May brought us flowers and a lot to celebrate on social media!
Throughout the month of May we observed Mental Health Awareness Month. This included sharing information and graphics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. On May 11, we observed National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day. Kids often imitate adult behavior. Passing down healthy habits, including ones related to mental health, is imperative!
The popularity of Star Wars continues to this day. Just after the movie’s premiere in the late 1970’s, President Carter and the National Immunization Program asked the film’s two droids, R2-D2 and C-3PO, to star in a campaign promoting immunization. A television commercial and a poster were made for this, with the latter in our collection.
School nurses are some of the first healthcare workers that children meet. On May 10th we celebrated them. National School Nurses Day invites us to thank these caregivers. This photograph from Health Work in the Schools by Ernest Bryant Hoag and Lewis M. Terman shows a school nurse in action.
Who better than to help us celebrate Mother’s Day and Women’s Health Week than the Roman goddess of women’s health, Juno. She made her appearance in 1950 at the Cleveland Health Museum, helping to explain how the female body worked.
Do you like foraging for your food? Then you probably celebrated National Mushroom Hunting Day on May 17th. The Field Book of Common Gilled Mushrooms by William S. Thomas helps you identify which you can eat and which you cannot!
World Goth Day happened on May 22nd. The macabre is at the forefront of this often-misunderstood subculture. We showed off some of the many skeletons in our collection, including this from The Last Will and Testament of Basil Valentine by Basil Valentine.
One of New York City’s prominent bridges, The Brooklyn Bridge, celebrated its 140th birthday on May 24th. It appears on a card from our William H. Helfand Pharmaceutical Trade Card collection promoting Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound.
International Plastic Free Day on May 25th seeks to have at least one day without single-use plastics. The day usually falls around Memorial Day, a long weekend often spent enjoying picnics, the beach, or hiking, all occasions tempting us to be wasteful. To keep on enjoying, we need to squash the usage of these products.
Throughout the month, artists used the hashtag and prompt #MerMay as a creative inspiration signaling mermaids and mermen. Towards the end of the month, we shared another image from the Helfand Trade Card collection, this one featuring the aquatic folk using Ayer’s Hair Vigor to attract sailors.
Finally, we are counting down the days until Museum Mile Festival 2023! On Tuesday, June 13th, cultural institutions along Museum Mile on 5th Avenue will be celebrating with extended hours, giveaways, and a look inside the collections. The NYAM Library will be set up at 103rd and 5th—come visit us!
The New York Academy of Medicine Library posts updates like this throughout the week. We can be found online over at Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Check back here or on our social media for more chances for a look inside our collection!
Since 1949, May has been recognized in the United States as Mental Health Awareness Month. The National Association for Mental Health, now Mental Health America, set up the month of educational events to clear up misconceptions about mental health and provide resources to those who need them.
The knowledge of public health is always changing. What may have been taken as fact years ago is not necessarily the truth now. This is true for understanding mental health, or formerly, mental hygiene.
The goal of this conference was what the public could do regarding their own mental health. They came up with six tenets.
While worded harshly in today’s terms, these suggestions try to offer a compassionate understanding of mental illness. The fourth, “Speak and think of insanity as a disease and not as a crime,” stands out as something we continue to struggle with today.
One of the forefathers of the mental health awareness movement would not be considered a traditional mental health expert. Clifford Whittingham Beers was born in 1896. Mental illness ran in his family. He himself served several stints in mental institutions. Upon the cruel treatment inflicted upon him at these hospitals, he went on to write a memoir on the subject. In A Mind That Found Itself, he writes of the degradation that he and his fellow patients were subject to. This memoir was key to providing a voice for those who were afraid to speak of their own illness. In 1909 Beers founded the organization now called Mental Health America.
Since the publication of Beers’ book, several writers have explored their own experience. These mental health memoirs offer both guidance and companionship to those who also suffer. They provide maps for those who care about those who may be suffering and allows a peek inside minds that many cannot comprehend.
Some of these authors bring humor to their reflections. Two funny people wrote about their own struggles. Kevin Breel is a Canadian comedian. He also suffers from depression. His memoir, Boy Meets Depression, allows readers into the mind of someone who experienced the mental illness early on in life. Sara Benincasa is known for being a comical blogger. Her own memoir Agorafabulous! reveals her fight with depression as well as agoraphobia, the fear of leaving one’s house.
