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.
Our annual Color Our Collections week kicks off today! From February 1st through 5th libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural institutions showcase their collections through free, downloadable coloring books. A hundred books or so are gathered at ColorOurCollections.org. Follow #ColorOurCollections2021 on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other social media platforms to participate.
The NYAM Library’s coloring book presents images from the Renaissance to the 20th century. Here are a few coloring sheets to help while away your hours; for more, check out our whole coloring book.
The modern Anglo-American tradition of manuscript cookbooks might be said to begin with the world’s first printed cookbook, De honesta voluptate et valetudine, or “On right pleasure and good health.” Written by the celebrated humanist writer Bartolomeo Sacchi, known as Platina, and first published around 1474, the book was translated into Italian, French, and German within a few decades of publication, and it remained widely read throughout Europe into the early eighteenth century. The book featured both a new cuisine and, just as importantly, a new attitude toward food and cooking. Platina presented an interest in food and its preparation as a kind of connoisseurship akin to the connoisseurship of painting, music, or literature. Europe came to call Platina’s attitude toward food and cooking “epicurean,” and those who espoused it “epicures.” At the dawn of the sixteenth century, these new individuals were emblematic of the Renaissance European world.
When Italian epicureanism was first unleashed in Europe, England was in the throes of its own cultural and intellectual Renaissance. Among the English elite classes, the quest for new knowledge found expression in the collecting and creating of recipes, known then and well into the nineteenth century by the now-archaic word “receipts.” Originally the word receipt meant a prescription for a medicine or remedy. During the Renaissance, as the knowledge-hungry English began to write and collect prescription-like formulas for all sorts of things, the term receipt broadened accordingly: directions for farming and building; formulas for chemistry and alchemy; recipes for practical household products like cleaning solutions and paints, and, amid the growing epicurean spirt of the time, food recipes. The sixteenth-century English made a distinction between receipts pertaining to the home and commonly undertaken by women, and receipts for things involving work outside the home, assumed to be the concern of men. Thus, most who collected food and drink recipes also collected receipts for medicines, remedies, cosmetics, and household necessities such as candles, cleaners, pesticides, fabric dyes, and ink. Today, these books of mixed home recipes are often referred to as “cookbooks” when a substantial portion of their recipes concern food and drink.
Cookbooks in History—Manuscript and Print
There is a persistent belief that in the early modern world recipes originated in the home and then were subsequently picked up in print cookbooks. In fact, this was true in England only during the Renaissance, that is, up to about 1625. Only about a dozen cookbooks were published in England, from the first, in 1500, to that date. This may have been due to a lack of demand, but it was also surely due to the thorny practical problem that, cookbooks being a new idea, a community of writers possessing the specialized skills needed to produce them had yet to develop. Printers solved this problem in the only way they could: by cobbling together their printed cookbooks from manuscript cookbooks compiled by ladies of the peerage and then slapping titles and, in some instances, putative authors on them, all of whom, of course, were men. In most instances, the women who actually wrote these cookbooks were unacknowledged—some of their manuscripts may well have been pilfered from their estates—although two Renaissance cookbook authors, John Partridge and Gervase Markham, did explicitly credit noble ladies as the true originators of their printed books. While manuscript cookbooks preceded print cookbooks during the English Renaissance, this situation was soon to change.
During the seventeenth century, the number of published cookbooks grew rapidly in England, as did the number of manuscript cookbooks, to judge from those now extant. As the use of printed cookbooks spread, most recipes in manuscript cookbooks cycled through print at some point. In fact, quite a few manuscript cookbooks compiled after the mid-seventeenth century contain recipes copied verbatim from print. As English cookbook publishing matured, female cookbook authors appeared, starting with the remarkable Hannah Woolley, active in the 1650s through the early 1670s. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, female cookbook authors, who generally branded themselves “experienced housekeepers” rather than professional cooks, dominated English and American cookbook publishing. The relationship between manuscript and print, however, remained the same: recipes cycled from print into manuscript and back into print again, until cooking fashions changed and the old recipes were replaced by new ones.
The NYAM Collection
The eleven NYAM receipt books in Recipes and Remedies show the same organization patterns common to most manuscript books in the English-language tradition. For example, in most of the NYAM books, the culinary recipes are separated from the medical and household recipes in some fashion. In some of the NYAM books, recipes are clustered by subject matter, that is, a clutch of food recipes will be followed by a clutch of medical recipes, and so on. In other NYAM manuscript cookbooks, the culinary recipes are written from the front of the notebook while the medical and household recipes are written from the back of the notebook going toward the center. In one item in the NYAM collection, the medical and household recipes are also written upside down in relation to the culinary recipes, making the separation more explicit.
