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.

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.

Cataloging Roundup: New Library Acquisitions in the History of Medicine

By Miranda Schwartz, Cataloger

2022 is the 175th anniversary of the New York Academy of Medicine and its Library. We have an exciting slate of events planned for this year, including a special evening celebrating the library in the fall, so please keep an eye out in our blog and on our website for further news.

As I did in a May 2021 blog post, I’m sharing some of the newer titles we’ve acquired in the history of medicine.   

Scholarship in American medical history covers the colonial era up until the early 21st century, with a range of topics: illness, activism, epidemics, and cesarean sections.

Jim Downs, Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2015): Drawing from a plethora of sources, Downs has created a vivid account of illness, contagion, suffering, and death among Black soldiers and newly freed people during the Civil War and its aftermath.

Johanna Fernández, The Young Lords: A Radical History (University of North Carolina Press, 2020): In a thoroughly researched narrative, Fernández situates the Puerto Rican activist group the Young Lords in the context of 1960s U.S. political and cultural history. She links its mission and goals to current movements focusing on civil and social justice issues.

Jacqueline H. Wolf, Cesarean Section: An American History of Risk, Technology, and Consequence (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018): At a time when nearly one-third of American births are by cesarean section, it is crucial to understand this surgery, its purpose—and its dangers. Using oral histories and extensive research, Wolf has written an important account of this procedure and its now unquestioned place in current American birth practices.

David S. Jones, Rationalizing Epidemics: Meanings and Uses of American Indian Mortality Since 1600 (Harvard University Press, 2004): Through the lens of health disparities, Jones studies four distinct episodes of contagious disease in Native peoples in the United States from the 17th through the 19th centuries. He analyzes these episodes and disparities within a complex framework of economic and political considerations and offers new insight into their importance.

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Books on epidemics and contagion are of course very timely in this third year of life with COVID-19.

Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (University of California Press, 2001): Shah begins with the history of an 1876 smallpox epidemic in San Francisco in which the city’s Chinese residents were unfairly blamed for the spread of the disease. His study of outbreaks and contagion continues into the 1950s, while continually paying particular attention to the physical space of Chinatown and its representation in the public eye.

Charles Vidich, Germs at Bay: Politics, Public Health, and American Quarantine (Praeger, 2021): As global lockdowns, pauses, and reopenings have made clear, fighting endemic disease takes many tools and strategies. In this timely book, Vidich studies how officials used quarantine throughout American history.

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A cluster of books focuses on illness, diagnosis, and disability.

Elinor Cleghorn, Unwell Women: Misdiagnosis and Myth in a Man-made World (Dutton, 2021): Suffering from an undiagnosed autoimmune disorder but finding little clinical and medical support, Cleghorn undertook an investigation of how medicine has historically misdiagnosed women or left them to suffer the effects of illness without proper treatment. The result of her research is a fascinating look at women’s illnesses and misdiagnoses.

Emily K. Abel, Sick and Tired: An Intimate History of Fatigue (University of North Carolina Press, 2021): Abel studies fatigue, an often underdiagnosed syndrome of puzzling symptoms and outcomes. She analyzes both our culture’s disdain for those with fatigue and its admiration for productivity and devotion to work.

The Oxford Handbook of Disability History, edited by Michael Rembis, Catherine Kudlick, and Kim E. Nielsen (Oxford University Press, 2018): This handbook is a comprehensive, globe-spanning analysis of disability history written by 29 different experts.

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Addictive substances are examined in these two titles, one reaching back to the 17th and 18th centuries and the other an of-the-moment examination of cigarette marketing.

Keith Wailoo, Pushing Cool: Big Tobacco, Racial Marketing, and the Untold Story of the Menthol Cigarette (University of Chicago Press, 2021): At the end of April, the FDA finally released its proposed rule to ban menthol cigarettes. Wailoo’s excellent history of menthol cigarettes in the United States and their prevalence among Black American smokers provides the background to understand this overdue action and the harmful nexus of targeted advertising, race, and tobacco.

Benjamin Breen, The Age of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019): Addictive substances are further studied in Breen’s account of opium, tobacco, sugar cane, coffee, and other substances. His insight is to look at these substances in a purely historical lens, back before they were categorized the way we see and purpose them now.

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We added to our collection of biographies of figures in medicine with these titles.

David A. Johnson, Diploma Mills: The Rise and Fall of Dr. John Buchanan and the Eclectic Medical College of Pennsylvania (Kent State University Press, 2018): Johnson’s account of the reprobate Dr. John Buchanan and how he turned the Eclectic Medical College of Pennsylvania into an unseemly diploma mill is a fascinating story of a little-known piece of American medical history. Buchanan’s scheming and lying culminated in faking his death in a pretended drowning.

Howard Markel, The Secret of Life: Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Francis Crick, and the Discovery of DNA’s Double Helix (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2021): Markel focuses on the personalities of the ambitious scientists who discovered the key to understanding DNA, paying particular attention to Rosalind Franklin, a female Jewish scientist at King’s College at a time when there were not many women in the field. Franklin’s key contributions to the discovery have often been overlooked in the focus on the male scientists, particularly Watson and Crick. Markel skillfully tells a complicated story with sensitivity and exactitude.