Graphic memoirs allow us to see with the author’s vision. In dealing with mental health, we get to experience dark visions or the physical manifestation of anguish.
The Hospital Suite by John Porcellino starts off with a hospitalization. After his illness, Porcellino‘’s health didn’t get better. His brief stint had taken a toll on his mental health. He writes about the experience of his recovery from an obsessive-compulsive episode. Porcellino is candid about his struggles and his fears of his bouts recurring.
Ellen Forney was diagnosed with bipolar disorder before her thirteenth birthday. Afraid of stunting her creativity, she seeks treatment that will help her fulfill her potential. She begins to look at other artists who have suffered from mental illness. Finding all minds are different, she wonders what’s going to be best for her. Forney takes us on her personal highs and lows in Marbles.
Towards the end of his work on the epidemic of mental fatigue and pressure, People Under Pressure, Albert M. Barrett, MD, offered a sympathetic take on mental health challenges. For fifteen years prior to his 1960 publication, he worked alongside counselors and therapists. Barrett urges us to consider a different point of view. He writes, “For no man is an island, and the relief we provide other human beings will reflect itself in our own peace of mind.” Compassion is vital towards greater public health.
Barrett, Albert M. People under Pressure. College and University Press, 1960.
Benincasa, Sara. Agorafabulous!: Dispatches from My Bedroom. William Morrow Paperbacks, 2013.
Breel, Kevin. Boy Meets Depression: Or Life Sucks and Then You Die Live. Harmony Books, 2015.
Clifford, Beers W. A Mind That Found Itself; an Autobiography. Longmans, Green, and Co., 1908.
Forney, Ellen. Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me: A Graphic Memoir. Gotham Books, 2012.
National Committee for Mental Hygiene, and State Charities Aid Association (N.Y.). Committee on Mental Hygiene. Proceedings of the Mental Hygiene Conference and Exhibit at the College of the City of New York…. Committee on Mental Hygiene of the State Charities Aid Association, 1912.
Porcellino, John. The Hospital Suite. Drawn & Quarterly, 2014.
By Dr. Evelyn Rynkiewicz, Assistant Professor of Ecology,. Department of Science and Mathematics at the Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York.
My name is Dr. Evelyn Rynkiewicz, I am a professor of ecology at the Fashion Institute of Technology. I teach a course there called “Disease Ecology in a Changing World,” and my background and research is in disease ecology of coinfecting parasites in mice. I wanted to present a course like this for FIT students because diseases are something that affect all of us, everyone has experience being sick, and because emerging infectious diseases are a growing global issue (even before the Covid-19 pandemic, which is of course still impacting us). The challenge in teaching science courses at FIT is that our students mainly have majors in the design and business fields, not in the sciences, so I try to make the course material relate to their backgrounds and experiences as much as possible, to make the content more relevant to them. I also want to increase science literacy in my students, making them comfortable reading, understanding, and talking about science in their personal and professional lives.
I learned about the New York Academy of Medicine Library after seeing the “Germ City” exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York. I got in contact with the Historical Collections Librarian, Arlene Shaner, who set up a visit to show me some of the materials she thought would relate to my course. I was blown away! I knew my students would love to see these historical documents. These materials highlight not only the art and history of how scientists and the public interacted with diseases through time, but also show how intertwined social, economic, and political issues are with how society’s experiences of disease.
Our class took a field trip to the NYAM Library and was shown an array of material; from Hooke’s book on microscopy, Edward Jenner’s work describing his development of the first vaccine, to posters and leaflets used from WWII to the present day to inform people about diseases such as malaria, HIV, or tuberculosis. I am always excited to see what students find interesting from this visit. Many enjoyed seeing the graphic design and illustrations used in the posters, such as those by Dr. Seuss and Keith Haring. Others picked up on how women and marginalized groups were often those who did a lot of the work caring for sick and infected people. Some just liked seeing the historical materials related to New York and being able to see how their home was impacted by diseases in the past.
One of the main assessments for the course is a creative research project where students choose a disease to study and then make a presentation with something creative related to that disease that would help someone learn more about it. I encourage the students to think about how they could use their skills learned from their major and apply it to this topic. The field trip to the NYAM Library provides the initial inspiration for this. I am always so proud and surprised at what they come up with!