The Hoffman cook book in the NYAM collection is rare in that it unveils a style of cooking outside the mainstream norm. Written in halting English by a German immigrant to America, this highly interesting cookbook is composed primarily of German-inflected recipes like those we today associate with the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch. It also contains recipes for standard American dishes, such as roast turkey, pumpkin pie, and pound cake, but approached in idiosyncratic ways by a woman struggling to interpret a cuisine that was foreign to her. While the author of this cookbook was a cultural and linguistic outsider and her cooking outside the contemporaneous American mainstream, she was also a woman of privilege, a member of a prosperous German-American family that had owned paper mills in Maryland since the eighteenth century. For these reasons she was the sort of person, whether in Germany or America, who would be expected to use recipes and perhaps also to collect them.
Manuscript cookbook authors tended primarily to collect recipes for fruit preserves, fruit and flower wines, sweet dishes, cakes, and, after 1700, breads and cakes served at breakfast or with tea. About half of the manuscript cookbooks in the NYAM collection reflect the typical manuscript preference for sweets. Most of the culinary and drink recipes in Gemel book of recipes and A collection of choise receipts are geared to banqueting, an extravagant repast of sweets that was sometimes served after important meals and sometimes staged as a stand-alone party during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Recipe book, 1700s titles its culinary section “Wines, Sweetmeats, & Cookery”; recipes in the first two categories far outnumber those in the last. Receipt book, 1848–circa 1885, by an American woman named Jane Beck, can be aptly described as a cake cookbook. This inclination can be explained, in part, by the fact that many ladies personally participated in preserve-making, distilling, and baking, while relegating the preparation of the principal dishes of dinner entirely to their cooks. In addition, the success of sweet dishes and cakes hinges on precise recipes, while savory dishes can be successfully executed intuitively, without recipes, at least by good cooks, or so people seem to have believed. Finally, up through the nineteenth century, the biggest per capita consumers of sugar in the world were the British, with the Americans not far behind.
Manuscript cookbooks contain insights that historical printed cookbooks lack. Manuscript recipes are likely to have been cooked from, if not by the person who collected the recipe and wrote it down in her book, at least by the person from whom the recipe was collected. Thus manuscript cookbooks contain concrete details that historical printed cookbooks generally lack: the precise motion of the hand in stirring; the most suitable cuts of meat; the time that a cooking process takes; the signs that something is going wrong; the size and number of molds needed for individual cakes; the clues that a dish is done; and so on. Manuscript recipes not only illuminate the making of specific dishes but also basic kitchen conditions and broad practices in historical cooking.
A special feature of manuscript cookbooks is that they reflect the tastes of individual households. Thus, while most printed cookbooks published between 1675 and 1800 outline the same three basic recipes for lemon cream, contemporaneous manuscript cookbooks present dozens of different recipes for this favorite dessert, some tart and others sweet, some rich and others lean, suiting the varied tastes of the epicures of centuries past.
Our new digital collection showcases 11 of the 40 manuscript cookbooks the Library holds. The digitization is based on our earlier work with these materials. In 2012, the Pine Tree Foundation provided funding for conservation and cataloging of 31 of these manuscripts. In 2019, the foundation awarded the Library funding to digitize a selection of the English-language manuscript cookbooks and make them available to the public through the Library’s Digital Collections & Exhibits website. The digitized manuscripts will also be linked through corresponding listings in the Manuscript Cookbook Survey, providing a full-text option for each of our manuscripts on the site.
Four of the 11 manuscripts were previously digitized as part of an Adam Matthew Digital project, Food and Drink in History. After the earlier conservation work, only a quick conservation review was required before we sent the rest of the manuscripts out for scanning. The 2012 funding had also provided us with robust catalog records, so the work of our current project focused on providing a digital experience that was as similar as possible to paging through these manuscripts in our reading room. This work started with creating high-quality digital scans to display each item as a book object.
The manuscripts are viewable through the Internet Archive Book Reader, which allows a reader to browse a digital book page by page. Additional photo editing work was required to ensure that each page aligned with the next. This digital collection contains 2,021 pages and additional eyes were needed to review each page of every manuscript, to check the alignment, the consistency of page sizes, and the integrity of the images. Quality control is integral and took place multiple times on this project: to confirm the images were scanned correctly, to verify the content on the site was correct, and to check the functionality of the site.
