In Praise of Ephemera: Disability History and the New York Academy of Medicine Library

By Dr. Eileen V. Wallis, Professor of History, California State Polytechnic University—Pomona, and the Library’s 2020 Paul Klemperer Fellow

Dr. Wallis completed her Fellowship residency in summer 2022 and will present her research by Zoom on August 2 at 4:00 pm (EDT). To attend her talk, “California and the Search for Medical Legitimacy, 1850–1880,” register through the Academy’s Events page.

As true of many researchers, the hunt for historical primary and secondary sources for my book project, “California and the Politics of Disability, 1850-1970,” has led me down many paths. This book project uses Los Angeles County as a case study to understand how the interplay between state and county governments shaped the lived experiences of Californians deemed “mentally disordered” from 1850 to 1970. “Mentally disordered” was not a socio-medical category, but rather a bureaucratic one. It is, however, still a useful construct for understanding the ways in which California’s politicians, doctors, and progressive reformers lumped together populations experiencing what today we would consider two distinct categories of disability—mental illnesses and developmental disorders—for their own convenience.[1] These were also the two populations arguably most vulnerable to institutionalization in this era, as well as the ones least likely to leave primary sources behind them. The time span of this study was chosen because it encompasses the rise of institutions for the disabled in California; the shift in them from care custodialism; the era of overcrowding, abuse, and crisis; and the ultimate dismantling of most state institutions for the disabled, a process that began in the late 1950s and culminated with the passage of the Lanterman Disability Service Act in 1969 and the beginning of the era of deinstitutionalization.

Disabled Americans are frequently absent from or hidden within the historical record. The study of sickness and disability, Gracen Brilmyer writes, is often marked by “layers of absences, subtleties, inaccuracies, and perspectives that are embodied in records, archives, and the lack thereof.”[2] However, because the New York Academy of Medicine Library began collecting so early, and because the Academy’s interests were so wide-ranging, it has amassed a strong collection of materials of use to anyone interested in the history of disability in the United States. Interestingly, many of the items it holds related to and in some cases created by Californians cannot be found in collections in the Golden State, but only in New York City at the Academy Library.

“Evolution of Treatment Methods of a Hospital for the Mentally Retarded” California Mental Health Research Monograph no. 3, 1965. New York Academy of Medicine Library

In 1965, two researchers working for California’s Department of Mental Hygiene, Esther Pond and Stuart Brody, produced a report called “Evolution of Treatment Methods of a Hospital for the Mentally Retarded.” Focused on what was then-called the Sonoma State Hospital in Sonoma County, California, the state’s oldest institution for the developmentally disabled, this report was officially California Mental Health Research Monograph no. 3.[3] It was prepared specifically for use by the Department, printed on cheap paper, given only a pink paper cover, and was likely expected to be, eventually, discarded. The Department certainly could not have anticipated that it would still exist, more than fifty years later, tucked away in a filing cabinet in the New York Academy of Medicine Library.

Sonoma Home for the Feeble Minded,
California State Archives
Biennial Report of the State Department of Mental Hygiene, p. 3, New York Academy of Medicine Library

Indeed, a remarkable number of materials generated by California’s Department of Mental Hygiene, which operated all of California’s state asylums and institutions for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled through the late 1960s, found their way into the Library’s collections. Another example is the 1950–1952 Biennial Report of the California State Department of Mental Hygiene. Like “Evolution of Treatment Methods,” this report has only a paper cover and is held together with staples. It is, however, lushly illustrated with photos, charts, and graphs, including a page featuring both then-Governor of California Earl Warren (soon to be Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court) and Department head Frank Tallman commenting favorably about the work then being done. Because it covers the years 1950 to 1952, the Biennial Report captures California’s asylums and institutions as the state both embarks on a massive post-war building spree but is also beginning to look for quicker ways to “treat and release” individuals. The report excitedly discusses the use of invasive treatments and psychosurgeries such as electroshock (now known as electroconvulsive therapy or ECT), insulin shock, and lobotomies as heralding a promising new era of medical treatment. The modern reader, of course, knows this is not what would ultimately happen. To read such a report today is jarring, but it is, nonetheless, a valuable snapshot of a key transitional moment for both California and indeed for the care of mentally ill and disabled Americans nationwide.

Cover, “Lanterman Mental Retardation Services Act” brochure, c. 1971. New York Academy of Medicine Library

Many of these items are only discoverable by using the Library’s printed catalog, as they were acquired before the advent of online catalogs and have not yet been included in the Library’s projects to convert its printed catalogs to digital form. Some are what is known as ephemera, items that were created for a “specific, limited purpose” and for “one-time or short-term use.”[4] In the last two decades historians have found them to be an incredibly rich source of information, often capturing information about people (women, African Americans, the working classes, etc.) who are “rarely visible in archival collections or mainstream publications.”[5] These absences become more profound the farther back in time one travels. Thus, scholars often make use of institutional and medical reports like Pond and Brody’s and the Biennial Report to try to excavate from within them as much as possible about the lived experiences of Californians in state institutions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

For the researcher interested in American disability history, the Library’s printed catalog volumes lead to a treasure trove of primary sources, and well-worth exploring alongside the online catalog. When combined with its other holdings, the New York Academy of Medicine Library’s collections show tremendous promise for furthering our understanding of the history of disability in the United States.[6]


[1] English authorities used the term in similar ways, although usually without including mental illness. For a discussion of that context, see Mark Jackson, The Borderland of Imbecility: Medicine, Society, and the Fabrication of the Feeble Mind in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000).

