College Student Reflects on Recent Academy Lecture

Today’s guest post is by Eliana Lanfranco, who is a rising sophomore studying at Georgetown University. She is majoring in medical anthropology and hopes to pursue a career in medicine in the future with the aim of returning to her home country to open a clinic. Eliana attended the Academy lecture with Project Rousseau, a non-profit organization, whose mission is to empower youth in communities with the greatest need to reach their full potential and pursue higher education. Project Rousseau takes a holistic approach to students’ educational problems delivering a variety of programs and strongly believes in the importance of exposing students to as many new experiences as possible, such as attending lectures at the New York Academy of Medicine!


Eliana Lanfranco (center) with Project Rousseau Founder and President, Andrew Heinrich, and two younger Project Rousseau students.

On May 11, I attended “Facades and Fashions in Medical Architecture” at the New York Academy of Medicine.  This was my first time attending a lecture outside of my college classes, and I left with a different perspective on what lectures have to offer. The lecture did not contain slides filled with information I was required to know for a course, but rather an interactive, engaging talk filled with information I wanted to know. Through it, I learned about a new side of the history of medicine that I had never thought about before.

The lecture began with an overview of dispensaries, which were used primarily by the lower income groups in NYC (the wealthy had their own private doctors) in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Many of the volunteers in these dispensaries were doctors from affluent backgrounds who had recently graduated and wanted to gain clinical experience to become established doctors. Later, when hospitals began to serve both the poor and rich, recent graduates preferred the hospitals over the dispensaries, since the former had the latest equipment, such as x-rays and anesthesia, which the doctors could learn about and use.  It is interesting to see how this trend has, to some extent, remained among medical students today, and which medical institutions attract which students. Today, it may be easier to find a volunteer spot in community clinics than in hospitals, and medical students can oftentimes be more exposed to the health issues that affect certain communities who use these facilities.

The lecture also highlighted the way in which hospitals were built to be relatable to the patients and how their architecture reflected medical beliefs at the time. Older hospitals were built with long, narrow wings, as it was believed that the flow of air and light eliminated germs. Their architecture also tried to be welcoming and non-imposing to people walking past them; for example, mental health institutes were built to have a countryside feeling instead of looking like enclosed plots of land. Later, many of the hospitals built during the New Deal time period also featured murals painted by local artists in their waiting rooms. These murals were sometimes twofold, as they featured “controlled medicine” or modern medicine, and “uncontrolled medicine” or folk forms of healing. They portrayed historical figures in medicine, such as Louis Pasteur, and minorities in the field of medicine. As a patient, I would have been thankful for these murals since they offer some distraction from the endless wait in the waiting room.

In contrast, modern hospitals have been built in big clusters, along with skyscrapers. Their rectangular shape makes them reliant on mechanical ventilation, and their towering height makes them overpowering to people walking by. However, many try to maintain their air of welcome by making the entrances wide to show that it is not an institution for a select few. I think that these small details are very important because even though the majority of patients may not consciously think about the architecture they’re entering, these features greatly affect how patients, especially those who are not used to having structured medical systems in their home countries, feel about entering the hospital. I lived in a rural part of the Dominican Republic and the tallest hospital I saw growing up was four floors high. When I moved to New York City, I was surprised at the height of the hospitals and, although I am no longer a child, I am often intimidated by the buildings. It is good to see that some hospitals have incorporated details into their architecture to retain the air of welcome for patients, although as I, and many others, still quiver as we enter hospitals, I wonder how successful this approach has truly been!

Prior to this lecture, I was unaware that so many buildings I walked by every day, and that just looked like apartments with no historical importance, were actually hospitals and medical institutions.  Although older medical institutions can give us an insight into older medical beliefs and practices when carefully inspected  and can help us shape future medical practices, many of the older medical institutions have survived only through repurposing to other uses, such as apartments or firehouses; few have maintained their original purpose. It would be great to see the older hospitals that have survived, continue their original purpose or become museums so that their medical history can be saved, as has been the case with some buildings in nearby Philadelphia and Boston. As a pre-med student, the thought of attending an architecture lecture was, at first glance a little strange, but now I realize how related medicine and architecture are. A doctor’s primary aim is to treat all those in need, but without the right architectural design many patients may be hesitant to enter towering, intimidating hospitals!