A couple of challenges emerged when attempting to preserve the integrity of each manuscript as a digital object. One of the concerns was blank pages: a few of these manuscripts have many blank pages. In the physical manuscript, a reader can turn several blank pages at a time. In the digital display, a reader may have a frustrating experience clicking blank page after blank page. Our approach to this concern was to include a scan of the first blank page in a section of blank pages and to note that not all the blank pages were scanned.
Another challenge was the display of inserts. A couple of the books included plant clippings and flowers pressed between the pages. To emulate the experience of viewing the inserts in the physical manuscript, we opted to overlay the front of the insert on the recto, and then have the same pages repeated in the next view, but with the reverse of the insert overlaid on the verso.
Of course, no interventions can exactly replicate the experience of viewing and handling a physical object in person. How can one duplicate the heft of taking the 500-page “A collection of choise receipts” out of its clamshell box, or handling the slender “Hoffman home remedies” volume? But one advantage these digital surrogates provide is being able to make waffles from a handwritten recipe from 1791 without splattering batter on a unique and priceless cookbook!
The NYAM Library is happy to announce the launch of “Recipes and Remedies: Manuscript Cookbooks” on our Digital Collections & Exhibits website. We’ve digitized 11 of our English-language manuscript cookbooks, offering a fascinating look at seventeenth- to nineteenth-century culinary (and non-culinary) history in England and America. The books include recipes for making a range of dishes such as roast turkey, lemon cream, and almond biscuits. Receipts (an older word for recipes) for non-food items are also found in these cookbooks: you can learn about remedies for coughs, bruises, and other ailments, or read about preparing cosmetics or perfumes at home. These manuscripts are part of a remarkable collection of food and drink materials that are a strength of the Library, starting with its ninth-century culinary manuscript, the Apicius.
We hope that you enjoy exploring these unique materials, finding recipes and making discoveries, and reading about their historical context in the accompanying essay written by culinary historian Stephen Schmidt.
The digitization of these manuscript cookbooks was accomplished with a grant from the Pine Tree Foundation. We are grateful for the foundation’s continued support in helping us to provide access to our rich collections.
In the past, we’ve highlighted recipes from these cookbooks in blog posts. We invite you to read these earlier posts, even as you delve deeper into the digitized Manuscript Cookbooks Collection.
While Emily Dunning Barringer (1876–1961) shares many things in common with other early women Fellows of the Academy, she can claim one unique distinction: having her life story made into a feature film. The Girl in White—based on Barringer’s 1950 memoir, Bowery to Bellevue: The Story of New York’s First Woman Ambulance Surgeon—debuted in 1952 and starred June Allyson. In the film as in her life, Barringer overcame both institutional barriers and deliberate affronts as she pursued a career as a woman professional in an overwhelmingly male world.
Barringer was born in 1876 to a wealthy family in Scarsdale, New York. Her parents, Edwin James Dunning and Frances Gore Lang, believed that all children, regardless of gender, should be educated and trained to support themselves. The family fell on hard financial times when Barringer was 10, and a well-meaning friend’s suggestion that perhaps the young girl should train as a milliner only served to strengthen Frances Dunning’s resolve for her daughter to receive a college education. With the support of her uncle, Henry Sage, one of the founders of Cornell University, Barringer did so, graduating from Cornell in 1897 before going on to medical school at the College of Medicine of the New York Infirmary, which merged with the new Cornell University School of Medicine during her time as a student.
Graduating from medical school in 1901, Barringer applied for a residency at New York City’s Gouverneur Hospital but was rejected despite receiving the second highest score on the qualifying exam. Undeterred, and with the help of Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi, she reapplied the following year and this time was accepted, becoming the first woman to earn a position as surgical resident. Acceptance into the program, however, did not mean acceptance by other residents or their supervising physicians, and in her autobiography, Barringer recounted that she had been harassed and given the most difficult and unpleasant assignments and schedules. One difficult role, however, she sought herself, that of ambulance physician, and when she was given the position, she achieved a second “first”: the first female ambulance surgeon. Overcoming the skepticism of her male colleagues who felt that a woman would not be able to withstand the physical challenges of the role, she went on to earn not only their respect, but also the respect of city firefighters, police officers, and the patients she treated in Manhattan’s Lower East Side tenements.