James L. Nolan Jr., Atomic Doctors: Conscience and Complicity at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020): After the death of Nolan’s father his mother gave him a box of materials about his paternal grandfather, a radiologist who had worked on the secretive Manhattan Project. During his search for more information about his grandfather and others on the project, Nolan ponders the ethics of medical professionals working on lethal weapons.

John M. Harris, Professionalizing Medicine: James Reeves and the Choices That Shaped American Health Care (McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2019): In this well-researched biography of West Virginia physician James Reeves, Harris details Reeves’s accomplishments in professionalizing 19th-century medicine and the field of public health in the United States: pressing for the arrest of doctors who practiced without licenses; working to establish the West Virginia Board of Health; and co-founding the American Public Health Association.

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Black Surgeons and Surgery in America, editor Don K. Nakayama; principal contributors Peter J. Kernahan, Edward E. Cornwell (American College of Surgeons, 2021): Spanning American history from the colonial era to today, the book places numerous Black surgeons in their historical context while detailing their professional achievements. Particularly noteworthy is the chapter recounting the story of the 14 enslaved women Dr. J. Marion Sims operated on without anesthesia in his attempts to repair vaginal fistulas; the book is dedicated to Lucy, Betsey, Anarcha, and the 11 women whose names are unknown.

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Finally, Flesh and Bones: The Art of Anatomy (Getty Research Institute, 2022) is a gorgeously illustrated new book about anatomy, edited by Monique Kornell. One can spend hours paging through its exceptional illustrations, looking at the detail of the images, and reading the accompanying scholarly essays that complement the visual wonder of the book.

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I hope this roundup has inspired your interest in our ever-growing collections. For more books and other resources, the Library’s catalog can be explored here.

The Academy’s 1964 Report on Homosexuality

By Logan Heiman, Digital Collections Manager, and Paul Theerman, Director

When the New York Academy of Medicine published its 1964 report in its Bulletin,[1] it followed a salvo of other reports sounding the alarm about “the problem of homosexuality.” The committee’s findings, reported in the New York Times and other outlets, made plain the Academy’s position on the issue: “homosexuality is indeed an illness. The homosexual is an emotionally disturbed individual who has not acquired a normal capacity to develop satisfying heterosexual relationships.” The committee’s attention to homosexuality arose from its concern about a perceived connection between homosexuality and two other phenomena it had previously studied—the proliferation of “salacious literature,” as stories with gay characters became more and more visible; and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Committee members linked several factors to the emergence of homosexual traits in early childhood, many of them related to parenting practices, including “neglect, rejection, overprotection, [and] overindulgence.”

The report also struck a harsh note against efforts by gay and lesbian activists to promote acceptance over tolerance, prescribing psychotherapy as offering “the greatest probability of benefit.” The Committee on Public Health offered improved sex education as another needed intervention, citing society’s “preoccupation with sex as a symbol” as a challenge to implementing this recommendation.

Excerpt from Barbara Gittings’s editorial
rebuking the Academy’s report.
The Ladder: A Lesbian Review 8(11) (August 1964).

In its immediate aftermath, as well as in the following years, the report drew sharp criticism and condemnation from gay and lesbian activist groups and medical professionals. In June 1964, the Daughters of Bilitis, the United States’ first political and civil rights organization for lesbians, strongly rebuked the findings of the report, writing in a June 13, 1964, letter “to express our disappointment in noting that a report so widely publicized, and originating with so reputable a group as yours, offered so little substantiation for the claims made.”[2]

A decade later, Dr. William Ober wrote to Dr. James McCormack of the Committee on Public Health asking the New York Academy of Medicine to host a conference based on changing public attitudes regarding homosexuality and the views of doctors who “had to revise their thinking.” No evidence exists to suggest the committee responded to this request. But in the course of that decade came the Stonewall riots, in June/July 1969, protesting police aggression against the LGBTQ+ community. Professional opinions changed. Famously, Dr. John E. Fryer (1937–2003), disguised as “Dr. Henry Anonymous,” addressed the 1972 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association to share the challenges he faced as a gay psychiatrist. His testimony, as well as the work of pioneering psychological researcher, Evelyn Hooker, had an effect. In 1973 the APA, under the leadership of NYAM Fellow Alfred M. Freedman (1917–2011), removed “homosexuality” as an illness in its authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, a move hailed as “the single most important event in the history of what would become the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement.”[3]

Rainbow colors symbolize NYAM’s commitment to all people in its 175th year, expressed here on the Academy building entrance at its Access: Health event, June 7, 2022.