The Architecture of Health Care (Part 2)

Today’s guest post is written by Bert Hansen, Ph.D., professor emeritus of history at Baruch College of CUNY.  He is the author of Picturing Medical Progress from Pasteur to Polio: A History of Mass Media Images and Popular Attitudes in America (Rutgers, 2009), and other studies of medicine and science in the visual arts.  He is presenting an illustrated lecture about historic New York City buildings, followed by two walking tours-Uptown (May 13) and Downtown (May 20).  His 6 pm talk on Thursday, May 11, is entitled “Facades and Fashions in Medical Architecture and the Texture of the Urban Landscape.”  To read more about this lecture and to register, go HERE.

Part 1 introduced readers to the architectural firm of Sawyer and York and two of their medical buildings.  Part 2 now looks at Charles B. Meyers, who was responsible for dozens of major buildings in New York City and farther afield, including more than a dozen hospitals just in the city.  Still, he remains largely unknown outside of architectural history circles.

Readers of this blog are likely to know the red brick Psychiatric Hospital at Bellevue and Manhattan’s towering Criminal Court Building and House of Detention (New Deal WPA, 1938-41), sometimes called “The Tombs,” taking the name of an earlier building in neo-Egyptian style.[1]  Less familiar will be Morrisania Hospital in the Bronx and the Baruch College administration building (originally Family Court, 1939) on 22nd Street and Lexington Avenue.[2]  Some will have seen or visited the giant cube on Worth Street that housed the City’s Department of Health until 2011.  But it’s unlikely many could connect any of these with an architect’s name.  Even fifty years after his death, the imprint of Meyers on the look of New York is enormous while his name and career remain obscure.  Readily familiar buildings are seldom remembered as his elegant work.

Charles Bradford Meyers (ca.1875-1958) was an alumnus of City College and of Pratt Institute.  Early he worked in the office of Arthur Napier.  By the 1910s, he had began to specialize in schools, hospitals, and other public buildings.  Among about a dozen New York City hospitals he built, the Psychiatric building at Bellevue (1931) is one of the most familiar, in the red-brick and white-stone Beaux-Arts style that McKim Mead and White had established in their master plan for the Bellevue campus.


The original Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital building (462 First Avenue). Source: Wikipedia.

His headquarters building for the New York City Department of Health (1935) at 125 Worth Street, right near two be-columned neo-classical courthouses, is a sleek, if monumental Art Deco cube with the names of famous healers inscribed on all four facades.  This building was one of many supported by federal infrastructure funding through the New Deal.  Nearby is another monumental work of his, the Manhattan Criminal Court Building of 1938-1941).  It, too, was a New Deal effort, one of thousands of such projects that are being documented in a crowd-sourced web-site, The Living New Deal.[3]


New York City Department of Health (125 Worth Street). Source: Bert Hansen.

The former Morrisania Hospital (1929) in the Highbridge section of the Bronx is now an apartment cooperative, not generally accessible to architecture buffs or the public in general.  But I had an opportunity to visit last October during the weekend of Open House New York, when hundreds of generally private spaces are opened to the curious.


The former Morrisania Hospital (East 168th Street between Gerard and Walton Avenues in the southern Bronx). Source: New York Housing Conference.

In the mid 1970s, Morrisania Hospital was closed at the time of the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, and the building sat empty for about twenty-five years.  During the time when its future was in doubt and it might have been demolished and lost to posterity, Christopher Gray wrote about it in his “Streetscapes” column in the New York Times (15 July 1990) with his characteristic blend of reportage and criticism:

“The façades are generally straw-colored brick, although they range from a light beige to a deep orange.  They are ornamented with delicately molded Renaissance-style terra cotta in acanthus leaf, egg and dart, Greek key and similar patterns.  Red roof tiles provide a final accent.  Although the main elevation, facing 168th Street, is fussy and over-decorated, the bulk of the complex is an educated, tasteful design—above the norm for municipal architecture in this period.”[4]


Façade of the former Morrisania Hospital building. Source: Bert Hansen.