She fell in love with fellow doctor Ben Barringer during her residency, and they married in 1904 when her residency ended. She immediately experienced frustration because her opportunities for work and further training were so much more constrained than her new husband’s. The pair lived for a short time in Vienna where both attended class, and then returned to New York City. Barringer took a position on the gynecological staff at New York Polyclinic Hospital and worked as an attending surgeon at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, where she specialized in the study of venereal diseases.
During World War I Barringer served as vice chair of the American Women’s Hospitals War Service Committee of the National Medical Women’s Association (later the American Medical Women’s Association). In that role, she spearheaded a campaign to raise money for the purchase of ambulances to be sent to Europe. When the war ended, she became an attending surgeon at Brooklyn’s Kingston Avenue Hospital and subsequently its director of gynecology. She was a member of the American Medical Association and a fellow of the American College of Surgeons and The New York Academy of Medicine. In 1941 Barringer was elected president of the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA).
Over the course of her long medical career, Barringer advocated for legislation that would control the spread of venereal disease and authored numerous articles on gynecology. As Chair of the Special Committee of the American Medical Women’s Association, Barringer was decorated by the King of Serbia for championing the service of female physicians during World War I. As co-chair of the War Service Committee, she helped to organize the American Women’s Hospital in Europe, which provided medical and surgical care during the war and postwar reconstruction. During World War II, Barringer successfully lobbied Congress to allow women physicians (who had been allowed to work only as contract physicians and were consequently denied the benefits earned by their male counterparts) to serve as commissioned officers in the medical corps of the Army and Navy.
After World War II, Emily Barringer and her husband retired to Connecticut. She died there in 1961.
Dr. Stephen Smith (1823–1922), Academy Fellow for 68 years, had a career as a Bellevue Hospital surgeon and a professor of surgery and anatomy at Bellevue Hospital Medical College and New York University. He wrote a field manual for Civil War army surgeons, was Health Commissioner of New York from 1868 to 1875, and was a founder of the American Public Health Association and its first president. Through his work the condition of the city, the state, and the nation markedly improved by the application of public health regulations for the common good.
Stephen Smith was born on a farm in Skaneateles, New York, on February 19, 1823, the son of a cavalry officer in the Revolutionary War and his wife.  He first studied medicine at Geneva Medical College, where a fellow student was Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman medical school graduate in the United States. He left Geneva for Buffalo Medical College and then relocated to New York City, where he finally received his medical degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1850. Smith completed his residency at Bellevue Hospital and became an attending surgeon there in 1854; the following year he was elected a NYAM Fellow. He served on the faculty of Bellevue Hospital Medical College from its founding in 1861 until 1874, when he joined the faculty in the medical department of New York University.
In addition to his work as a practicing physician and surgeon, Smith shared the editorial responsibilities for the New York Journal of Medicine with NYAM luminary Dr. Samuel Smith Purple and assumed the editorship completely when Purple retired in 1857. The journal changed its name to the American Medical Times three years later, and Smith continued as its editor until 1864. 
Mid-nineteenth-century New York City was subject to recurring outbreaks of deadly diseases. As Smith later proclaimed, “The unsanitary condition of the city prior to 1866 cannot be described so that an audience of today can fully appreciate the reality. Nuisances dangerous to life and detrimental to health existed everywhere.”  Smith used his investigative skill and editorial position to campaign for wide-ranging reforms, including sanitary inspections, street cleaning, garbage collection, and the regulation of tenement housing and slaughterhouses.
“[Smith] had no law on his side to begin with and he made his fight by publicity. He traced twenty individual typhus cases to one house in East Twentieth Street, which he found full of immigrant families suffering from typhus. Through the tax records he reached the owner, a wealthy and prominent man who flatly refused to do anything about it. Dr. Smith looked up the law and found that there was no way to proceed against the owner. He then went to William Cullen Bryant, then the editor of The New York Evening Post. ‘At the suggestion of Mr. Bryant,’ said Dr. Smith, ‘I finally succeeded in bringing the owner of the fever nest into court on the change of maintaining a nuisance. Bryant’s reporter, who had been instructed, so frightened the owner that he promised to close and repair the house if only the matter were kept out of the papers. Bryant agreed and the owner kept his promise.’” 
Smith’s work led to the noted Citizens’ Association 1865 investigation and report on sanitary conditions in the city  and the passage of the 1866 Metropolitan Health Law. He was appointed one of New York City’s first health commissioners, serving until 1875.
