The Berg Brothers: Bibliophile Surgeons

By Anne Garner, Curator, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

New York physicians Henry W. and Albert A. Berg are well-known to students of literature. In 1940, Albert A. Berg founded the New York Public Library’s spectacular Berg Collection, endowed in his older brother Henry’s memory. It is a magical place, nestled on the third floor of NYPL’s Steven A. Schwarzman building, with endlessly deep collections in its vaults (I should know, I was lucky enough to work there). Highlights include a typescript draft of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, annotated by Ezra Pound; the manuscript notebooks containing five of Virginia Woolf’s seven novels; and a map drawn by Jack Kerouac of territory covered on the cross-country trip that inspired On The Road.

Left: Dr. Albert A. Berg, holding Blake's Europe, in an oil portrait by Jean Spencer hanging in The New York Public Library's Berg Collection. Right: Dr. Henry W. Berg in an oil portrait by Ellen Emmett Rand, also in the New York Public Library's Berg Collection. In Szladits, Brothers: The Origins of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection,1985.

Left: Dr. Albert A. Berg, holding Blake’s Europe, in an oil portrait by Jean Spencer hanging in The New York Public Library’s Berg Collection.
Right: Dr. Henry W. Berg in an oil portrait by Ellen Emmett Rand, also in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection.
In Szladits, Brothers: The Origins of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection,1985. Click to enlarge.

Fourteen years separated the eldest and youngest Berg siblings, but they had much in common, including interests in book collecting and literature, along with an aptitude for real estate investment (a pastime that funded their library interests). The two doctors lived together until Henry’s death in 1939 in a townhouse on East 73rd Street. The story of Henry and Albert Berg’s establishment of one of the world’s great literary collections is told in Lola Szladits’ excellent book, The Brothers.

The medical legacy of the brothers, both prominent New York doctors, is less widely known. Henry and Albert’s father, Moritz Berg, immigrated to America from Hungary in 1862 with designs to work as a doctor. He found work instead as a tailor to support his family of eight children. Moritz died of cancer when Albert was young, and Henry, already interested in medicine himself, determined that Albert should follow the same career path.1

Henry W. and Albert A. Berg (seated, second and third from left), most likely in a family portrait (circa 1900). In Szladits, Brothers: The Origins of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection,1985.

Henry W. and Albert A. Berg (seated, second and third from left), most likely in a family portrait (circa 1900). In Szladits, Brothers: The Origins of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection,1985.

Henry earned his medical degree from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1878, specialized in infectious disease, and headed Mount Sinai’s isolation service. He taught both neurology and pediatrics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons.2 Henry was attending physician at Willard Parker Hospital on East 16th Street for 40 years, until his death in 1939.3 His active role on Willard Parker’s board is documented in the Academy’s collection of Willard Parker minute books.

It was Henry who mentored Albert, put him through medical school, and showed him he could be a great doctor. All early indications were to the contrary: Albert repeatedly ditched class to play pool. Their mother was skeptical that Henry could ever make a doctor out of him.4 But by graduation (also from College of Physicians and Surgeons), Albert was a decorated prizewinner.5 And as a surgeon, he proved a brilliant and visionary pioneer, a key player in the development of abdominal surgery in the United States.

Albert A. Berg as a young doctor (seated, second from left). In Szladits, Brothers: The Origins of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection,1985, page 37.

Albert A. Berg as a young doctor (seated, second from left). In Szladits, Brothers: The Origins of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection,1985, page 37.

Albert’s exceptional skill as a surgeon is attested in a tribute article by Dr. Leon Ginzberg in a festschrift volume of the Journal of the Mount Sinai Hospital devoted to Albert’s career:

[Dr. Berg’s] tremendous capacity for work, his boldness and resolution, his extraordinary operative skill and his refusal to remain on the accepted path, had brought his service to an enviable position in the field of abdominal surgery. The most significant studies from his clinic were in the fields of gastroduodenal and jejunal ulcers. Other important contributions were made to the subjects of colonic, and more particularly rectal and recto-sigmoidal carcinoma….to chronicle adequately all of Dr. Berg’s ‘labors in the vineyard’ would be to write an important chapter in the history of the development of abdominal surgery in the United States.6

Title page of Alfred A. Berg’s Surgical Diagnosis, 1905, given by the author to the New York Academy of Medicine Library.