Gray wrote this column weekly from 1987 to 2014, offering such stimulating insights over more than twenty-five years.  I was one of his readers and, in retrospect, I now realize how much he shaped my awareness of the visual pleasures of the New York City’s historic architecture.  After Gray’s death earlier this spring, another New York Times writer on architecture and urban life, David W. Dunlap, called to mind Gray’s distinctive approach:  “Gray did not serve up conventional architectural assessments. . . .  His columns were narratives of creation, abandonment, and restoration that lovingly highlighted quirky design and backstairs gossip from decades past.”  And Gray himself, perhaps thinking of overlooked treasures like Morrisania Hospital, had once remarked, “I am much more interested in minor-league, oddball structures than in tour-bus monuments like the Woolworth Building.”[5]

Meyers was a prolific architect with a career of nearly sixty years.  His buildings exhibited a remarkable range of uses and aesthetic styles.  Because they are scattered around the city (and beyond), one can’t do a Charles B. Meyers walking tour.  But the historically curious can still visit former hospital buildings like Morrisania and Bellevue Psychiatry as well as the elegant downtown Art Deco cube that he built for the Health Department (since relocated to Queens) and that is now called the Health, Hospitals, and Sanitation Departments Building.

[1] Norval White, Elliot Willensky, and Fran Leadon, AIA Guide to New York City, fifth ed. (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 80.
[2]Alex Gelfand, “The Development and Evolution of the Baruch Campus,” (including photographs of architectural decoration on the Meyers building).
[3] The Living New Deal. “Manhattan Criminal Court Building-New York NY.”
[4] Christopher Gray, “Streetscapes: Morrisania Hospital; A Tidy Relic of the 1920’s Looking for a New Use,” New York Times, July 15, 1990, p. R8.
[5] David W. Dunlap, “Christopher Gray, Who Chronicled New York Architecture, Is Dead at 66,” New York Times, March 14, 2017, p. B15.

The Architecture of Health Care (Part 1)

Today’s guest post is written by Bert Hansen, Ph.D., professor emeritus of history at Baruch College of CUNY.  He is the author of Picturing Medical Progress from Pasteur to Polio: A History of Mass Media Images and Popular Attitudes in America (Rutgers, 2009), and other studies of medicine and science in the visual arts.  He is presenting an illustrated lecture about historic New York City buildings, followed by two walking tours-Uptown (May 13) and Downtown (May 20).  His 6 pm talk on Thursday, May 11, is entitled “Facades and Fashions in Medical Architecture and the Texture of the Urban Landscape.”  To read more about this lecture and to register, go HERE.

Even people who are not architecture buffs usually recognize big contemporary names in architecture like I. M. Pei (the Louvre pyramid) of Pei Cobb Fried and Partners (Bellevue’s new Atrium Pavilion, 2005) or Skidmore Owings and Merrill (New York University Medical School buildings in the 1950s and Mt. Sinai’s Annenberg Pavilion of 1976).  Most New Yorkers have also run into the firm of McKim Mead and White’s many New York City buildings and their master plans for Columbia University and the Bellevue Hospital campus.

But what about Charles B. Meyers and the firm of York and Sawyer—both from the early twentieth century?  New Yorkers certainly know several of their contributions to the architecture of health care and to the cityscape more widely, but usually without knowing the designers’ names.

This blog introduces York and Sawyer.  The work of Charles B. Meyer will appear in a subsequent installment.

Flower-Fifth Avenue Hospital

The former Flower-Fifth Avenue Hospital (1249 Fifth Avenue).  Source: © Matthew X. Kiernan/New York Big Apple Images.

In 1921, their handsome and stately Fifth Avenue Hospital in Beaux-Arts style was completed and dedicated.  It spanned the block between 105th and 106th Streets, facing the entrance to Central Park’s Conservatory Garden.  The lower parts of the facade were of light colored limestone blocks and the upper parts were stucco in the same color.  It had terra cotta trim and a tile roof.  Although its X-shape floor plan was traditional, this design broke new ground in being a hospital without wards—only private rooms.[1]  The hospital was later renamed Flower-Fifth Avenue Hospital, and the building is currently home to the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center.


Flower-Fifth Avenue Hospital floor plan of the fourth and fifth floors. Source: Architecture Review (1920).