Once the Metropolitan Board of Health had been established, Smith argued for the establishment of a State Board of Health. To bolster his case, he used evidence from the success of other state boards of health and of the city’s board. He made his case in a series of publications, notably The Care of Health and Life in the State of New York and A State Board of Health. A Communication to a Member of the Legislature …, both published in 1880. In the latter work he noted, “Already the agitation necessary and incident to the effort to secure the passage of this Bill has produced the most gratifying results in awakening thoughtful minds all over the State to the value of preventive medicine. Not only medical men, but laymen in every pursuit of business, have expressed their surprise at their previous apathy, and their determination now to press these questions upon the attention of the Legislature until adequate legislation is obtained.” The New York State Legislature created the State Board of Health that same year; in 1901 the board was reorganized as the State Department of Health.
In between, Smith’s ambitions reached the national scene. In 1872, he was one of the founders of the country’s premier professional public health organization, the American Public Health Association. He served as its first president up to 1875. 
In later life, Smith was widely honored for his work in American public health.  He took time to reflect on the changes that his efforts achieved. His best-known book, The City That Was (1911), tells the story of the deplorable public health conditions that existed in New York City at the beginning of the 19th century and the measures he recommended to remedy those conditions, including regular sanitary inspections. 
Smith believed man’s natural lifespan to be one hundred years, based on his contention that most animals live for five times the number of years required for the complete formation of their bones. He died on August 27,1922, some six months short of his 100th birthday. 
 During the Civil War, he wrote Hand-book of Surgical Operations, with many printings in New York in 1862 and 1863. Its preface announced:
“This Hand-Book of Surgical Operations has been prepared at the suggestion of several professional friends, who early entered the medical staff of the Volunteer Army.”
After the war, Smith produced another surgical work: Manual of the principles and practice of operative surgery, which went through numerous editions between 1879 and 1887.
 “Dr. Stephen Smith Dies in 100th Year.” The New York Times, August 27, 1922, p. 28.
 Citizens’ Association of New York, Council of Hygiene and Public Health, Report of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health of the Citizens’ Association of New York Upon the Sanitary Conditions of the City (New York, NY: Appleton, 1865).
 Stephen Smith, The Care of Health and Life in the State of New York (New York, 1880)and idem, A State Board of Health. A Communication to a Member of the Legislature on Sanitary Organization and Administration in the State of New York (New York, 1880).
On February 18, 1911, a dinner in honor of Smith’s 88th birthday took place at the Hotel Plaza. The Library holds both the program for the dinner and the speeches:
Dinner in honor of Doctor Stephen Smith and in celebration of his eighty-eighth birthday on Saturday evening, the eighteenth of February, one thousand, nine hundred and eleven at the Hotel Plaza (New York: Tiffany & Co., 1911).
Addresses in recognition of his public services, on the occasion of his eighty-eighth birthday, Feb. 19, 1911 (s.l., 1911).
Ten years later, the American Public Health Association published A Half Century of Public Health Jubilee Historical Volume of the American Public Health Association in Commemoration of the Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration of its Foundation, New York City, November 14–18, 1921 (New York, 1921). The work began with Smith’s historical overview of public health. The commemorative medal has Smith’s portrait on the front, with this legend on the reverse:
To Commemorate the Semicentennial Meeting of the American Public Health Association 1872 – New York – 1922 Noteworthy because of the Participation of its Founder Dr. Stephen Smith Born Feb. 19, 1823.
 Stephen Smith. The City That Was (New York: Frank Allaben, 1911).
When Elizabeth Cushier (1837–1931) was elected a Fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine in 1889, she was only the third woman to be invited into the Academy, joining two of her colleagues from the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi and Dr. Sarah McNutt.
Cushier was born in Jamaica, New York, on November 25, 1837, a daughter of John Henry and Martha Lumley Cushier. She was the sixth of eleven children, but three of her older siblings had died before she was born; five other younger siblings followed. In her autobiography, published as an appendix to Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead’s Medical Women of America, Cushier said this about her childhood: “We were brought up in the strictest economy, as my father’s income was a very limited one, but we were, as I remember, a happy, healthy lot, quite enterprising and consequently often trying.”[i] When she was sixteen, the family moved to Little Falls, New Jersey. Cushier quickly became friendly with the Hinton family, who had also relocated from New York, and forged a life-long friendship with Ione Hinton. The family’s wide-ranging intellectual interests, along with their support of abolitionism and women’s suffrage, resonated with her and encouraged her independent spirit.