Albert’s skill and personal style made him one of New York’s most recognizable doctors by the 1920s. In physical appearance he was “six feet tall, slender, and forbidding.”7 Katie Loucheim’s remembrance in the New Yorker compares his appearance to an “esteemed rabbi…with a Vandyke beard…his manner in speaking and his voice were reassuring.”8 He wore a red carnation in his lapel, even during surgery, until the death of his brother in 1939.9

Albert—or A.A. as his medical friends called him—observed an almost fanatical devotion to the operating room. Loucheim reports that Albert regularly scheduled surgery for a few minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve, believing that if he began the new year in surgery he could secure for himself a happy year. Berg’s dexterity as a surgeon ensured that he could easily converse about rare books while operating on patients, including his friend, the great book collector Carl Pforzheimer. Seven days a week, the Fifth Avenue bus—“Berg’s green taxi” to his colleagues, dropped him halfway down the block in front of the canopy of Mount Sinai. Other passengers complained because it wasn’t an actual bus stop (in turn, the conductors and bus drivers relied on Berg for any surgical needs).10

Mount Sinai Hospital, circa 1913. From The Dr. Robert Matz Collection of Medical Postcards.

Mount Sinai Hospital, circa 1913. From The Dr. Robert Matz Collection of Medical Postcards.

A stone’s throw away from A.A. Berg’s beloved Guggenheim pavilion at Mount Sinai Hospital, the Berg name lives on. On the third floor of the New York Academy of Medicine in the former periodicals room is a bronze plaque commemorating the gifts of Drs. Henry W. and Albert A. Berg to the Academy. A bequest from Albert endowed the third floor room that bears their name and still supports the acquisition of library periodicals today. Both brothers were Academy Fellows (Henry beginning in 1890, Albert in 1900).

Albert seems to have recognized how vital a good set of tools were to students of surgery. A copy of his last will and testament in the Academy’s archives entrusts his surgical instruments, instrument bags, and laboratory equipment, including two microscopes and examination tables and one portable operating table, to “one or more deserving young surgeons” to be selected at the Academy’s discretion.11 The items are no longer at the Academy; perhaps they were also used by a student whose path to medicine was at first uncertain, but later found his or her way.

New York Times article from July 18, 1950 announcing Albert A. Berg's bequests, including to the New York Public Library and the New York Academy of Medicine.

New York Times article from July 18, 1950 announcing Albert A. Berg’s bequests, including to the New York Public Library and the New York Academy of Medicine. Click to enlarge.

References

1. Szladits, Lola. Brothers : The Origins of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection. New York: New York Public Library, 1985. pp. 9-10.

2. Szladits, pp. 10-11.

3. Medical Society of the State of New York. Medical Directory of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. New York: 1899-1939.

4. Louchheim, Katie. “Sweeping Formalities and Offstage Flourishes.” The New Yorker 3 Nov. 1975: 40-48. Print.

5. Szladits, pp. 11.

6. Ginzburg, Leon. “Some of the Principles and Methods contributed by the service of Dr. A.A. Berg.” Journal of the Mount Sinai Hospital Volume 17.6 (1951): 356-368. The Journal of the Mount Sinai Hospital has been digitized and is available online.

7. Szladits, 39.

8. Loucheim, 41.

9. New Yorker and Szladits.

10. Szladits, 42.

11. The New York Academy of Medicine Archives. Library Correspondence, 1927-1974.

Discover the Academy Library

The Coller Rare Book Reading Room captured by Ardon Bar-Hama.

The Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room captured by Ardon Bar-Hama.

The New York Academy of Medicine Library is a place of discovery. It’s where the scholarly and the curious alike turn to learn about the history of what keeps us well, and what makes us sick. It’s a place to discover the lessons learned in pursuit of individual health and well being, and the intricacies of the politics and policies of ensuring public health in cities, the nation and the world.

The Academy Library is where world-renowned writers, historians, documentary filmmakers, health professionals, and students come to learn, to be inspired, and to form the foundation of knowledge that opens the door to a future discovery. It’s a place where unique programming –open to all–integrates medicine with history, humanities, and the arts through its Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health.

Open to the general public, the Library houses over 550,000 volumes, an extensive rare book collection, and unique medical artifacts of historical importance that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Won’t you join us in helping to safeguard the Library’s treasures to ensure that the opportunity for discovery is available to all?

Support the Library to preserve its collections and ensure ongoing support for its one-of-a-kind public programming. Thank you for your generosity and take a few minutes to discover for yourself a few of the Library’s many treasures through our digital gallery.

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How One Small Box of Photos Inspired Our Staff

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian. Photographs by Library staff.

In our stacks sits an unassuming grey-blue box, labeled “[Photograph negatives and positives, taken by Frank Place of the New York Academy of Medicine staff and buildings…] 1925–1941.”

The box of Place's photographs.

The box of Place’s photographs.

Frank Place worked as a reference librarian for the New York Academy of Medicine library for 40 years, from 1905 until his retirement in 1945.1 He was at the Academy when it was located at 17 West 43rd Street (its home from 1890), and documented its move in 1926. He took pictures of Central Park, of staff working and relaxing, and of spaces inside and outside the current and previous locations.

"Frank Place in Reading Room as moving was going on," 1926, 17 West 43rd St.

“Frank Place in reading room as moving was going on,” 1926, 17 West 43rd St.