Here are some of the things they created:
Arriana Tran, a Fashion Business Management major, created a movie poster. Inspired by the warnings her parents shared with her on the risk of becoming infected with Dengue in her parent’s home country of the Philippines.
Packaging Design major Ethan Wolfsberg designed a malaria testing and monitoring kit that would be able to be used in remote areas that are heavily impacted by this disease. A real-life version would be made in languages appropriate for the area.
To reduce the stigma of taking PreP, Francis Lavery, also a Fashion Business Management major, made an image that emphasizes that this treatment is appropriate for everyone.
Illustration major Leia Garrette wanted to visually show how infection with the agent of Lyme Disease impacts all parts of the body. She created a paper doll where each layer illustrated a different system (e.g. muscles, nervous system) accompanied by an explanation of how each is affected by the infection.
This flyer was created by Sarah Sepulveda from Fashion Business Management. Her plan was for a support group for parents worried about or impacted by Zika virus. There was a focus on Brazil where the outbreak was especially significant in 2016.
Once again, a huge thanks to Arlene and the others at NYAM for their help and insight. I look forward to more collaboration!
Before the written word, we relied on our stories being passed down orally. These tales were meant to explain and justify the mysteries of the world around us. Fables, folksongs, and myths are examples of these. Our common superstitions act as bite-sized versions of this folklore.
While every month has its sayings , March is known specifically for two. “Beware the ides of March,” comes from a line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Rome’s dictator hears these words from a mysterious oracle on the day that he was assassinated. Through the years the saying has trickled down into our collective lexicon. It warns of caution towards the middle of March; the Ides fall on the 15th.
The other common saying is “March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb.” It’s included in various compendiums of popular superstitions without any specific origin. It makes sense, though, that after the destruction of crops by killing frost, the fresh fertility of the land brings to mind an innocent animal. Lambs have long had religious symbolism for innocence and these animals were also a sign of luck. The first lamb of Spring meant good fortune, specifically if it faced you. If it was caught looking away, that was thought less lucky . After this yearly demise of crops, “luck” was needed. Previously March had been known as “boisterous” month in the Middle Ages, as well as the “windy” month in the revolutionary calendar of the first French republic.
Academic, teacher, and author Dr. Frank Clyde Brown started to accumulate folklore related to his state of North Carolina. On the advice of the American Folklore Society, he created the North Carolina Folklore Society in the early 1910s. He collected state-specific stories, songs, and tales from about 1910 to 1940. When he died in 1943, the collection became known as the Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore.
Brown’s collection was published almost twenty years after his death as Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from North Carolina. Upon its publication, the work is believed to have been the “first general work along comparative lines” of specifically American proverbs. Included in this collection is a longer saying, “If March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb. If March comes in like a lamb, it will go out like a lion.” For the most part, we don’t hear the second sentence anymore. Our predecessors believed in explanations for all of life’s occurrences and often arrived at the answer of balance: if a month began with a storm, surely it would end brightly and sunny! Perhaps for snappier flow, lines needed excision.
That’s not to say that these sayings are not around anymore! Nor does it negate their kernels of truth, some based on observed early science. We still circulate many of these whether it be in the water cooler at work or shared on social media. It is important to place these within context. We now know that they are not to be taken as facts but rather as what was once believed to be facts.
As the dreaded ides of March draw near, we offer up a few more of these sayings from the Brown Collection to celebrate the month:
-A thunderstorm in March indicates an early spring. -A windy March and a rainy April make a beautiful May (Also, March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers). -The first thunderstorm in March wakes up the alligators. -Fog in March; Frost in May. -The better the hunter you are, and the more you know about wild things, the surer you are that all rabbits turn to “he-ones” in March. -If you plant seeds on St. Patrick’s Day, they will grow better. -A dry March never begs bread. -Frost never kills fruit in March, no matter how full the tree blooms.
And for those hoping for a fruitful March, I leave you with -To make cabbage seed grow, sow them in your night clothes on March seventeenth.
This past Sunday, January 22, brought in the celebration of Lunar New Year. It marked the beginning of the Year of the Rabbit.
The lobby of the New York Academy of Medicine features artwork of animals that have contributed to the advancement of the science of medicine, close to Aesclepius, the Greek god of healing. This brass image of a rabbit nibbling an herb is found in the floor, and the pair of rabbits is in the ceiling. Rabbits were said to be beloved by Venus, the Goddess of Love. Due to their aptitude for procreation and abundant litter, their presence was believed to be a remedy for sexual dysfunction. This may be the earliest usage of their symbolic fertile nature.