Since the time of the report, the medical community has increasingly “de-medicalized” gayness.[4] The Academy has itself taken steps to become a more open, equity-focused institution. During Pride Month 2021 we looked at our own history in “Virtual Visit: From the LGBTQ+ Archives.” For this year’s Pride Month, NYAM formally disavows the 1964 report on homosexuality. In an official statement, NYAM President Dr. Judith Salerno wrote, “The report was incorrect and perpetuated views that were not supported by science, and we recognize that NYAM’s inaction on addressing its content is shameful. It has taken us since 1964 to publicly acknowledge this report and we apologize for the hurt that this report, and our silence, has inflicted on the LGBTQIA+ community.” Read the full statement here.


[1]Homosexuality: A Report by the Committee of Public Health, The New York Academy of Medicine,” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 40(7) (July 1964): 576–80. The article notes the committee’s approval of the report on May 11, 1964.

[2] The letter was reprinted in The Ladder: A Lesbian Review immediately following Gittings’s editorial.

[3] A concise historical article is Jack Drescher, “Out of DSM: Depathologizing Homosexuality,” Behavioral Sciences 5 (December 2015): 565–75; a more popular account is Ray Levy Uyeda, “How LGBTQ+ Activists Got ‘Homosexuality’ Out of the DSM,” JSTOR Daily, May 26, 2021, accessed June 8, 2022. For Freedman’s role, see “Alfred Freedman, a Leader in Psychiatry, Dies at 94,” The New York Times, April 20, 2011. Sue Hyde, LGBTQ activist and organizer, provided the assessment quoted in the obituary.

[4] Resistance in the medical community to the APA diagnostic change was long-lived. In 1976, a group of psychiatrists met at NYAM, though not under its auspices, to promote that homosexuality was an indicator of mental illness. Gay activists “zapped” them with disruptive demonstrations, recounted in John D’Emilio, “Zapping the New York Academy of Medicine, April 6, 1976,” Outhistory: It’s About Time!, n.d., accessed June 8, 2022. Even in 2002, Dr. Jack Drescher, chair of the APA’s Committee on Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Issues, noted that “every year, we get a group of people who . . . ask for homosexuality to be put back in the manual. . . . They’re, interestingly, the only group who does it. Every other group wants their diagnoses taken out . . . .” Drescher is quoted in Robert DiGiacomo, “Dr. H. Anonymous ‘Instant cure’ recalled: Being gay was an illness 30 years ago,” AGLP Newsletter, 28(3) (August 2002): 16–18 (reprinted from the Philadelphia Gay News), accessed June 8, 2022.

Controlling Substances: The Evolution of the American Moral and Medical Drug Policy Regime 

By Logan Heiman, Digital Collections Manager

Senate hearings on narcotic addiction in 1969.

American drug policy as we know it today categorizes marijuana as a Schedule I substance, meaning that it is considered to place users under high risk for abuse and not accepted by the FDA or DEA as safe for use as medication with or without supervision. The FDA and DEA have rejected multiple petitions to reschedule marijuana under less restrictive categories from governmental and non-governmental entities. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 governs federal drug policy in the United States as part of a broader effort to curtail the sale, distribution, and consumption of illegal drugs by the Nixon administration, later known as the War On Drugs. 

The “La Guardia Report,” 1944.

The status quo of American drug policy extends farther back than 1970, however. When the United States Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act championed by Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger in 1937, it was a watershed moment in the history of drug policy regulation. The legislation represented a victory for marijuana opponents who successfully convinced lawmakers of a link between cannabis usage and addiction, deviance, and criminality. New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia looked skeptically upon the Marihuana Tax Act and its pretext. He thus called upon the New York Academy of Medicine to prepare a report drawing from a wide variety of academic disciplines to scrutinize the drug law and the beliefs about drugs held by its proponents. In the “La Guardia Report” of 1944, the Mayor’s commission on marihuana use demonstrated that the widespread fear, even panic, around marijuana use was greatly overblown.

NYC’s Overdose Prevention Center
(Photo credit: OnPoint NYC)

In the 1950s and ’60s, the Academy continued to emphasize drug addiction as a treatable condition. During 1995 and 1996, NYAM’s Committee on Medicine in Society looked specifically at the concept of harm reduction. The Academy recommended policy changes that were, for the time, cutting edge. These included expansion of treatment programs, acceptance of methadone treatments, special efforts for those incarcerated, better training for medical professionals, and, especially, expanding needle exchange programs and decriminalizing needle distribution and possession. The Library’s Then and Now event “Drug Policy and Harm Reduction Services” brought that history up to the present time. A stellar panel mentioned NYAM’s continuing work in harm reduction, looked at the racial component of America’s drug control regime, considered the experience of those working in NYC’s new Overdose Prevention Centers, and noted that the most recent White House National Drug Control Strategy champions “harm reduction to meet people where they are.” For at least a quarter century, NYAM has supported the people-centered approach that lies at the heart of harm reduction. We wait to see where the national strategy goes next.

Library Luminaries: Dr. Archibald Malloch

This post is the second in a four-part series showcasing notable figures in the history of the Academy Library, as we celebrate our 175th anniversary. The first post focused on Dr. Samuel Smith Purple.

By Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian

Dr. Archibald Malloch (1887–1953)
Academy Librarian, 1925–1949

On September 17, 1925, Dr. Linsly Williams, the director of the New York Academy of Medicine, sent Dr. Archibald Malloch (1887–1953) a letter offering him the position of Librarian. The offer came after the Academy’s first dedicated librarian, John S. Brownne, retired in August of 1925 after 45 years of service. His assistant, Mrs. Laura E. Smith, became the Acting Librarian, while Dr. Williams and the Committee on Library searched for a new librarian.

 

Laura E. Smith, Malloch’s predecessors
John Stuart Brownne (1854–1931) and

The Academy could not have been more fortunate in its selection of Thomas Archibald Malloch. A professionally trained physician, he had already demonstrated an interest in the history of medicine and possessed a growing knowledge of the world of rare books and libraries. Canadian by birth, Malloch was the son of Dr. Archibald E. and Mary Frances Reynolds Malloch. His father was a notable physician in Hamilton, Ontario, and had been a house surgeon to Joseph Lister in Glasgow in 1868. Malloch recalled that Lister paid a visit to the family home in 1876. The senior Dr. Malloch also established a long-lasting friendship with Sir William Osler, and the relationship extended across the generations, with family visits to Oxford and correspondence cementing the bond between the younger Malloch and the older doctor.

Malloch graduated from the medical school at McGill University in 1913 and began work as a pathologist and bacteriologist until the outbreak of World War I. He joined the Canadian Red Cross, serving in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit at Dunkirk; Antoine Depage’s military hospital at De Panne, under the direction of the Belgian Red Cross; at a hospital for convalescent officers at Burley-on-the-Hill, Rutland; at Alford House in Lincolnshire, which had been converted to a hospital for officers; and finally in the McGill Unit at Canadian General Hospital No. 3 near Boulogne. After the war, he took appointments at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and Queen’s Square Neurological Hospital in London. In December 1919, Malloch moved to the Osler household in Oxford as one of the attending physicians who cared for Osler until his death on December 29th.

Despite a busy professional life, he began publishing articles about his wartime medical experiences in 1915. His first article about a specifically historical topic, “Sir John Finch and Sir Thomas Baines,” appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine the following year, prompted by his experience in Burley. That article, exploring the thirty-six-year friendship between two seventeenth-century physicians, grew into Malloch’s first short book, Finch and Baines. A seventeenth century friendship. More articles appeared, most of them about medical topics. After Osler’s death in 1919, at the request of his widow, Grace Revere Osler, Malloch continued to live in Oxford through 1921, working as one of the editors of the Bibliotheca Osleriana, the catalogue of Osler’s books that became the foundation of the Osler Library of the History of Medicine at McGill University. Malloch started practicing medicine in Montréal in 1922, dividing his time between his medical work and his bibliographic work and returning to Oxford for months at a time to work on the Bibliotheca.

Archibald Malloch was a collector in his own right. Here is his personal bookplate.

When Williams offered Malloch the position of Librarian, he was about to return to England. During the last few months of 1925, he visited medical libraries in England, Scotland, Ireland, and Paris, as well as several Parisian booksellers. He took advantage of these opportunities to develop plans for the library he was about to lead. He officially took up his new duties on January 1,1926 and began thinking about how to bring his vision of a much-expanded Academy Library to life. In his first report on the needs of the Library, published in the June 1926 issue of the Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, Malloch wrote of the many ways the Library could provide more services to Fellows, to the public, and to other medical libraries. He argued for a larger staff to care for the ever-increasing collection of periodicals, for exhibits, for greater outreach services, and for the expansion of both the modern and the historical collections, noting that “a library is judged chiefly by its general usefulness in supplying modern books and periodicals and those for as far back as a hundred years. But by other libraries and by the cultured and educated, a library is also judged by its possession of medical treasures in the guise of written or printed medical works.”[1] He also recognized that everything he was proposing would require a significant financial investment, an issue that would be a challenge from the beginning of his tenure until he retired due to ill health in 1949.

Malloch’s time at the Academy was marked by notable achievements. He supervised the relocation of about 140,000 books, journals, and pamphlets from the West 43rd Street building to the new Academy building—our current one—in the late summer and fall of 1926, assuring that the Library would be ready for visitors when the new building opened in November. He made brilliant hires, bringing on Janet Doe in 1926, to supervise the periodicals department, and Gertrude Annan, in 1929, to work as the rare book librarian. Both women developed enormous reputations in the world of twentieth-century medical librarianship, and both eventually succeeded him as Librarian.[2] He enlarged the Library’s holdings of unique and rare medical works by making well-considered purchases and accepting a number of important gifts. Working with Dr. Samuel Lambert and Dr. Williams, he raised $185,000 for the 1928 purchase of the Edward Clark Streeter Collection of manuscripts and important early printed medical books, adding about 1,200 volumes to the Library’s then-modest rare book collection. Twenty years later, in 1948, he also helped convince the New-York Historical Society and the Brooklyn Museum to donate the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, the most important single gift ever made to the collections.

The new “Rare Book and History Room,” opened 1933, as sketched by Dr. Robert Latou Dickinson.

