Brain Awareness Week

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director

Ambroise Paré, The brain and nerves of the head and neck, p134, Les Oeuvres

Ambroise ParéThe brain and nerves of the head and neck, p134, Les Oeuvres

This week is Brain Awareness Week, a global campaign to celebrate the brain and increase awareness of brain research. Treating the brain has a long history; trepanning, or trepanation, is one of the oldest known surgical procedures.

The brain featured in today’s post comes from Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré, currently being treated in our conservation laboratory. The work was the culmination of the 16th century French barber-surgeon’s long and successful career, which saw him become royal surgeon for a number of French kings.

Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré was first published in 1575, and was subsequently expanded in multiple new editions. It was groundbreaking on a number of levels, written in the vernacular French, rather than Latin, it included not only anatomical depictions and descriptions of procedures, but illustrations of the instruments used in surgery, many of which Paré had modified or developed himself.

Rare Book Room renovation

RBR shelf

We are renovating! Due to a project to improve the environmental conditions in the Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room at The New York Academy of Medicine, the Reading Room will be closed to readers from February 1, 2013. We anticipate that the room will reopen for use on June 1 2013.

While some materials will continue to be accessible for use, portions of the rare book collection will not be available throughout the renovation period, and readers will be relocated to another space in the building. We will do our best to accommodate readers and reference requests, but please note that response times will be slower and appointment times may be limited.

If you have plans to use the collections this spring, please contact Acting Curator and Reference Librarian for Historical Collections Arlene Shaner at or 212-822-7313 as soon as you have information about your plans, to verify whether the materials you would like to see will be available for use.

We are looking forward to welcoming readers back to a much-improved space in the early summer and thank you in advance for your patience during our renovations. We will post updates here on the blog throughout the project.

“Die Free”: Black Soldiers in the Civil War

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director

Surgeon's Certificate for  Dick Parker Wills 1903

Surgeon’s Certificate for Dick Parker Wills 1903

More than 200,000 African men served in the Union Army’s United States Colored Troops during the Civil War. Among them were James Wills, Mack Wills, Dick (Wills) Parker, Andy Wills and Richard Wills, who fled the Tennessee plantation of Edmund Wills to join the 4th Heavy Field Artillery of Columbus, Kentucky.

In Die Free: A Heroic Family Tale acclaimed journalist Cheryl Wills explores the story of her great-great-great grandfather, Sandy Wills, and his companions. In unearthing her family history, she uncovers the discrepancies, disparities, and decisions “great and small, careless and deliberate” that impacted the treatment and care of black soldiers.

Black soldiers died from disease at a disproportionate rate to their white compatriots, and, as documented in Die Free, their higher burden of mortality continued after the end of the war. Evidence from medical records and surgeon’s certificates indicates that many black soldiers also struggled to have their conditions taken seriously and to be granted pensions.

We are delighted to be welcoming Cheryl Wills to the New York Academy of Medicine on December 10. She will appear in discussion with the renowned Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, to explore the experiences of her family, and reflect on the ongoing legacy of the discrimination they suffered.

Discover more about Die Free here. In addition to their service as soldiers, African Americans also acted as nurses, surgeons and hospital workers during the Civil War. Some of these contributions are explored in Binding Wounds, Pushing Boundaries, an exhibition at the National Library of Medicine.

Skulls and Surgery

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director

Row of plaster cast skulls

Plaster casts of skulls held in the NYAM Rare Book Reading Room, some showing signs of trepanation.

The practice of trepanning, or trepanation, which involved making a hole in the skull, is one of the oldest known surgical procedures. Skulls with holes have been found from the Neolithic period, and the technique continued to be practiced by cultures across the world. The surgeries relieved swelling of the brain and skulls showing bone regrowth indicate that the treatment was survived by many.  The reasoning behind such surgeries changed over place and time, and included questions of spiritual possession, convulsions, fractures and infections.

On Thursday, December 6, the fascinating history of such surgical procedures and the development of surgery, neuroanatomy and the other neurosciences will be explored by Dr. Eugene S. Flamm at the Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library at the Columbia University Medical Center in a richly illustrated talk “Neurosurgery Before Neurosurgery.”

Image shows trepanning operation

John Browne, A Compleat Discourse of Wounds (London, 1678)

Dr. Flamm is the Jeffrey P. Bergstein Professor and Chairman of the Dept. of Neurosurgery at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He is an active researcher and clinician with in interest in cerebrovascular neurosurgery and spinal cord injury. Dr. Flamm is also an ardent book collector, the President of the Grolier Club, a NYAM Fellow and supporter and author of, among other works, From Skulls to Brains: 2500 Years of Neurosurgical Progress, which features many books from the NYAM collection.

More details about the event can be found here. Enquiries about From Skulls to Brains can be directed to NYAM at

Mirroring Medicine: Of Mice and Men

Medal issued to commemorate Louis Pasteur’s 70th birthday, 1892.