Let’s look at the Year of the Rabbit in Asian cultures.
The traditional story tells of the Jade Emperor who wants to find a way to measure time. The animals line up and race for a spot in this measurement. Along the way, there is a bit of trickery and double-crossing that some of these animals engage in to ensure they end up at the finish line. For others, it was kismet that brought them to the end.
As the story goes, the rabbit came in fourth place thanks to their resourcefulness with a little bit of empathy from an overhead friend. The dragon had seen the rabbit struggling on a log in the middle of the water and decided to give a little wind to bring them ashore.
Although the story originated in China, variations of the tale are found throughout Asia featuring animals native to those regions. In Vietnam, for example, the cat takes the place of the rabbit. In different countries, different creatures represent this year.
The Year of the Rabbit is said to be more subdued than the previous one, the Year of the Tiger. In Chinese mythology, the rabbit was one of the smaller animals vying for a place with the Emperor. Only careful planning on their part let them make it to the end. So the year is one of caution and playing it close!
While the rabbit waited for the log to move, it was a gust of wind above from the Dragon that luckily brought them to the finish line. The Year of the Rabbit is also said to be one of luck.
Turning to the Western world, we also link rabbits and luck with the rabbit’s foot, which is lucky for us and unlucky for them!
A long-held tradition in Western culture is saying “Rabbit rabbit rabbit,” or some variation, on the first day of each month. Some say this must be done first thing in the morning, while others are a little lenient as long as it is said sometime during the day. Fortunes that it may provide include luck, good health, and accruement of wealth.
Maybe it is no coincidence that the year of the rabbit and the year of the cat are one. Rabbits were seen as familiars (or assistants) to witches as often as felines! Legends involving Witch Rabbits casting spells also provide ways to negate bad luck, by turning the pockets of a cursed clothing item inside out or kissing the sleeve of the accursed animal. Witches were also known to moonlight as rabbits to spy on townsfolk.
Due to the timid and small nature of the creature, rabbits were used to emasculate soldiers. Just as rabbits burrow away to escape, so too did cowards. Medieval art used the animal to showcase traitors and those who had fled battle. The art above showcases two of these rabbit/soldiers who are paying for their cowardice.
Other medieval artists, perhaps early humorists, took it upon themselves to subvert the rabbit trope and instead showcased the creatures as killing machines. Perhaps this is where Monty Python’s killer rabbits came from!
The story of the rabbit’s quest to the zodiac as well as its place in various cultures showcase the multitude of tales that we never consider when looking at the creature. Or maybe we are just content, as this young girl is, with cuddling up to the furry animal.
May your Year of the Rabbit (rabbit rabbit) be fruitful!
Brown, Mabel Webster. “Art and Architecture of the Academy of Medicine’s New Home” Medical Journal & Record. 1st December 1926, 729-734.
By Mario Rubano, MPH, Center for Healthy Aging, NYAM
Today’s guest blogger is Mario Rubano, Policy Associate at NYAM’s Center for Healthy Aging. Mr. Rubano plays a central role in the Academy’s next Then & Now event, “The Opportunities and Challenges of Healthy Aging in New York City.” He conducted the interviews documenting the experiences of older New Yorkers and will moderate the discussion of those experiences with historians Kavita Sivaramakrishnan, PhD, and David G. Troyansky, PhD. The event takes place online on Tuesday, November 15, 5:00 to 6:00 pm; you can register here.
The NYAM Library’s “Then & Now” series has explored a wide variety of medical and public health issues, bringing experts and researchers into dialogue with the broader NYAM community. As the Academy’s 175th anniversary celebrations wind down, we’re delighted to feature a different set of experts—older New Yorkers.
NYAM has been at the forefront of NYC older adult health and policy since 2006, when it first joined the Global Age-friendly Cities project, an international effort spearheaded by the World Health Organization (WHO). The following year saw the development of Age-friendly NYC, an award-winning partnership that reimagined how the City could meet the needs of its older residents. This shift was rooted in the 8 Domains of Livability, a collection of interconnected categories that captured the most vital aspects of healthy living for older adults in urban centers. Today, the Center for Healthy Aging (CHA) embodies this legacy in its ongoing mission to improve the health and well-being of current and future aging populations.