Malloch’s greatest wish, however, was for a room specifically to house the Library’s rare books and the reference collection to support them. Edward S. Harkness offered a gift of $350,000 towards that project, provided that an additional $400,000 in new endowment funds be raised. With the support of Lambert, Williams, and a Building Committee headed by Dr. Arthur Duel, the funds were successfully in hand by May of 1931, as Williams reported to Malloch in a telegram: “Four hundred fund completed… Your rare book room assured.”[3] The new Rare Book and History Room opened to readers on June 15, 1933.

Malloch passed away on September 19, 1953, at the age of 67, after suffering from heart disease for several years. After his death, the rare book room was renamed the Malloch Room in his honor. As a result of a large donation from the Samuel J. and Ethel LeFrak Charitable Trust and Charitable Foundation, Inc., in 2012 the room was renamed again, and it is now the Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room. Dr. Malloch’s many accomplishments continue to live on in the Library, though, through the richness of its collections and the settings in which readers use them to this day.


Notes

[1] “The needs of the Library.” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine vol. 2:6 (1926), p. 293.

[2] Janet Doe succeeded Malloch directly, serving from 1949 to 1956, and Annan succeeded her, serving up to her retirement in 1970.

[3] Doe, J. “The Malloch Room.” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine vol. 30:3 (1954): 221–2.


References

Academy Bookman. 6:3 (1953), the Malloch memorial issue.

“Archibald Malloch Librarian of the New York Academy of Medicine 1925–1949,” Academy Bookman vol. 2:2 (Spring 1949), pp. 2–5.

Doe, J. “The Malloch Room.” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine vol. 30:3 (1954): 221–2.

Heaton, C. E. “Archibald Malloch, M.D.—1887–1953.” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine vol. 30:5 (1954): 399–401.

“The needs of the Library.” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine vol. 2:6 (1926): 287–98.

New York Academy of Medicine Archives. “Malloch, Archibald. 1925–1953. Letter engaging as librarian, 1925; correspondence; tributes…1949, 1953.”

New York Academy of Medicine Archives. “Malloch Rare Book and History Room. Correspondence re founding, 1928–1954.”

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

Maternal Mortality In New York City: NYAM’s Landmark 1933 Study

By Paul Theerman, Director

NYAM’s 1933 maternal mortality report is one of the 30 highlights of “Celebrating NYAM Milestones,” prepared for our 175th anniversary in 2022.

In 1930, the New York Academy of Medicine began a major project that resulted in the landmark report Maternal Mortality in New York City, published in 1933. In its work, the Academy was part of a great movement in the first third of the 20th century that devoted greater efforts to the problem of maternal mortality. Many reasons led to this increased emphasis in public health communities. In the American context, though, the foundation of the Children’s Bureau in 1912 brought these issues to the fore.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the settlement house movement focused attention on the plight of children in urban slums and tenements. The issue eventually reached President Theodore Roosevelt, who convened the first White House Conference on Children in 1909. Three years later President Taft signed the act establishing the U.S. Children’s Bureau as a part of the Department of Labor, the first Federal agency dedicated to the welfare of children. Under its dynamic first director, Julia Lathrop (1858–1932), the bureau mounted multi-pronged programs to address the social needs of children and mothers and helped set the agenda for increased study of maternal mortality over the following years. In 1930 the bureau mounted a White House conference on child health and protection, which included maternal mortality in its scope, and in 1933, it issued a report on maternal mortality in 15 states. Its work played a leading role in the international focus on maternal health; the Library’s collections hold over 15 professional and lay studies on maternal mortality dating between 1925 and 1937, covering such disparate geographical regions as Philadelphia, Scotland, and Birmingham, Alabama. Thus when the New York Academy of Medicine took on its study, it was adding its voice to the ongoing international effort.

Dr. Ransom Spafard Hooker, 1907

The Academy began its study of maternal mortality in New York City in 1930, with the assistance of the New York Obstetrical Society and the support of the Commonwealth Fund. Under the auspices of the Academy’s Public Health Relations Committee, Dr. Ransom S. Hooker (1874–1957), a prominent surgeon, was appointed director of the study. From 1930 to 1932, the city’s Health Department provided, and the Academy analyzed, 2,014 case reports on women’s deaths from childbirth as well as deaths of pregnant women. For each case, the physician was interviewed, and if the death took place in a hospital, that institution was inspected.

The analysis found huge gaps in perinatal care and obstetrical practice, partly among midwives but chiefly among physicians. The report’s chief recommendation was for increased education and training, both popular and professional. Prospective mothers should know and be able to ask for what they needed in perinatal care. Both generalist physicians and the newly forming specialist obstetricians should receive better obstetrical training in medical schools and through hospital internships. The report called for a reduction in surgical interventions “undertaken merely to alleviate pain or shorten labor.” It recommended that hospitals provide separate obstetrical clinics, wards, and delivery rooms, overseen by trained obstetricians, with rigid rules to maintain asepsis, including masking. Based on the data—which showed better results for midwife-assisted births—the report supported the practice of home delivery. Nonetheless it called for more training and greater supervision of midwives, preferably by physicians. The report concluded that “the rate of death was unnecessarily high . . . [and] two-third of all the deaths studied could have been prevented.”