After her mother died in 1859, Cushier took on much of the household responsibility, caring for her father and her four living younger siblings. His remarriage a year later freed her to go to New York, where she got a position singing with a church choir and gave private voice lessons. In the summer of 1868, she happened to read a medical article that sparked her interest, and she enrolled in the homeopathic New York Medical College for Women before transferring a year later to Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell’s Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, graduating in 1872.
Cushier stayed on at the Infirmary, beginning as an intern before becoming a resident physician. Her practice was devoted to obstetrics and gynecology, but an interest in normal and pathological histology led to eighteen months of study in Zurich with a Professor Ebert, who offered her laboratory opportunities that were not yet available to women in the United States. Laboratory research, pathological and post-mortem study, lectures, and bedside clinics all enriched her knowledge before she returned to New York.
On her return, Cushier went right back to the Infirmary, and worked to expand the practice of gynecological surgery there. Thomas Addis Emmet and T. Gaillard Thomas, who were on the staff at the Woman’s Hospital (and both of whom were NYAM Fellows), allowed her to attend clinics there, and the Infirmary, in its larger home on Stuyvesant Square, eventually added a modern operating room for both gynecological and abdominal surgeries. As her work at the Infirmary and her private practice continued to grow, she published articles and case studies, mainly about gynecological and obstetrical subjects.[ii]
In 1882, Cushier’s personal life changed significantly when she and Emily Blackwell (1826–1910) began to live together in Blackwell’s home on East 20th Street. Cushier and Blackwell also bought a summer home, Seawold, near York Cliffs, Maine, in 1893. After the Woman’s Medical College closed its doors in 1899, both women retired from practice and headed to Europe, where they spent eighteen months. On their return, they gave up their city home, moving to Montclair, New Jersey, where Cushier’s niece, Dr. Emily Mercelis, also lived. When Blackwell died in September 1910, just a few months after her older sister Elizabeth (1821–1910) died in England, Cushier called the moment “an irreparable break in my life.”[iii]
Cushier lived for another 20 years, going to Maine in the summers and living in Montclair for the rest of the year. No longer engaged in the practice of medicine, she felt her days were not useful, until the First World War brought the opportunity to do relief work for French and Belgian women and children and for servicemen through the Red Cross. She died on November 25, 1931, her 94th birthday, and is buried, alongside her parents, in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
[i] Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead, MD. Medical Women of America: A short history of the pioneer medical women of America and a few of their colleagues in England. Froben Press; 1933: 85.
[ii] A full list of Cushier’s publications can be found in Creese, Mary RS. Ladies in the Laboratory? American and British Women in Science, 1800–1900: a survey of their contributions to research. Scarecrow Press, 2000: 392.
by guest contributor Jacob Steere-Williams, PhD, Associate Professor of History, College of Charleston.
Join us for Steere-Williams’ talk on typhoid on September 23.
For decades, thinking about and learning from past pandemics has largely been an academic exercise, one for historians and archivists who specialize in public health. Now, in the midst of a generation-defining pandemic, COVID-19, there has been an explosion of public interest in epidemics and epidemiology. Before 2020, few Americans outside of infectious disease specialists routinely spoke the words “contact tracing” and “case fatality,” or knew the difference between isolation and quarantine.
The recent surge in popular understandings of epidemics has centered on some familiar examples, such as the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic, the mistakenly called “Spanish Flu.” As this was the most significant pandemic of the 20th century, the comparisons make sense, and the public health struggle between individual rights and community health is as apt now as it was then. Other historians, seeing the rise of xenophobia as a cultural response to COVID-19 in the West, have perceptively turned our attention to 19th-century pandemics of cholera and bubonic plague. Then, as now, a uniquely durable, yet startlingly western approach to framing pandemics has been to blame Asian people and Asian cultural practices.
At a time when the cultural mileage of past pandemics is perhaps at its height in modern history, we might fruitfully turn to the history of a relatively unexplored disease, typhoid fever, to think about our current moment.
Typhoid fever is a food- and water-borne infectious disease, the most virulent of the Salmonella family. The disease continues to wreak havoc on the Global South, killing about 200,000 people each year. In the western world typhoid was at its height in the 19th century, when it was a ubiquitous and insidious reality in North America and Western Europe. In Britain, for example, typhoid annually struck up to 150,000 people, taking the lives of 20,000 each year.