At present, New York City is home to roughly 1.2 million individuals aged 65+, and we were lucky enough to settle down with five of the busiest of them for personal interviews via Zoom. The participants, drawn from a network of grassroots age-friendly community groups, shared their insights, memories, experiences, and opinions (with classic New York panache) in a discussion structured around the 8 Domains of Livability. Each of the participants has maintained an active relationship with local community-based organizations, community boards, volunteer groups, or, in one case, as a part-time Reservist working with NYAM. What was immediately clear across each of the interviews was the devotion that each participant has to this city. Whether born-and-bred or a transplant, these New Yorkers were as energized by the city as one could possibly be, and it’s this vigor that brought their reflections to life.
If a single takeaway were to be drawn from these five interviews, it would be that “progress” is a constant process rather than a state-of-being or condition that is achieved. The domain of transportation illustrates this idea. The participants all remarked on the tremendous improvements in comfort and capacity that the public transportation system has undergone over their lifetimes. The advent of air conditioning to ease the misery of a summertime, rush-hour commute, the growing fleet of accessible kneeling buses that simplify the boarding process for individuals with mobility challenges, and the creation of station transfers were all viewed as highlights over the years. Yet, we also heard about significant lapses in the management of bus lines that blatantly ignore the needs of older New Yorkers and, in many instances, place undue burdens on communities of color.
Healthcare access also changed in remarkable ways, both positive and negative, over the course of their lifetimes. House calls from family doctors who knew and treated entire communities gave way to newer models of care that, while noted for their efficiency and quality, were seen as impersonal and disconnected. We heard sobering stories of healthcare in the years before desegregation and the ongoing effects of Robert Moses’ infrastructure projects, like the Cross Bronx Expressway. These stories demonstrate the necessity of continued civic and community engagement, even after broad, landmark victories. Legislative progress—such as that initiated by the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990—must be continuously refined to ensure that the promises of better lives remain intact in an increasingly complex world.
This project has been a thrilling process in itself, and we look forward to sharing these New Yorkers’ stories, and hearing the commentary by our guest historians, Drs. Kavita Sivaramakrishnan and David Troyansky, at the upcoming November 15th Then & Now event.
By Paul Theerman, Arlene Shaner, Bert Hansen, and Melissa Grafe
On Tuesday, October 18, three esteemed librarians and historians will gather—virtually—to discuss the history and prospect of medical libraries. The event features the Library’s own Historical Collections Librarian, Arlene Shaner, speaking on the development of our collections; historian of medicine Dr. Bert Hansen, on how libraries helped shape the development of medicine through history; and Dr. Melissa Grafe, head of the Medical Historical Library at Yale School of Medicine, on the future of historical collections such as the Academy Library’s. If you are interested in attending, please register here. To learn about what these speakers will present, keep reading!
Arlene Shaner, “‘A Rich Storehouse’: The NYAM Library’s Extraordinary Collections”
Arlene Shaner, our first panelist, will talk about the evolution of the NYAM Library and its collections, starting with Isaac Wood’s gift of his set of Martyn Paine’s Commentaries to the brand-new organization on January 13, 1847. What he and the early Academy Fellows had in mind was a working collection of books and journals that they would create for their own use. Because the Academy had no home of its own, and very little money, the collections grew at a very modest pace for the first few decades.
The purchase of a building in 1875 provided space for the collections to grow. The generosity of Dr. Samuel Smith Purple, who donated over 2000 journal volumes of his own after the Academy moved into its West 31st Street brownstone (at left), coupled with the 1878 decision of the Fellows to open the Library to all who wished to use it, dramatically changed the Library’s trajectory.
It opened the door to what Librarian Janet Doe later referred to as “a snowball of gifts which has rolled down through the years, gathering momentum and throwing off new snowballs that roll into other libraries.”
Shaner will offer a brief overview of some of the major gifts that helped the library become one of the most important history of medicine collections in the country, if not the world, and also tell the much less well known story of how the Library contributed to the growth of many other collections. She will also look briefly at how changes in the way information is disseminated have transformed, and continue to transform, the NYAM Library.
Bert Hansen, “The Academy Library’s Contributions to American Medicine.”