[2] Gracen Brilmyer, “Towards Sickness: Developing a Critical Disability Archival Methodology,” in Journal of Feminist Scholarship Volume 17 Issue 17 (Fall 2020): 27.

[3] Sonoma State Hospital began in the 1870s as California’s first state Home for Feeble-Minded Children, a name which unfortunately tells us a great deal about how these individuals were perceived by society at the time. It later became the Sonoma State Home, the Sonoma State Hospital, and finally the Sonoma Developmental Center.

[4] The nature of such items unquestionably poses challenges for librarians and archivists, both in their physical care and in how to catalog them. Rebecca Alternatt and Adrien Hilton, “Hidden Collections within Hidden Collections: Providing Access to Printed Ephemera,” in The American Archivist Volume 75, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 2012): 173.

[5] There is debate in the field as to what is and what is not ephemera. Rebecca Altermatt and Adrien Hilton, for example, argue that any kind of government document is not ephemera. However, as this report was not a publication of the state of California itself but of one department within that government, and created for short-term internal use, the question is open for debate. Altermatt and Hilton, 173.

[6] As disability history and Disability Studies have evolved as research fields, scholars have pushed to move us beyond the medical model of disability, which sees disability as mainly a pathology, as something to be cured, to the social model, which urges an examination of disability as both a social construction and as a lived experience. As scholars Susan Burch and Ian Sutherland explain, “disability is often less about physical or mental impairments than it is about how society responds to impairments.” Susan Burch and Ian Sutherland, “Who’s Not Here Yet? American Disability History,” in Radical History Review Issue 94 (Winter 2006): 128–29.

Library Loans

By Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian

The Library sometimes loans materials from its collections to other museums and libraries for display in their exhibitions. A letter that convicted murderer William Burke (1792–1829) wrote on the eve of his execution is currently on display in the exhibit “Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life,” which opened July 1 at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. Known as the “Resurrection Men,” Burke and his accomplice, William Hare, murdered some sixteen people and sold their bodies to Dr. Robert Knox (1791–1862) for dissection in his Edinburgh anatomy classes. The exhibition examines the circumstances that gave rise to the Burke and Hare murders in 1828 and considers the social and medical history of the dissection of human bodies from Leonardo da Vinci to the present.

William Burke’s letter to an unknown recipient
(attributed to “The Keeper of the Lockup House”), January 27, 1829.
The Resurrectionists” collection, New York Academy of Medicine.

Loans require a lot of advance preparation. Arrangements often take a year or more. Our conservator starts by evaluating the item to see if it needs conservation or special handling before we approve anything for loan. She also documents its condition, noting any existing issues or repairs, and in the case of the Burke letter, at the request of the National Museums Scotland, she was asked to hinge the letter to a piece of mount board in advance.

We also ask the borrowing institution to provide a facilities report, a form developed by the American Association of Museums to document the environmental conditions in the exhibition space: temperature, relative humidity, light levels, and security. We consider how long an exhibition will be up; for our contributions to the ongoing exhibit “Activist New York” at the Museum of the City of New York, for example, we rotate the items that are on display. Fine art handlers usually pack the items and bring them to the borrowing institution.

The National Museums Scotland first contacted us about a potential loan of the Burke letter in November 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed things down considerably, delaying the opening of their exhibit by a full year. This loan was particularly complex, because the item is unique and because international loans require extra documentation. Burke’s letter, in his own hand and over his signature, was written on the eve of his execution. In the letter, he admitted to committing sixteen murders with Hare but disavowed various additional murders and thefts that people attributed to him. We had to determine an appropriate insurance value, document the letter’s provenance to demonstrate that the Library is its rightful owner, and arrange for the letter to be safely transported to Edinburgh. Everything is specified in the loan documents, which both institutions sign. On June 7, under the watchful eye of our conservator, art handlers packed the letter in a specially constructed crate and took it to the airport for a flight to London, where it arrived on June 9. There it joined other items intended for the exhibit, and all of them travelled to Edinburgh together, arriving on June 21. The letter was placed in its exhibit case in time for an invitation-only viewing on June 30; the exhibit opened to the public on July 1 and will be up through October 30. Then the steps will run in reverse: a conservator at the National Museums will document the condition of the letter before it is packed in its specially constructed crate again, and once it gets back to our building our conservator will inspect it to verify that no damage has occurred. At that point the letter will return to the collections.

The Burke letter installed in its case at the National Museum of Scotland.
Image provided by Susannah Darby.

We are very committed to loaning items from the Library to other institutions because we are aware that our materials add so much to any viewer’s experience. One item we don’t readily lend, however, is the Edwin Smith Papyrus. This 3,600-year-old hieratic text is the oldest known surgical treatise. In 2005, it was the centerpiece of “The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt,” an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just down Fifth Avenue. But that was the last time the actual papyrus was loaned. We regularly receive requests to borrow individual leaves of the papyrus, but it is too fragile and the risks are too great for it to travel, especially overseas. So this year, when the papyrus is being featured in three European exhibitions, one in Bonn, a second in Barcelona and Madrid, and a third in Milan, beautifully made facsimile leaves, created from our own high-resolution images, make it possible for the papyrus to be shared with many audiences.

The facsimile of Leaf 2 of the Edwin Smith Papyrus on display in the exhibit
“The Brain: An Exhibition Between Art and Science”
at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, Germany.
Image provided by Martin Hoffmann.

The Library contains many treasures but not everyone can come see them in person. We are happy to loan our unique, surprising, significant, and beautiful books and manuscripts to other museums and libraries, and to be part of their exhibitions—in physical form if we can, and in digital form if we must.