Typhoid’s patterns of distribution were erratic; it might spare a community for months or even years, then erupt as a local outbreak. Epidemiologists today discuss COVID-19 as a cluster disease, exploding in localized events not unlike the way that typhoid did in the past.
Interestingly, typhoid outbreaks continued after the introduction of early sanitary improvements such as toilets, pumped water, and sanitation systems. In the second half of the 19th century no infectious disease was as central to the rise of public health than typhoid. Typhoid was a model disease because the burgeoning group of public health scientists, the first to call themselves epidemiologists, saw that stopping typhoid’s different pathways—through food, water, and healthy human carriers—could transform the nation through preventive public health.
The story of typhoid in the 19th century is one deeply tied to the emergence of modern epidemiology, which George Buchanan, Chief Medical Officer of Britain’s central public health office, called “the minute observations of particular outbreaks.” Epidemiological practice does not operate in a vacuum, then or now with COVID-19; it is inherently a political exercise. Everyday people, business owners, and politicians have to be convinced about the science of disease communication, requiring complex rhetorical strategies that tell us a great deal about the inherent struggles of public health.
 George Buchanan, “On the Dry Earth System of Dealing with Excrement,” Annual Report of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council for 1870. Parliamentary Papers. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1871, 97.
The interconnected medical interests of New York Academy of Medicine Fellow Dr. Sarah McNutt show deep curiosity, energy, and a dedication to service: “She trained as a pediatrician, gynecologist, and pathologist and developed a special interest in the study of pediatric neurologic disorders.” During her professional life in New York City, she worked closely with prominent women doctors Emily and Elizabeth Blackwell and Mary Putnam Jacobi. With Jacobi and others she was key in founding the New York Post-Graduate Medical School and Hospital; with her twin sister Julia, also a doctor, she founded the Postgraduate Training School for Nurses and Babies’ Hospital.
Sarah Jane McNutt (July 22, 1839–September 10, 1930) was the second female Fellow of NYAM (admitted 1888). She was the first woman to be inducted into the American Neurological Association, and cofounded Babies’ Hospital in NYC. Portrait of Sarah J. McNutt, M.D., undated, From the National Library of Medicine.
McNutt was born in Warrensburg, New York, in 1839, to James and Adaline McNutt. She attended Albany Normal School and then continued her education at the Emma Willard Seminary in Troy, New York. She worked as a teacher before attending medical school at Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary (founded by the Blackwell sisters). After her graduation in 1877, she did a two-year internship at the Infirmary’s hospital.
In the mid-1880s McNutt saw the city’s clear need for more beds for pediatric patients; at the time New York had only a handful of beds for sick children under the age of 2. With her sister and three other women, McNutt founded Babies’ Hospital at its first location at Lexington Avenue and 45th Street. Babies’ Hospital also ran a “Summer Branch” in Oceanic, NJ, where the children went between June and October to recover away from the city heat and noise. Babies’ Hospital existed as its own entity until 1943, when it became fully part of Presbyterian Hospital; today, its successor institution, Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of NewYork-Presbyterian, is one of the country’s most highly rated pediatric hospitals.
Babies’ Hospital moved a few times. This Lexington Avenue building designed by York & Sawyer was its home from 1902 to 1929. (From the George P. Hall and Son Photograph Collection, New-York Historical Society, undated.)
McNutt also collaborated with Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi and others to establish the New York Post-Graduate Medical School and Hospital on East 23rd Street, “an institution dedicated to the continuing education of male and female physicians, especially through the sponsorship of weekly lectures on medical topics.” At this institution, “lectures by capable women were as acceptable as those by men”; here, McNutt gave regular weekly lectures on pediatric diseases, one of her own special areas of study.
But it was not only in the lecture hall that McNutt imparted her knowledge: her use of morgue research in pediatric neurology was a key contributor to a fuller understanding of hemiplegia and its causes, as well as other conditions. “The idea of utilizing the material at the morgue for instruction in the pathological conditions of children was original with her, and thus her classes at the New York Post-Graduate Medical School had practical experience on all the operations performed on children, while she found here an excellent opportunity to perfect herself in gynecological surgery and abdominal work.”