Our second panelist, historian Bert Hansen, notes that his earliest memories picture libraries as storehouses of precious treasure, an image reinforced by an architecture that made them look like giant-sized strongboxes or jewelry boxes. Built of large stone blocks and fortified like a castle, libraries he fondly recalls include the main public libraries in Chicago, Newark, and New York City, plus Butler Library at Columbia and the Morgan Library from his college years (as seen below, with NYAM the sixth). The decorated, jewelry-box style often continues inside with marbled lobbies and wood-paneled reading rooms.
But for this presentation, Hansen has gone in a new direction, focusing his attention on the kinds of contribution that libraries like that of NYAM have made to education and the world of learning in serving people who would never enter the building to examine the treasured volumes. In the recent past, virtual use through digitization has become common and will surely expand in the future. But his look at the prior century and a half will highlight other, sometimes-forgotten modes of service as examples of NYAM’s—and other research libraries’—many contributions to American medicine.
Melissa Grafe, “Preservation, Access, and the Future”
Our final panelist, librarian and historian Melissa Grafe, glimpses into the future of medical libraries and the role of physical collections in an increasingly online world. Grafe looks at the ways that technology has become deeply integrated in both medicine and in the libraries that support the medical community. Grafe will connect these modern currents to the rich trove of materials that NYAM assembled over 175 years, and the larger history that has made NYAM’s library one of the major collections connecting medical history to the present.
Nancy Spiegel, the University of Chicago Library’s bibliographer for art and cinema, writes:
In the late 18th century, a new vision of the library arose within the context of expanding literacy, and the increased publication of books and journals for the general reading public. Enlightenment architect Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728–1799) envisioned a grand design in his proposal for a French National Library in 1785. In Boullée’s presentation, the state would take responsibility for the collection, ordering, and dissemination of all available information to its citizens.
The design for the main reading room featured a vast, barrel-vaulted ceiling and a modern shelving arrangement: stacked galleries of books over flat wall-cases. These seemingly endless bookcases were open and easily browsable, in dramatic contrast to the earlier medieval system of chaining that bound both books, and readers, to a specific location. Visitors are free to wander about and converse in small groups, but there is no provision of study desks or chairs for extensive research in this idealized environment.
By Jamie Marsella, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University, and the Library’s 2022 Paul Klemperer Fellow
Ms. Marsella completed her Fellowship residency in summer 2022 and will present her research by Zoom on September 7 at 4:00 pm (EDT). To attend her talk, “‘Where Once There Was Only Friction’: Religion, Eugenic Maternalism, and the Babies’ Welfare Association, 1908–1920,” register through the Academy’s Events page.
I’ll start this blog post with a confession: before sitting down in the NYAM Rare Book Room, I was worried there might not be enough materials to keep me busy for a full month. How profoundly wrong I was!
I arrived at NYAM to conduct research for my dissertation—an exploration of the New York Babies’ Welfare Association (1912–1920). The BWA was an organization that aimed to standardize maternal and pediatric public health programs while remaining a loose federation of public health and child welfare organizations, including private philanthropic and religious groups.
The Babies’ Welfare Association was created by the New York City Bureau of Child Hygiene in 1912. Neither organization has a stand-alone archival collection, nor do most of the 120+ individual organizations within the BWA. Before arriving, I could not have known that the NYAM Library would hold more relevant materials than I could ever have imagined.
The BWA was abundantly represented within the NYAM collections. This makes sense since, for the first two decades of the twentieth century, the BWA was a well-known, highly publicized organization in New York City. The Chief of the Bureau and President of the BWA, Dr. Sara Josephine Baker (1873–1945), was a household name not only in New York, but throughout the country, with movie reels produced by Fox Studios, a monthly Good Housekeeping column, multiple books on child health and parenting, a regular radio broadcast, and constant coverage in the local and national press.
Unlike negative eugenic programs (i.e., sterilization, anti-miscegenation laws) that came to dominate later in the century, early twentieth-century reformers understood eugenic reform as a combination of heredity and environmental conditions. In this framework, improved sanitation, nutrition, and hygiene could improve individuals and enable them to pass on these improvements to their future offspring. The BWA emphasized these changes in the environment, promoting them as eugenic maternalism. In other words, the BWA understood mothers as the family’s first line of defense against disease and, therefore, an essential part in preventing “racial degeneration.” The BWA, therefore, targeted immigrant neighborhoods with the explicit desire to “improve” white-ethnic communities and prevent future supposedly dysgenic generations.