Medal issued to commemorate Louis Pasteur’s 70th birthday, 1892.

Medals, amulets, badges and prizes play many roles, whether acknowledging significant figures in their fields, commemorating events, or giving insights into beliefs about health. Over 275 medical-themed items from the collection of Dr. Ira Rezak, currently on display at the Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library at the Columbia University Medical Center, provide a rich and varied exploration of these roles. The objects in the exhibit range from a 70th birthday medal for Louis Pasteur (1892) to a 16th century German amulet used to ward off the bubonic plague, a Canadian medal from 1994 celebrating the role of white mice in medical science, and the New York Academy of Medicine medal by Harriet Whitney Frishmuth, among many other medals representing medicine in New York.

Round medal with female figure, for New York Academy of Medicine.

Medal of the New York Academy of Medicine, 1928, by Harriet Whitney Frishmuth.

The exhibition, Mirroring Medicine, is drawn from Dr. Rezak’s medal collection, formed over 50 years, and one of the most important in private hands. Dr. Rezak is a NYAM Fellow and Professor Emeritus of Medicine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The exhibition is on view until January 11, 2013 and is open from 7am to 9pm on Lower Level 2 of the Columbia University Medical Center’s Hammer Health Sciences Center. Individuals without Columbia University or New York-Presbyterian Hospital identification should make arrangements to visit the show by emailing

Food Tips from the Fairies

By Rebecca Pou, Project Archivist

Pairs of vegetables (potatoes, beets, carrots, etc.) marching down a path with a fairyToday we are celebrating Food Day, “a nationwide celebration and movement toward more healthy, affordable, and sustainable food.” Concerns about good food, and encouraging children to enjoy it, are nothing new. In 1921, Dr. Beatrice Slayton Herben’s Jack O’Health and Peg O’Joy: A Fairy Tale for Children included jingles written by students of Public School 15 in New York City such as:

“Sing a song of coffee, rich foods and cakes,
these will make sick children with bad stomach-aches
Sing a song of clean milk, butter, fruit and bread,
these will make strong children with their cheeks all red”

In the story, a succession of health-conscious fairies teach Jack and Peg to follow good health habits throughout the day. They learn to brush their teeth, comb their hair, drink plenty of water, get a good night’s rest, and, of course, eat nutritious food.

When Peg despairs at the thought of a life without cake, the eat-clean-food fairies reassure her that she may have cake after eating fruits and vegetables, but “be careful not to eat too much.” In fact, the fairies tell her, even the fairy queen eats a special cake, made from mist and decorated with stars, which is made just once a year.

Fairies bringing cake to fairy queen

The foods promoted in the book include fresh fruits, carrots, potatoes, spinach, and lima bean soup —all nutrient-dense foods that support health, in line with Food Day’s recommendations.

Many of the lessons in Jack O’Health and Peg O’Joy, are featured in today’s Food Day celebrations. Beyond promoting a healthy diet, Food Day also calls attention to the broader context of food production, such as the environmental impact of farming and food and farm workers’ rights. Learn more about Food Day’s priorities here.

To celebrate Food Day, NYAM, Mt. Sinai, and El Museo del Barrio have organized a Healthy Food Walking tour, highlighting a number of establishments in our neighborhood. These include: Lane Farmer’s Market, Pure Food, Champignon Cafe, Mt. Sinai Greenmarket, El Aquila, El Paso Restaurant, and East Harlem Cafe. The next time you are at NYAM or in the neighborhood, visit these businesses for a healthy bite. The eat-clean-food fairies would be proud.

What Is Health Literacy?

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

In a 1940 pamphlet from our collection, “Give the Doctor a Break: The Low-Down on Group Practice and ‘Sickroom Charm’,” Floyd Burrows, M.D., advocates for the continued importance of the general practitioner, writing:

“There is an art in establishing prompt obedience to directions; in obtaining the wholehearted cooperation of a patient; in imparting and in getting adopted useful health information and instruction; in winning the confidence of frightened children; in understanding comprehensively the discouraging problems of the aged, while sympathetically ministering to them; in entering strange homes and quickly achieving a commanding confidence among those present in one’s ability to cope successfully with any emergency which has arisen.”

Dr. Burrows likely never heard the term “health literacy” during his lifetime. But in this excerpt, he lays down aspects of health literacy—clear explanations to patients to improve their compliance, imparting medical knowledge—as a significant part of a physician’s job.

October is Health Literacy Month. In 2000, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) defined health literacy as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions,” issues of note in 1940 that remain prominent today.

In 2010, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion of the HSS released the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy. Citing a George Washington University publication, it estimates the costs of health illiteracy at $106 to $236 billion dollars annually, representing an increase in hospital visits, a decrease in preventive care, and poor chronic disease management.

