Smith, Stephen. “Memorial Address on the Late Samuel Smith Purple, MD.” Medical Library and Historical Journal. 1903 1(2): 102–116.

Van Ingen, Philip. The New York Academy of Medicine: Its First Hundred Years. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949.

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About nyamhistory

The Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, part of the Academy Library, promotes the scholarly and public understanding of the history of medicine and public health. Established in 2012, the Center aims to build bridges among an interdisciplinary community of scholars, educators, clinicians, curators, and the general public. The Center bases its work on the Library's historical collections, among the largest in this field in the United States and open to the public since 1878.

3 thoughts on “Library Luminaries: Dr. Samuel Smith Purple

  1. Pingback: Library Luminaries: Dr. Archibald Malloch | Books, Health and History

  2. Pingback: Library Luminaries: Frank Place | Books, Health and History

  3. Pingback: Library Luminaries: Gertrude Annan | Books, Health and History

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