I came to NYAM hoping to better understand why Catholic and Jewish organizations might be interested in participating in this eugenic standardization project and how their participation may have shaped how the BWA understood and operationalized eugenics. I also hoped to clarify the role that Black reformers and patients played within the BWA. Based on what I had gleaned from digitized sources, the BWA’s work with Black philanthropic groups was inconsistent, and their relationships were unclear.
The materials I’ve reviewed at NYAM paint a complicated and nuanced picture. Some religious organizations, like the New York Foundling Asylum and other benevolent institutions run by women religious, understood their own religious missions as Catholics in a way that blended nicely with the assimilationist goals of eugenic maternalism.
Similarly, Jewish organizations like the United Hebrew Charities or the Brooklyn Federation of Jewish Charities understood their work as both a religious mission and an assimilating force. Such groups were eager to associate their religious and cultural practices with Americanism, especially in the face of rising antisemitism.
Most BWA members held a capacious view of their work beyond childcare, health and hygiene, or charitable aid. As I continued to work through the Library’s documents, it became clear that members of the BWA were pursuing something far broader than public health or bodily hygiene. These programs were about “right living”—teaching women and children how to conduct themselves in public and private, how to understand one’s role as a (future) citizen, or how to raise and nurture the future citizens in their care.
Within these different organizational records, there were also small glimpses of public health work specifically targeting the Black community. While the connections between the BWA and Black New Yorkers remained muddled, my time at NYAM has helped me understand this reflects the nature of the work, which was sporadic at best and exploitative at worst. The Lincoln Hospital and Home (a BWA member) is one exception to this general rule. The hospital trained Black nurses, many of whom then worked in the hospital treating both Black and white patients or worked with the Henry Street Settlement House (another member) in their Visiting Nursing Service.
Ultimately, my time at NYAM was invaluable. The materials there allowed me to better understand how the members of the BWA negotiated amongst themselves to create a standardized eugenic program that could encompass different ethnicities and religions.
By Dr. Eileen V. Wallis, Professor of History, California State Polytechnic University—Pomona, and the Library’s 2020 Paul Klemperer Fellow
Dr. Wallis completed her Fellowship residency in summer 2022 and will present her research by Zoom on August 2 at 4:00 pm (EDT). To attend her talk, “California and the Search for Medical Legitimacy, 1850–1880,” register through the Academy’s Events page.
As true of many researchers, the hunt for historical primary and secondary sources for my book project, “California and the Politics of Disability, 1850-1970,” has led me down many paths. This book project uses Los Angeles County as a case study to understand how the interplay between state and county governments shaped the lived experiences of Californians deemed “mentally disordered” from 1850 to 1970. “Mentally disordered” was not a socio-medical category, but rather a bureaucratic one. It is, however, still a useful construct for understanding the ways in which California’s politicians, doctors, and progressive reformers lumped together populations experiencing what today we would consider two distinct categories of disability—mental illnesses and developmental disorders—for their own convenience. These were also the two populations arguably most vulnerable to institutionalization in this era, as well as the ones least likely to leave primary sources behind them. The time span of this study was chosen because it encompasses the rise of institutions for the disabled in California; the shift in them from care custodialism; the era of overcrowding, abuse, and crisis; and the ultimate dismantling of most state institutions for the disabled, a process that began in the late 1950s and culminated with the passage of the Lanterman Disability Service Act in 1969 and the beginning of the era of deinstitutionalization.
Disabled Americans are frequently absent from or hidden within the historical record. The study of sickness and disability, Gracen Brilmyer writes, is often marked by “layers of absences, subtleties, inaccuracies, and perspectives that are embodied in records, archives, and the lack thereof.” However, because the New York Academy of Medicine Library began collecting so early, and because the Academy’s interests were so wide-ranging, it has amassed a strong collection of materials of use to anyone interested in the history of disability in the United States. Interestingly, many of the items it holds related to and in some cases created by Californians cannot be found in collections in the Golden State, but only in New York City at the Academy Library.
