Back to School! Conservation of the Academy’s 19th- and 20th-Century Medical Student Notebooks

By Erin Albritton, Head of Conservation and Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Reference Librarian

A small sample of student notebooks from the library’s collection.

A small sample of student notebooks from the library’s collection.

The New York Academy of Medicine Library’s manuscript collections feature a number of notebooks kept by medical students while they studied to become physicians. These notebooks, which contain both class notes and clinical reports created by students as they followed professors on rounds, are fascinating repositories of information that enrich our understanding of medical education during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Title page from Marcus Lorenzo Taft’s Notes of a Course of Lectures on Surgery by Valentine Mott, M.D., 1842–44.

Title page from Marcus Lorenzo Taft’s Notes of a Course of Lectures on Surgery by Valentine Mott, M.D., 1842–44.

In January, the New York State Discretionary Grant Program for the Conservation and Preservation of Library Research Materials awarded the Gladys Brooks Book and Paper Conservation Laboratory funding to carry out conservation treatment on 42 notebooks from the collection, all of which were created by students studying at medical colleges in New York City between 1827 and 1909. Contract conservator Jayne Hillam completed the conservation portion of the grant project in June. Following cataloging updates, the materials will soon be available for use.

An abundance of published resources can be used to research the world of 19th– and early 20th-century medical education. Circulars, annual reports, and catalogs provide scholars with detailed information about admission requirements, programs of instruction, textbooks, schedules of clinical demonstrations, faculty and student rosters, and even the addresses of boarding houses where students lived. In addition, printed copies of inaugural and valedictory addresses delivered by faculty members to student audiences offer a record of what physicians and faculty members thought medical students should know about the world of medical practice. Missing from these printed sources, however, is an intimate sense of how students actually learned to be physicians—i.e., what they studied in their classes and on clinical rounds; how they recorded that information for their own personal use; and how their understanding of the subject matter may have changed over time.

The 42 student notebooks conserved under this grant help bridge that gap, providing a window into the evolution not only of medical education, but of American higher education in general, and offering detailed evidence of the curriculum taught to medical students as medicine evolved through the 19th century. These notebooks also tell us a great deal about the students themselves, showing how they mastered the subjects they studied, what they learned from observing clinical demonstrations, and what professorial advice they deemed worth transcribing.

Harold Mixsell’s notes and charming illustration about caffeine, from the pharmacology lectures delivered by Dr. Walter Bastedo at New York’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, 1907.

Harold Mixsell’s notes and charming illustration about caffeine, from the pharmacology lectures delivered by Dr. Walter Bastedo at New York’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, 1907.

A reminder about the proper method of examining patients with scarlet fever, from Harold Mixsell’s notes from medical clinics in 1908.

A reminder about the proper method of examining patients with scarlet fever, from Harold Mixsell’s notes from medical clinics in 1908.

In addition to their content, the notebooks in this collection (which include both ready-made blank books and more finely bound presentation pieces) are also a valuable source of information about binding structures. They were produced during a pivotal moment in American bookbinding history when the traditions of the hand binding period gave way to the Industrial Era. In this case, the physical objects provide researchers with a unique opportunity to explore how the mass production and availability of blank books in the 19th century might have influenced classroom learning and the transmission of knowledge.

Three ready-made notebooks after conservation treatment.

Three ready-made notebooks after conservation treatment.

While most of these manuscripts were, quite clearly, student working copies (hastily written and illustrated, and characterized by a parsimonious use of paper), several were created as prize notebooks—the result of a 19th-century practice in which institutions and faculty members awarded cash prizes to students who demonstrated skill in note taking. As ideas about education evolved, the creation of prize notebooks came to be viewed more as a distraction than an enhancement to the learning process, and the competitions were eventually discontinued. That said, with their decorated bindings, artful title pages, expertly rendered calligraphy and hand-colored illustrations, the prize notebooks in the Academy’s collection are beautiful objects that amaze and delight any modern-day student note taker.

John Edwin Stillwell’s prize notebook of Dr. Fessenden Nott Otis’s lectures on venereal diseases, 1874–75.

John Edwin Stillwell’s prize notebook of Dr. Fessenden Nott Otis’s lectures on venereal diseases, 1874–75.

Stillwell’s prize notebook recording the gynecological clinics of Dr. T. Gaillard Thomas, 1873–74.

Stillwell’s prize notebook recording the gynecological clinics of Dr. T. Gaillard Thomas, 1873–74.

While the majority of notebooks in the collection have fared well since their creation, the 42 manuscripts selected for this grant all required some type of conservation treatment, ranging from simple cleaning to advanced paper and binding repair. Thanks to the generous financial support of the New York State Library’s Division of Library Development, these repairs are now complete and the notebooks can once again be referenced safely without fear of damage.

Before and after conservation treatment of a student notebook containing notes on internal medicine, 1873–74.

Before and after conservation treatment of a student notebook containing notes on internal medicine, 1873–74.