The principals of the firm were Edward York (1863–1928) and Philip Sawyer (1868–1949), who established their firm in 1898 after they met while both were employed at McKim Mead and White.  They continued the American version of Beaux-Arts principles exemplified by McKim Mean and White’s work even as they expanded classical and Renaissance style to high-rise buildings made possible by the invention of the Otis safety elevator.  Among their many New York City buildings, readers are probably familiar with the New York Historical Society on Central Park West, the Federal Reserve Bank on Liberty Street, the Bowery Savings Bank on East 42nd Street, and the Central Savings Bank on 73rd Street between Broadway and Amsterdam (now the Apple Bank for Savings).


Federal Reserve Bank (33 Liberty Street). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Just four years after the Fifth Avenue Hospital opened, the New York Academy of Medicine laid a cornerstone for its new home on Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street, also designed by York and Sawyer.  This building had a dedication on November 18, 1926, which the following day’s New York Times headlined “Medical Academy in $2,000,000 Home.”  (Adjusted for inflation that project would cost about $27 million today).  An Italianate palazzo with Romanesque and Byzantine elements and faced in large stone blocks of variegated greys, the Academy was quite different from the classical lines and the uniform light color of their nearby hospital.  But both were beautiful additions to a rapidly developing upper Fifth Avenue, now often called “Museum Mile.”  They were proud—and enduring—achievements for the architects and for the health care institutions they served so well.


The New York Academy of Medicine (1216 Fifth Avenue).


Entrance to the New York Academy of Medicine.

[1] Anonymous, “The Fifth Avenue Hospital and Laura Franklin Free Hospital for Children, New York City: York & Sawyer, Architects, Wiley Egan Woodbury, M.D., Consultant,” The Architectural Review 11:5 (November 1920), 129-140 plus unnumbered glossy plates.

Ninety Years and Counting

By Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian


Postcard showing entrance to The New York Academy of Medicine, n.d.

On Saturday, October 15th tours of The New York Academy of Medicine’s building will again be part of Open House New York, the city’s annual celebration of architecture and design.  This year’s event is a notable one for us because our building is ninety years old. On October 30, 1925, after sixteen years of fund-raising, searching for just the right location, and reviewing and approving plans drawn up by the architectural firm York & Sawyer, the trustees of the Academy laid the cornerstone for our present home. Slightly over a year later, on November 18, 1926, after an afternoon dedication ceremony, the building opened to the public.  The election of Honorary Fellows and the delivery of the Wesley M. Carpenter Lecture, by Professor Michael I. Pupin of Columbia University, took place that evening.

The building received quite a bit of attention in the press when it opened. The December 1, 1926, issue of the Medical Journal and Record devoted more than twenty pages to descriptions of the opening ceremonies, including the texts of several of the speeches from the November 17th dinner at the Waldorf Astoria that preceded the formal dedication, Arthur Duel’s account of the history of the Academy’s several homes, and Mabel Webster Brown’s detailed exploration of many of its architectural features.1


Postcard with exterior view from 103rd Street of The New York Academy of Medicine, n.d.


Postcard with view of Woerishoffer Hall, the Academy’s third floor reading room, constructed in 1925.

The building is a showcase of the Byzantine and Romanesque revival style popularized by York & Sawyer in collaboration with the interior design firm Barnet Phillips, whose other New York projects with the architects include the Central Savings Bank, the Bowery Savings Bank and the New York Athletic Club, all of which display similar design features.2 The Academy’s new home contained nine floors of library stacks; the main library reading room, Woerishoffer Hall, with its large arched windows looking out to the north and west; the auditorium, Hosack Hall; reception rooms; office spaces; and meeting rooms for the Academy and several other organizations. A carved lunette featuring Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, and his daughter, Hygeia, the goddess of health, fills the archway above the front entrance, flanked by portraits of Hippocrates and Galen. Carved Latin inscriptions, selected by a committee of Academy fellows, fill niches above the front door and some of the windows. Elaborately painted beamed ceilings, depicting animals and plants important to the history of medicine, grace the main lobby area and the third floor reading rooms. The bronze animals and plants inlaid in the marble floor of the entrance lobby, along with the carved figures in the auditorium, add whimsical touches that still attract the attention of visitors today.