The Commonwealth Fund published the landmark study on November 20, 1933, followed by the Academy’s summary in its publication Health Examiner. Iago Galdston, secretary of its Medical Information Bureau, provided major press outlets with a précis of the study, titled “Why Women Die in Childbirth,”. One sign of its reach: the January 1934 meeting of the Maternity Center Association, attended by over 500 people, focused on the report, and emphasized public education in the search for better outcomes. Four years later, Galdston adapted the study for lay audiences, including results from Philadelphia and the U.S. Children’s Bureau, as Maternal deaths—the ways to prevention (1937), also published by the Commonwealth Fund.

Immediately after the study’s release, however, obstetricians—and especially those of the New York Obstetrical Society, which helped guide the Academy’s research—thought that their authority and expertise were being questioned. In April the society released a “counter-report” upholding its members’ obstetrical abilities against the “unskilled hands” of general physicians and midwives. Some obstetricians raised their objections within the Academy, both on the report and the publicity around it. The Academy mounted an investigation, which confirmed both the results of the report and the manner of its release. And even as it objected to the report, the Society came together with the Academy in March 1934 to jointly advise the city’s Department of Health on productive ways forward. These efforts bore fruit: from 1935 to 1938, maternal mortality rates in New York City dropped by a third, from 51 to 38 deaths per 10,000 live births, and then dropped further, reaching 22 by 1942. The trend continued over the next 40 years.

What was missing in the Academy’s analysis? Any serious consideration of why health disparities played out along racial lines. That mortality followed race was clear. Each woman’s ostensible race was noted, and the results were reported out by race. The report stated that “the death rate from puerperal causes for the Negro [sic] population . . . greatly exceeds that for the white population.” The Children’s Bureau’s 1933 report found a rate for non-white women nearly twice that of white women—a conclusion that, sadly, remains virtually unchanged almost a hundred years on. Neither of these studies directly addressed causation, and when the Children’s Bureau did so in 1940, as one historian noted, they marked out Black women as inherently poor prospects for motherhood, the origin of “the Black maternal blame narrative.”

Begun in the 1930s, NYAM’s work continues to the present in the 2018 New York Maternal Mortality Summit and the ongoing efforts of the Women’s Health Research and Well-being Working Group.

_________

Sources:

King, Charles R. “The New York Maternal Mortality Study: A Conflict of Professionalization.” Bulletin for the History of Medicine 65 (1991): 476–502.

New York Academy of Medicine, Committee on Public Health Relations. Maternal Mortality in New York City: A Study of All Puerperal Deaths, 1930–1932. New York: The Commonwealth Fund, 1933. Quotation on p. 163.

Owens, Deirdre Cooper, and Sharla M. Fett. “Black Maternal and Infant Health: Historical Legacies of Slavery.” American Journal of Public Health 109(10)(October 2019): 1342–45. https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/10.2105/AJPH.2019.305243, accessed March 4, 2022.

“Ransom Hooker, Surgeon, Is Dead; Former Director in Field at Bellevue Made Study Here of Maternal Mortality.” The New York Times, April 12, 1957, p. 25.

Stokes, Anson Phelps. Stokes Records: Notes Regarding the Ancestry and Lives of Anson Phelps Stokes and Helen Louisa (Phelps) Stokes. 4 vols. New York: Privately printed, 1915, 3:130, is the source of the photograph of Ransom Spafard Hooker.

Taylor, Morgan. “An Untold Story: Black Maternal Mortality in the United States.” Nursing Clio, January 20, 2022. https://nursingclio.org/2022/01/20/an-untold-story-black-maternal-mortality-in-the-united-states/, accessed March 4, 2022.

Van Ingen, Philip. The New York Academy of Medicine: Its First Hundred Years. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949. Pp. 441–50.

U.S. Center for Disease Control, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Division of Reproductive Health. “Achievements in Public Health, 1900–1999: Healthier Mothers and Babies.” MMWR 48(38) (October 1, 1999): 849–58. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm4838a2.htm, accessed March 4, 2022.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. The Story of the Children’s Bureau. Washington, DC: The Children’s Bureau, [2012].

U.S. Department of Labor, Children’s Bureau. Maternal Deaths: A Brief Report of a Study Made in 15 States. Bureau Publication No. 221. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1933.

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

SAMUEL SMITH PURPLE, M.D.

BORN JUNE 24, 1822 — DIED SEPTEMBER 29, 1900

FOUNDER OF THE LIBRARY OF THE

NEW YORK ACADEMY OF MEDICINE

TO WHICH HE GAVE LARGE AND VALUABLE CONTRIBUTIONS.

A PRESIDENT OF THE ACADEMY AND AN EARNEST

AND SUCCESSFUL WORKER IN ITS INTERESTS.