In celebration of Frank Place and library and Academy staff past and present, we have recreated a few of Place’s numerous photographs. We could not always take pictures in the original locations—Place took one of the selected pictures at 17 West 43rd Street and several office spaces have been renovated since his time. But we attempted to capture the essence of the photographs and honor Place’s documentarian spirit.

Where possible, we’ve identified the people pictured in the original pictures, but all we have to go on are minimal pencil notes Place scrawled on the backs of the photographs. Unfortunately, he did not always take his own advice, as expressed in the Bulletin of the Medical Library Association in 1944:

It is not a bad idea to have photographs of the library staff at different periods. And don’t forget to name everybody, and, yes, date the print and the negative. Why not assemble photographs of the members of your society or academy? Some one of you no doubt owns a “candid” camera and can take snapshots with little or no trouble.2

If you know the full names of anyone unidentified or incompletely identified, please let us know.

Click on an image to enlarge.

Dr. Felicia Robbins, 1920. Right: Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian, 2015.Left: Dr. Felicia Robbins, 1920. Dr. Robbins (1869–1950), born the Baroness von Autenried, was a gynecologist. A brief biography describes her as having “a more extensive medical literary knowledge than any living person. Most of her time was spent at the Academy among the book stacks.”3

Right: Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian, July 16, 2015.

“F. Kinsley among duplicates,” 1926. Right: Danielle Aloia, Special Projects Librarian, among duplicates, July 7, 2015.Left: “F. Kinsley among duplicates,” 1926. Right: Danielle Aloia, Special Projects Librarian, among duplicates, July 7, 2015.

Left: Florence Duvall, Head of the Cataloging Department, February 13, 1929. Right: Rebecca Pou, Archivist, July 7, 2015.Left: Florence Duvall, Head of the Cataloging Department, February 13, 1929. Right: Rebecca Pou, Archivist, July 7, 2015.

Left: “A. White, maybe 1932.” Right, Paul Theerman, Associate Director, July 16, 2015.Left: “A. White, maybe 1932.” Right, Paul Theerman, Associate Director, July 16, 2015.

Top: Helen Field in the Rare Book Reading Room, July 1933. Bottom: Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian, July 16, 2015.Top: Helen Field in the Rare Book Reading Room, July 1933. Bottom: Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian, July 16, 2015.

Left: E. W. Evans, April 11, 1941. Right: Christina Amato, Book Conservator, July 23, 2015.Left: E. W. Evans, April 11, 1941. Right: Christina Amato, Book Conservator, July 23, 2015.

Left: M. Schieck, A. Larsen, M. Roberts, Helen Field, October 1941. Right: Emily Moyer (Collections Care Assistant), Kate Bator (Past Collections Care Assistant), Erin Albritton (Head of Conservation), and Christina Amato (Book Conservator), July 22, 2015.Left: M. Schieck, A. Larsen, M. Roberts, Helen Field, October 1941. Right: Emily Moyer (Collections Care Assistant), Kate Bator (Past Collections Care Assistant), Erin Albritton (Head of Conservation), and Christina Amato (Book Conservator), July 22, 2015.

Left: Helen Field, March 1942. Right: Robin Naughton, Digital Systems Manager, July 16, 2015.Left: Helen Field, March 1942. Right: Robin Naughton, Digital Systems Manager, July 16, 2015.

Top: M. Roberts, March 1942. Bottom: Anne Garner, Curator, July 7, 2015.Top: M. Roberts, March 1942. Bottom: Anne Garner, Curator, July 7, 2015.

Left: “Westrom Dr. Clouting Maddocks.” Suhani Parikh (Coordinator, Office of Trustee and Fellowship Affairs), Tammy Cowart (Payroll Coordinator, Business Office), Sejal Gandhi (Director of the Education & Conference Center), July 28, 2015.Left: “Westrom Dr. Clouting Maddocks.” Felix Wesstrom worked at the Academy from 1893–1935. He started “as an elevator boy, became janitor, and had done almost every kind of service in the forty-two years he served the Academy, including a brief period of collecting dues.”1 Harold Maddocks was the superintendent of the building.4 We were unable to uncover significant information on Dr. Clouting.

Right: As the original photograph features non-library staff, our recreation does the same. Left to right: Suhani Parikh (Coordinator, Office of Trustee and Fellowship Affairs), Tammy Cowart (Payroll Coordinator, Business Office), Sejal Gandhi (Director of the Education & Conference Center), July 28, 2015.

References

1. Van Ingen P. The New York Academy of Medicine: Its first hundred years. New York: Columbia University Press,; 1949.

2. Place F. Records off the Record. Bull Med Libr Assoc. 1944;32(2):214–6. Available at: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=194346&tool=pmcentrez&rendertype=abstract. Accessed July 29, 2015.

3. Bryant WS. Felicia Autenried Robbins, M.D., 1869-1950.; 1951.

4. Annual meeting. N Y State J Med. 1933;33:538.