In 1884 Dr. R.W. Amidon, who knew McNutt from the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, nominated her for admission to the American Neurological Association. She had an excellent reputation as a gynecologist, pathologist, surgeon, and lecturer. The ANA required an original unpublished work for a candidate to be considered for admission and limited the number of active members to just 50. McNutt’s thesis paper for admission, “Double Infantile Spastic Hemiplegia,” was “an important contribution to medical literature in the United States” and she was admitted to the select group. Her 1884 achievement stands out even more in light of the fact that the ANA did not elect another woman member until 1935, with Dr. Lauretta Bender. In 1888, McNutt became NYAM’s second female Fellow.
Sarah McNutt helped establish leading local medical institutions, lectured on pediatric diseases, performed gynecologic surgery, contributed to prestigious professional organizations, and led the way in morgue research. Her desire to serve, her entrepreneurial initiative, and her hands-on approach to research, coupled with her close connections to other prominent female physicians, made her an integral part of the New York medical community.
 Stacy S. Horn, DO, and Christopher G. Goetz, MD. The election of Sarah McNutt as the first woman member of the American Neurological Association, Historical Neurology. 2002; 59: 113–117.
From July 2019 until March 2020, with few exceptions, I spent one day out of every week in the Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room of the NYAM Library. As a volunteer, I wrote for this blog, Books, Health, and History, on various topics that utilized sources from the Library’s collections; I wrote about monsters, famous female physicians, and even libraries themselves. In March, as the threat of COVID-19 became clearer, the reading room closed, and I (among many others) could no longer consult the physical collections at the NYAM Library. After discussing with Library staff, I decided that my next project would use the digital resources and collections I am lucky to have access to as a student. I compiled a bibliography of historical literature on the topic du jour—pandemics.
Awareness that one is living through a historical moment is relatively rare; this awareness has led many to look to the past for hints as to how the current COVID-19 pandemic might impact the world going forward. In compiling this bibliography, I hoped to curate a resource that historians and history enthusiasts alike could use for research on epidemic history, personal interest, or simply to try to place our present moment in a larger historical context. I searched through several databases, including JSTOR, Project MUSE, and the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine database, looking specifically for journal articles from the last two decades which used a historical perspective to discuss pandemic or epidemic diseases.
A plague visitation scene from a 1509 edition of Fasciculus Medicinae, one of the earliest illustrated medical books to be printed. Image from the NYAM Digital Collections.
I limited my search to only those articles which are available in full digitally. This choice was made in part out of necessity—during a pandemic, a person may not be able to visit a library to find and read the journal they are looking for. Since I was “volunteering from home,” I could only read through and write descriptions for articles to which I had full digital access. Of course, this is not a perfect solution. Many articles were omitted from this bibliography because they are not available online, and they would surely have been useful. The digital articles are still for the most part only available to readers with either individual or institutional subscriptions to the relevant databases or journals.
My own experience compiling this bibliography taught me quite a bit about the long and ever-changing relationship between humanity and disease throughout history. Some diseases and disease events, such as the influenza pandemic of 1918, can provide an example (or a warning) of how different public health responses can affect long-term outcomes. Others, such as the Black Death, HIV/AIDS, and countless others, show us how disease has changed art, politics, the environment, and even the minutiae of human behavior. We have already seen many of the ways COVID-19 has changed our daily lives. While it is important not to underplay the devastation wrought by epidemic disease, reading about the impacts of other, similar disease outbreaks makes it clear that this pandemic will bring with it (and perhaps already has) significant cultural, social, and economic change, and perhaps offers us some guidance in navigating the “new normal.”
Compiling the bibliography was certainly a survey for me in the history of disease, but also highlighted several obstacles brought on or exacerbated by the modern-day pandemic. The biggest of these, at least in relation to this bibliography, is access—for all the work I did to collect and curate these digital articles, and despite the fact that many databases, journals, and other resources have made some or all of their articles free to read, many of them are still accessible only to a select few. The debate over who has or should have access to academic works is one that predates the pandemic, and is perhaps beyond the scope of a blog post. The COVID-19 crisis, however, impacts everyone, and the articles in this bibliography would almost certainly be of value to any reader. When the day finally comes that the coronavirus is no longer the threat it is today, it will still be important to read and write about it—work which everyone should have the resources to do.
I hope this bibliography can be a useful and informative resource for anyone who wishes to better understand how the coronavirus pandemic fits into a much larger historical context. The history of epidemic disease can inform how we interpret our experiences and plan our next steps in the current crisis. No less important, we can consider how our modern-day experience with a pandemic informs the ways we interpret the past.