THIS TABLET IS ERECTED TO COMMEMORATE

HIS MANY VIRTUES AND RARE USEFULNESS.

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.


Notes

[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.

References

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.


Color Our Collections 2022—175th Anniversary Edition

by the NYAM Library Team

Our annual Color Our Collections week kicks off today! From February 7 through 11, libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural institutions showcase their collections through free, downloadable coloring books. A hundred or so books are gathered at ColorOurCollections.org. Follow #ColorOurCollections on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other social media platforms to participate.

As part of the NYAM-wide celebration of our 175th anniversary, this year our coloring book presents images from our history. We feature our buildings and library reading rooms through the years, along with some of their marvelous details of design. Other images allude to NYAM’s work cleaning up the city streets, improving maternal health, and weighing in on the public health effects of using marijuana. All these stories and more are found in the new NYAM timeline. Here we present a few coloring sheets to help while away your hours; for more, check out our whole coloring book.

Dr. Robert Latou Dickinson’s pen-and-ink drawing of the new Rare Book and History of Medicine Room, from NYAM’s 1933 Annual Report.

Rabbits! A possible lobby ceiling decoration for the Academy’s 1926 building, in a pen-and-ink drawing from the NYAM archives.

“King Garbage Reigns,” from Harper’s Weekly, February 7, 1891. In the 1920s, the work of the Academy’s Committee on Street and Outdoor Cleanliness helped form NYC’s Department of Sanitation.

The pamphlet cover for A Letter to Expectant Mothers (1911), in the Records of the Committee for the Reduction of Infant Mortality of the New York Milk Committee.

Cannabis sativa, in Leonhart Fuchs, De historia stirpivm commentarii insignes (1542). The Academy’s report on the public health impact of marijuana usage, commissioned by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, was published in 1944.

‘Sick and In Prison’: Airborne Disease and Prison Reform in the career of John Howard (1726–1790) 

By Dr. Paul E. Sampson, Assistant Professor of History, The University of Scranton 

2020 Audrey and William H. Helfand Fellow in the History of Medicine and Public Health 

Over the course of the past year, I have had the privilege of spending four weeks researching in the spectacular rare book collection of the Library of the New York Academy of Medicine. My book project is entitled “Ventilating the Empire: Environmental Machines in Britain, 1700–1850” and comprises a scientific and social history of ventilation in Britain and the British empire during the long eighteenth century, roughly 1688 to 1815. By examining the design and deployment of ventilating machines in slave and naval ships, prisons and public buildings, I ask how devices designed to protect human beings from environmental hazards became a means of dividing British society along class and racial lines.  

Text Box

The primary subject of my research has been the life and career of prison reformer John Howard (1726–1790). I examine Howard’s career through the context of his work on “Jail Fever” (AKA typhus) which contemporary physicians and medical experts understood as an airborne disease. I argue that a key feature of Howard’s celebrity was his perceived invulnerability to airborne diseases. In addition, his influence helped to shift the discourse of prison reform away from overall institutional sanitation and towards methods intended to control the hygiene and morality of individual prisoners. 

For those unfamiliar, John Howard was a noble-born, intensely religious man who was appointed sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1773. One of his duties was to inspect local prisons. Unlike many of his genteel contemporaries, he took this job seriously. He was appalled by the conditions of the prisons in Bedfordshire, and to spur reform and gather ideas for improvement, he made a series of lengthy tours to visit as many prisons as he could throughout the British Isles and continental Europe. His first published book, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777), detailed his visits to dozens of county jails and bridewells (workhouses), including careful notes of the fees charged to prisoners, their daily workload, the prison diet, and the overall sanitation.  

One of the primary goals of Howard’s travels was to find the best means of preventing the spread of disease. By the 1750s, prisons were increasingly perceived as public health hazards. The filthy and diseased condition of prisoners in London’s Newgate prison became a public scandal after the Lord Mayor and 56 others died of jail fever in the weeks following an audience with prisoners. Following the contemporary etiology of fever, the outbreak was attributed to the “putrid effluvia” exhaled in the breath of sick prisoners that had imparted a “poisonous quality” to the air in the courtroom.1 By 1774, Howard had achieved celebrity status by helping to author the “Act for Preserving the Health of Prisoners in Gaol.” This act stated that jail fever was caused by the “want of cleanliness and fresh air” and mandated that all interior walls and ceilings be scraped and white-washed annually and “constantly supplied with fresh air, by means of hand ventilators or otherwise.”2  

However, in the wake of this achievement, Howard’s attitudes about preventing fever had begun to shift. During his tours of European prisons, he was puzzled that he rarely encountered “jail distempers” there. To explain the disparity between these and disease-ridden English institutions, Howard developed a theory of jail fever based entirely on his own “experience.” He argued that prisoners could only be infected if privation, filth, and personal intemperance weakened them enough for the contagion to take hold. Young and healthy convicts who were used to “vigorous exercise” quickly became infected due to the “sudden change of diet and lodging” that “so affects the spirits of new convicts, that the general causes of putrid fevers exert an immediate effect on them.” As a counter-example, Howard pointed to himself. During his first tours, he wrote, he had attempted to avoid breathing in contagion by “smelling to vinegar… and changing my apparel…constantly and carefully.” A few years later, however, he wrote that he “entirely omitted” such precautions. In his opinion, the real protection against infection were his habits of “temperance and cleanliness” as well as the power of “divine providence.”3 