Above, a squirrel and a mandrake adorn the floors of our lobby.

In 1928, Architectural Forum, one of the most prominent national architecture magazines, featured the building in its April Architectural Design issue, providing floor plans as well as multiple photographs of the interior and exterior spaces. Matlack Price, in his preliminary comments, complimented the architects on their ability to make the design seem “so new, so fresh, so vital as to seem almost the same stuff as the modernistic trend of today, the difference being that this new revival of Byzantine and Romanesque is far better than most of the modernistic work is, or is likely to be. This structure is among the most interesting of recent buildings.”3

 Although the Academy expected its new building to provide sufficient space for at least twenty years of library growth, by 1930 the trustees were already exploring plans for an expansion. At the end of 1932 the addition that contains the rare book room suite and other office and study spaces rose above the auditorium on the northeast side.

While looking through the archives in preparation for this year’s tours, sets of postcards illustrating a number of the architectural features of the building came to light. We know that these cards could not have been made until after the spring of 1933, when the addition was completed because one of the cards shows the interior of the rare book room (below). The postcards, which are part of this post, show many of the elements of the building that are still visible today.


Interior of our rare book room, now called the Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room.  n.d., but after 1933.


1Duel, A. B., “The Building of the Academy,” Medical Journal and Record Dec. 1, 1926, pp. 718-721 and Brown, M.W., “Art and Architecture of the Academy of Medicine’s New Home, Medical Journal and Record Dec. 1, 1926, pp. 729-734.

2  Accessed on October 4, 2016.

 3Price, M., “The New York Academy of Medicine,” Architectural Forum, Part I: Architectural Design, v.XLVIII, no.4, April 1928, pp. 485-503.

An Eye for Conservation: William Clift, Fenwick Beekman, and John Hunter

By William Buie, MA (History), Rutgers University-Camden, Spring Intern

“After [John] Hunter’s death, his great rambling mansion, three blocks thrown into one, passed through many hands. Till 1806 the Museum was still filled with his collection. … And there is a tradition that Stevenson drew from them his picture of the house and museum of Dr. Jekyll.” (Paget 1897, 155)1

Author Robert Louis Stevenson’s description of Dr. Jekyll’s fictional residence caused some of his contemporaries to suspect that he had used the real home and museum of the pioneering 18th-century Scottish surgeon John Hunter as a model; whether or not this was really the case is up for debate.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Color lithograph by National Printing & Engraving Company, 188?. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Color lithograph by National Printing & Engraving Company, 188?. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Stevenson did not mention Hunter in any of his notes. Yet the rumor became so widespread that Stephen Paget casually referred to the “tradition” in his 1897 biography of John Hunter.2 Speculation continues well into the 21st century.3 We may never know for sure if Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hunter both lived at No. 28, Leicester Square, but we can get a sense of what the residence looked like thanks to one of the few surviving design plans, in the library’s collection.

Pencil copy of William Clift's drawing of the "Ground plan of Mr. Hunter's Premises level with Street, or Parlour-Floor level."

Pencil copy of William Clift’s drawing of the “Ground plan of Mr. Hunter’s Premises level with Street, or Parlour-Floor level.” Click to enlarge.

Much of what we know about Hunter’s Leicester Square residence comes from a ground floor plan reproduced from memory by William Clift, Hunter’s assistant and the first conservator of the Hunter Museum. Clift was born 1775 in Bodmin, a town in Cornwall, England. He had a difficult upbringing. He lost his father, Robert Clift, at a very young age. According to Clift, his mother Joanna Courts occasionally “starved herself to save threepence a week” in order educate her son. She died when Clift was eight, leaving him “cast adrift on the wide wide world.”4 He eventually found work under a nurseryman named George King, a man given to occasional brandy-fueled outbursts. Out of the blue one day, an inebriated King chased Clift through the nursery. Clift managed to escape despite that fact that his pursuer was riding a horse. Clift drew a caricature of the incident sometime later and used it to entertain his coworkers. King became aware of the drawing and fired Clift.