In 1965, two researchers working for California’s Department of Mental Hygiene, Esther Pond and Stuart Brody, produced a report called “Evolution of Treatment Methods of a Hospital for the Mentally Retarded.” Focused on what was then-called the Sonoma State Hospital in Sonoma County, California, the state’s oldest institution for the developmentally disabled, this report was officially California Mental Health Research Monograph no. 3. It was prepared specifically for use by the Department, printed on cheap paper, given only a pink paper cover, and was likely expected to be, eventually, discarded. The Department certainly could not have anticipated that it would still exist, more than fifty years later, tucked away in a filing cabinet in the New York Academy of Medicine Library.
Indeed, a remarkable number of materials generated by California’s Department of Mental Hygiene, which operated all of California’s state asylums and institutions for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled through the late 1960s, found their way into the Library’s collections. Another example is the 1950–1952 Biennial Report of the California State Department of Mental Hygiene. Like “Evolution of Treatment Methods,” this report has only a paper cover and is held together with staples. It is, however, lushly illustrated with photos, charts, and graphs, including a page featuring both then-Governor of California Earl Warren (soon to be Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court) and Department head Frank Tallman commenting favorably about the work then being done. Because it covers the years 1950 to 1952, the Biennial Report captures California’s asylums and institutions as the state both embarks on a massive post-war building spree but is also beginning to look for quicker ways to “treat and release” individuals. The report excitedly discusses the use of invasive treatments and psychosurgeries such as electroshock (now known as electroconvulsive therapy or ECT), insulin shock, and lobotomies as heralding a promising new era of medical treatment. The modern reader, of course, knows this is not what would ultimately happen. To read such a report today is jarring, but it is, nonetheless, a valuable snapshot of a key transitional moment for both California and indeed for the care of mentally ill and disabled Americans nationwide.
Many of these items are only discoverable by using the Library’s printed catalog, as they were acquired before the advent of online catalogs and have not yet been included in the Library’s projects to convert its printed catalogs to digital form. Some are what is known as ephemera, items that were created for a “specific, limited purpose” and for “one-time or short-term use.” In the last two decades historians have found them to be an incredibly rich source of information, often capturing information about people (women, African Americans, the working classes, etc.) who are “rarely visible in archival collections or mainstream publications.” These absences become more profound the farther back in time one travels. Thus, scholars often make use of institutional and medical reports like Pond and Brody’s and the Biennial Report to try to excavate from within them as much as possible about the lived experiences of Californians in state institutions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
For the researcher interested in American disability history, the Library’s printed catalog volumes lead to a treasure trove of primary sources, and well-worth exploring alongside the online catalog. When combined with its other holdings, the New York Academy of Medicine Library’s collections show tremendous promise for furthering our understanding of the history of disability in the United States.
 English authorities used the term in similar ways, although usually without including mental illness. For a discussion of that context, see Mark Jackson, The Borderland of Imbecility: Medicine, Society, and the Fabrication of the Feeble Mind in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000).
 Gracen Brilmyer, “Towards Sickness: Developing a Critical Disability Archival Methodology,” in Journal of Feminist Scholarship Volume 17 Issue 17 (Fall 2020): 27.
 Sonoma State Hospital began in the 1870s as California’s first state Home for Feeble-Minded Children, a name which unfortunately tells us a great deal about how these individuals were perceived by society at the time. It later became the Sonoma State Home, the Sonoma State Hospital, and finally the Sonoma Developmental Center.
 The nature of such items unquestionably poses challenges for librarians and archivists, both in their physical care and in how to catalog them. Rebecca Alternatt and Adrien Hilton, “Hidden Collections within Hidden Collections: Providing Access to Printed Ephemera,” in The American Archivist Volume 75, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 2012): 173.
 There is debate in the field as to what is and what is not ephemera. Rebecca Altermatt and Adrien Hilton, for example, argue that any kind of government document is not ephemera. However, as this report was not a publication of the state of California itself but of one department within that government, and created for short-term internal use, the question is open for debate. Altermatt and Hilton, 173.
 As disability history and Disability Studies have evolved as research fields, scholars have pushed to move us beyond the medical model of disability, which sees disability as mainly a pathology, as something to be cured, to the social model, which urges an examination of disability as both a social construction and as a lived experience. As scholars Susan Burch and Ian Sutherland explain, “disability is often less about physical or mental impairments than it is about how society responds to impairments.” Susan Burch and Ian Sutherland, “Who’s Not Here Yet? American Disability History,” in Radical History Review Issue 94 (Winter 2006): 128–29.
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 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.
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.