Image 2: Howard was keenly impressed by the prison regime in Bern, Switzerland. Howard wrote that the city was “one of the cleanest I have seen” and included illustrations of the employment of male and female prisoners as street cleaners. Note the iron collars with hooks affixed to the prisoners’ necks to deter escape attempts.  
“Employment of Criminals” and “Employment of female Criminals,” in John Howard. The State of the Prisons in England and Wales. 2nd. Ed. (Warrington: T. Cadell, 1780) 109–10. Images courtesy of the New York Academy of Medicine Library. 
 

By the time the second edition of State of the Prisons came out in 1780, Howard had visited hundreds of disease-ridden institutions and avoided contracting a serious infection. While friends privately cautioned him against such continual risk-taking, Howard’s superhuman invulnerability to disease had become a key feature of his celebrity.4 Celebratory poems about Howard became, in the estimation of two literary scholars, “nearly ubiquitous in the 1780s and 1790s” as poets from Erasmus Darwin to William Cowper celebrated his arduous travels and selfless virtue.5 William Hayley’s 1780 Ode, Inscribed to John Howard attributed Howard’s “matchless fame” to his “valor’s adventr’ous step” through “malignant cells” where “fierce contagion, with affright, repels.”6

Image 3: George Romney’s study for a never-completed painting of John Howard visiting a prison or lazaretto. Howard is the figure standing defiantly on the far left.  
George Romney, John Howard Visiting a Lazaretto (1790–95). Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. 
 

This vision of Howard as a heroic and invincible figure appeared in numerous prints and lithographs and was captured evocatively in an unfinished work by famed painter George Romney, who depicted a defiant Howard striding confidently into scenes of melodramatic suffering and disease.7  

Despite his reputation, Howard wasn’t able to evade contagion forever. While travelling through southern Ukraine in the winter of 1790, Howard contracted a serious fever and died two weeks later.8 Notwithstanding his untimely death, Howard’s emphasis on invigorating labor, self-regulation, and instilling personal hygiene in convicts exerted an enormous influence. By the heyday of the modern penitentiary in the mid-nineteenth century, Howard was lauded as the founder of “prison science.”9 While jails designed during Howard’s life reflected the eighteenth-century emphasis on eliminating effluvia via ventilation, their nineteenth-century successors focused instead on insuring that each inmate was placed in solitary confinement and given a strict regimen of work and moral instruction.10  

In my larger project, I argue that this is partially due to a shifting locus of responsibility for preventing airborne disease. The attention of reformers shifted from the condition of the institution to the character of the individual, who became responsible for his or her own cleanliness and ventilation. To briefly illustrate this point, I will conclude with a quotation written several years after Howard’s death by naval health reformer Gilbert Blane: 

Those only whose duty leads them to consider the subject, are aware how much the welfare of the human species depends on ventilation and cleanliness; and no one could render a greater service to his fellow creatures, than to impress on their minds the necessity of cultivating them as moral and religious duties.11 


1. See, for example: John Pringle, Observations on the Nature and Cure of Hospital and Jayl-Fevers (London: A. Millar, 1750); “Account of the Fatal Assize,” CLA/035/02/049, Gaol Committee, 1750–1755, Notes on Ventilating Newgate, London Metropolitan Archives.

2. Act for Preserving the Health of Prisoners in Gaol and Preventing the Gaol Distemper, 1774, 14 Geo. III, c. 59.

3. John Howard, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales 2nd. Ed. (Warrington: T. Cadell 1780) 430–31.

4. Thomas Taylor, Memoirs of John Howard (London: John Hatchard, 1836) 386–87.

5. Gabriel Cervantes and Dahlia Porter, “Extreme Empiricism: John Howard, Poetry, and the Thermometrics of Reform,” The Eighteenth Century, 57:1 (Spring 2016): 97.

6. William Hayley, “Ode, Inscribed to John Howard” (Boston: J. White et. al. 1795 [1780]).

7. George Romney, John Howard Visiting a Prison or a Lazaretto, 1790–95, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA.

8. John Aikin, A View of the Life, Travels, and Philanthropic Labours of the Late John Howard (Boston: J. White et. al., 1794) 120–25.

9. William Hepworth Dixon, John Howard and the Prison World of Europe, 2nd ed. (London: Jackson and Walford, 1850) 1.

10. Robin Evans, The Fabrication of Virtue: English Prison Architecture 1750–1840 (London: Cambridge UP, 1982) 104–114; Michael Ignatieff, A Just Measure of Pain (London: Penguin, 1978) 3–14.

11. Gilbert Blane, “Letter to John Hippisley,” in Observations on the Diseases of Seamen (London: 1799): 614–15.

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.