Luckily, Nancy Gilbert of Priory, Bodmin became aware of Clift’s circumstance. Gilbert was a childhood friend of Anne Home, whom Hunter had married in 1771. Gilbert knew that the surgeon needed a new assistant and recommended Clift to Hunter, who gave him the job. On February 14, 1792, his and Hunter’s birthday, Clift arrived at the Leicester Square residence. In addition to the clothes on his back, he had only “four changes of shirts and neckcloths” to his name.4

Hunter was an accomplished anatomist, surgeon, lecturer, and a pioneer of evidence-based medicine.  During his lifetime, Hunter developed new methods for treating gunshot wounds and venereal disease. He stressed experimental research and encouraged his students to pay close attention to the way that the human body responded damage. Because of that approach, Hunter is now known as the pioneer of “scientific surgery.” He was also an avid collector of animal and plant specimens. His museum contained approximately 14,000 preparations of more than 500 different species.5

John Hunter, "engraved by W. O. Geller from the original picture by Sir Joshua Reynolds in the Royal College of Surgeons," 1836.

John Hunter, “engraved by W. O. Geller from the original picture by Sir Joshua Reynolds in the Royal College of Surgeons,” 1836.

Clift worked for Hunter for less than two years, but the days were full. Each morning, Clift assisted with dissection and the preparation of specimens for display. He put his  penmanship to use each evening when Hunter required he take dictation, copy his employer’s nearly illegible notes, and answer personal correspondence. The sudden death of Hunter on October 16, 1793 threatened to cast Clift adrift once more. Although Hunter’s income was steady and substantial, he borrowed from creditors to keep a ready supply of cash to cover household expenditures. Following his death, Mrs. Hunter left the house and rented out her room. She allowed only Clift and Elizabeth Adams, who worked as the Hunter’s housekeeper, to remain on staff. Clift was to look after the museum for a salary of £21 a year.6

Recognizing the intellectual value of Hunter’s manuscripts and collection of specimens, Clift set himself to the task of preserving them. He copied by hand nearly half of Hunter’s manuscripts. He also cared for the specimens in Hunter’s museum. Clift dutifully and quietly carried on for six years. His efforts were rewarded when the British government bought the collection in 1799 and transferred its care to the Royal College of Surgeons. A board of curators assembled by the RCS appointed Clift the official conservator of the museum. During his time as conservator, Clift cared for the physical condition of the collection and maintained its original order.7

Clift oversaw the Hunter Collection for the next 42 years, during which time the RCS transferred the materials from Leicester Square to a new building near Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Late one night after the move, as his time as conservator was coming to an end, Clift drafted the ground floor plan that we have today.8 Simon Chaplin, director of culture & society of the Wellcome Trust, has conducted extensive research into Hunter and the Leicester Street house and considers the drawing to be fairly accurate.9 Given that no complete plan exists for the Leicester Square property for the time when the Hunters lived there, Clift’s plan remains one of the best representations that we have today.

"Ground Plan of Mr. Hunter's Premisis, level with Street or Parlour-Floor level." Copied from original in Royal College of Surgeons.  Click to enlarge.

“Ground Plan of Mr. Hunter’s Premisis, level with Street or Parlour-Floor level.” Copied from original in Royal College of Surgeons. Click to enlarge.

Scholars typically describe the Leicester Square property as made up of two separate buildings that were originally separate structures. However, it may be helpful to think of the property as composed of four structures. There were two main buildings. Twenty-eight Leicester Square faced west. Thirteen Castle Street faced east. Situated between the two main buildings were two smaller structures. One building contained Hunter’s picture gallery. The other contained his “conversatione room,” lecture theater, and museum. The second and third floors of the Leicester Square building contained the Hunters’ private rooms. Mr. and Mrs. Hunter conducted many of their public affairs on the ground floor. It was there that Anne Home, a well-educated poet with connections in London’s literary and artistic scene, entertained guests. The Castle Street (now Charing Cross Road) building contained Hunter’s dissecting room, preparations room, a dining room for students, and a room for housekeeper Elizabeth Adams.10

Portrait of Dr. Fenwick Beekman. In Annan, G. L. (1961) "The Fenwick Beekman Collection." Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 37(4):  277–280.

Portrait of Dr. Fenwick Beekman. In Annan, G. L. (1961) “The Fenwick Beekman Collection.” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 37(4): 277–280.

