By Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator and Reference Librarian for Historical Collections
In honor of Valentine’s Day, these two “valentines” seemed appropriate items from our collection to share this week.
Pioneer American surgeon Dr. Valentine Mott (1785-1865), NYAM’s third president (1849), was the recipient of these two examples of micrography, created by David Davidson. Mott was born in Glen Cove, Long Island, and attended medical school at Columbia College. As a student, he also trained under a cousin, Dr. Valentine Seaman. After receiving his degree in 1806, he sailed to Europe, where he studied with Sir Astley Cooper in London, and then spent time in Edinburgh. When he returned to New York in 1809, he began to lecture in operative surgery at Columbia. By 1811, he had been appointed a professor of surgery, and in 1818 he was the first doctor to successfully perform surgery on the innominate artery, two inches away from the heart, to repair an aneurysm in the right subclavian artery. His patient survived for 26 days before succumbing to a secondary infection. For the rest of his career, he divided his time between the United States and Europe, serving on the medical faculties of the Rutgers Medical College, Columbia’s College of Physicians & Surgeons, the University Medical College and the Medical Department of New York University, and performing an extraordinary number of surgical procedures.
Aside from the charming but obvious play on Mott’s name and the tenuous connection to his surgery on the innominate artery, there is nothing on these “valentines” that explains why Davidson chose to make them. Davidson remains a bit of a mystery himself. Born in Russian Poland in 1812, he immigrated first to England and then to the United States, where he settled on the Lower East Side for awhile before moving on to Baltimore and finally to Boston. Davidson describes himself as an “Artist in Penmanship” at the Stuyvesant Institute on one of the valentines, and he was the creator of a number of different micrographic specimens, including portraits of famous figures and renderings of important buildings. Micrography, the art of using miniscule script to create abstract shapes or representations of objects, is a Jewish art form that dates back to the tenth century. In micrography, the writing itself is so small that the words themselves are not apparent except under close examination. Davidson is credited as one of the first practitioners of micrography in the United States. Various sacred writings were used in the execution of micrography, and for some of his creations Davidson used Hebrew texts, but for these two valentines he used English versions of the Book of Jonah and of a number of Psalms.