As the National Action Plan states, “The greatest opportunities for reducing health disparities are in empowering individuals and changing the health system to meet their needs.”

The New York Academy of Medicine Library plays a role in boosting health literacy, in part through the Junior Fellows program. Together, NYAM’s Library and Office of School Health Programs teach New York City middle and high school students to conduct secondary health research and develop independent projects on health topics. They learn how to find and evaluate health information and build a vocabulary necessary for understanding complex public health issues. The 2012-2013 class of Junior Fellows will start their research in early November. You can read about successes of last year’s Fellows here.

A 2011-2012 Junior Fellow shares her research.

For a more in-depth explanation of health literacy, visit this National Network of Libraries of Medicine webpage.

Mad Cows and Caricatures

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director

Image of monster being fed infants and excreting them with horns.

Charles Williams caricature c.1802.

This early anti-vaccination caricature shows a monster being fed baskets of infants and excreting them with horns. In the background, four prominent anti-vaccine campaigners, Benjamin Moseley, Robert Squirrell, William Woodville and William Rowley, approach with “swords of truth”. This unusual colored version of the print was originally bound as a frontispiece to the 3rd edition of William Rowley’s 1805 Cow-pox inoculation no security against small-pox infection: with above 500 proofs of failure. One of Rowley’s “above 500 proofs of failure” was the case of a boy whose face, Rowley claimed, was assuming the character of a cow.

Vaccination Williams detail

Horned baby

Next week we look forward to welcoming Mark Largent to explore more recent controversies about childhood vaccination as part of our history of medicine series. Register for this free October 17 event here.

NYC History of Medicine Events in October — Hildebrandt, Tresch, Largent, and Warner

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director

This month sees an exciting line up of history of medicine (and science) events in NYC. In fact, almost a festival. Hope to see you at some or all…

On October 10, NYAM’s Malloch lecture series begins with an exploration of the practice of anatomy under the Third Reich, with Dr Sabine Hildebrandt discussing the impact and legacy of the 1933-1945 period. More details here.

At the NYPL’s Cullman Center, John Tresch discusses his new book “The Romantic Machine” on October 11. Tresch explores the connections between Romanticism and industrialization in Paris after Napoleon, drawing on examples from art, literature, opera, scientific discoveries, and technological advancements. Find details here.

On October 17, Mark Largent is appearing at NYAM to discuss his new book “Vaccine: The Modern American Debate”. In it he explores the history of the vaccine-autism debate and argues that it obscures a constellation of concerns held by many parents.  More details here.

And on Oct 18 the A.C. Long Health Sciences Library at Columbia will host Prof. John Harley Warner, who will speak on “The Image of Modern Medicine: Professional Identity, Aesthetic Belonging and the American Doctor, 1880-1950.” Prof. Warner focuses on the visual choices that American physicians made in representing their profession, their work, and themselves during 1880’s through the 1940’s. Details here.

Click for larger size (possibly disturbing) images from Prof. Warner’s work with James Edmonson, Dissection.

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, 1895. European-American dissecting teams (left) and African-American teams (right) were racially segregated after the medical student body at the University of Pennsylvania was integrated. DHMC

More upcoming events can be found on our Calendar. Please feel free to get in touch at please email if you have an event you would like to see featured.

The Sex Side of Life

By Rebecca Pou, Project Archivist

September 30-October 6, 2012 is Banned Books Week, an annual event that celebrates the freedom to read and calls attention to books than have been banned or challenged. While Banned Books Week was first celebrated in 1982, printed matter was being censored long before that, as shown in a collection here at NYAM. In the Mary Ware Dennett Case Collection, one finds a controversy surrounding a small pamphlet and the resulting rally against its suppression.

This small collection centers on Mary Ware Dennett (1872-1947) and the case against her. She wrote a pamphlet titled The Sex Side of Life, which explained human reproduction to children.
Title from front cover of the "Sex Side of Life" pamphlet

First published as an article in the Medical Review of Reviews in 1918, it was later distributed as a pamphlet. The pamphlet was endorsed by doctors, churches and social organizations, but its forthright description of human sexuality was not wholly well-received. The pamphlet was deemed obscene by the Post Office in 1922 and in 1928, Dennett was tried by a federal grand jury and found guilty of distributing obscene materials through the mail. A Mary Ware Dennett Defense Committee was organized under the American Civil Liberties Union and the conviction was overturned in 1930.

Our collection was created by the well-regarded medical illustrator Dr. Robert Latou Dickinson, fellow of The New York Academy of Medicine, friend to Mary Ware Dennett and member of the defense committee. Dr. Dickinson was also responsible for the diagrams shown in the pamphlet. Materials include copies of The Sex Side of Life, correspondence, clippings, printed matter, typed and manuscript notes and the Appellant’s Brief from the U.S. vs. Mary Ware Dennett case. To learn more or visit the collection, please contact the staff of the Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room by emailing