A guide to the Fenwick Beekman Collection of images is now available online here. Before I discovered who Beekman was, the images collected appeared to have been randomly assembled. Biographical research revealed that Beekman was the foremost private collector of material related to 18th-century Scottish physician John Hunter. Beekman spent years researching and writing about him. When Beekman donated his Hunterian collection in 1960 it was considered the best in private hands. Only the Royal College of Surgeons could boast of a superior collection of Hunter-related materials. It is thanks to Beekman that the New York Academy of Medicine came to own a copy of Clift’s ground plan, along with the other items related to Hunter. After researching Beekman, I began looking into the history of each item in the collection. Thematically, the images reflect the diverse interests of Beekman and Hunter. In addition to the various images, there are several handwritten letters by Hunter that shed light on the early days of his career. I came away from the collection informed and entertained. I have no doubt others will as well.


1. Stephen Paget, John Hunter, Man of Science and Surgeon, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1897), 155.

2. Simon David John Chaplin, “John Hunter and the ‘Museum Oeconomy’, 1750-1800” (PhD diss., University of London, 209).

3. Lloyd Axelrod, “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde – and John Hunter,” The American Journal of Medicine 125 (2012): 618.

4. Arthur Keith, “The Dicary Lecture on the Life and Times of William Clift, First Conservator of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. Given in the Theatre of the Royal College of Surgeons, Friday, December 7th, 1923,”The British Medical Journal 2 (1923): 1127, 1128.

5. “John Hunter,” The Royal College of Surgeons, accessed April 23, 2015,

6. Keith, “Life and Times of William Clift,” 1127-29.

7. Ibid, 1129; Jessie Dobson, “William Clift, F.R.S., First Conservator of the Hunterian Museum,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 48 (1955): 324-325.

8. Keith, “Life and Times of William Clift,” 1129.

9 Chaplin, “John Hunter.”

10. Ibid.

Snakes in Medicine: Slippery Symbolism

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director

Image of Hygieia and Asclepius with staff and snake between them, accompanied by dogs, representing watchfulness.

Bas-relief of Hygeia and Asclepius overlooking our main entrance on 103rd St. Our 1926 building features numerous emblems and mythological figures associated with medicine. In this figure, father and daughter have the figure of the staff and snake between them, and are accompanied by dogs, representing watchfulness.

The snake in our blog header is a reference to Hygieia, the Greek goddess of health, cleanliness, and sanitation. Hygieia was often symbolized by a snake drinking from a bowl and was shown in sculptures and images with a serpent entwined around her. Her father was Asclepius, the god of medicine, generally depicted carrying a staff with a snake coiled around it. Snakes were introduced in Asclepian temples across the classical world, for use in healing rituals, and have remained associated with medicine in many ways since that time.

Brass snake inlaid on foyer floor

Our snake in-situ on our foyer floor, one of a series of inlaid figures with a connection to the practice of medicine over time.

As Walter J. Friedlander describes in his 1992 The Golden Wand of Medicine, the staff of Asclepius remained the primary symbol of medicine in the West until the 16th century, when examples of the caduceus began to be associated with medicine. The caduceus shows two snakes entwined around each other and a central staff, often with wings, and was associated with the god Hermes, especially as a symbol of commerce and trade. It was only in the late 19th century that the caduceus began to be widely accepted as a symbol of medicine. Friedlander suggests that this emerged in part from the use of the caduceus as a printer’s mark by medical publishers.

A wooden caduceus symbol shown in NYAM rare book reading room

A caduceus symbol in the NYAM rare book reading room

Most significant for the use of the caduceus as a medical symbol in the 20th century was the United States Army’s General Order Number 81, July 17, 1902. Included in its new regulations concerning army uniforms was the instruction that the new Medical Department insignia would be a gold or gilt caduceus. Subsequent arguments about the symbolism of the caduceus interpreted its elements in medical terms. For example, the rod represented power, the wings intelligence and activity, and the serpents wisdom and healing. Others argued that its use should be understood more in the traditional sense associated with Hermes, symbolizing a noncombatant messenger or envoy.

Despite initial objections to the appropriation of the symbol, the caduceus is now widely used as a symbol of medical practice, while Hygieia’s bowl continues to be particularly associated with the practice of pharmacy.