Quarantine in Nineteenth-Century New York

By Lorna Ebner, Guest Contributor, Stony Brook University

As COVID-19 races through New York, we asked Lorna Ebner to tell us about previous attempts to mitigate disease in the city. Ms. Ebner is a PhD student in history at Stony Brook University, currently researching the 1858 destruction of the Staten Island Marine Hospital by residents upset at the presence of the quarantine hospital in their community.

As COVID-19 numbers continue to climb, the sounds of New York City are uncharacteristically muted. Many living in the city are understandably disquieted by the absence of the familiar soundtrack of city life, but this is far from the first time Broadway and Times Square have been silenced by an epidemic. Over the course of the nineteenth century, New York City officials have struggled to understand and alleviate the spread of disease. By the end of the century, one practice, when properly executed alongside sanitation measures, was proven to successfully stem the tide and save lives: Quarantine has conclusively mitigated the spread of disease for hundreds of years.

Throughout the long nineteenth century, New York City faced disease epidemics that felled thousands. Yellow fever (1795, 1798, 1804, and 1856) and cholera (1832, 1849, 1854, 1862) caused alarm through their high mortality rates. However, the number of deaths recorded is likely a vast underestimation as disease reporting was not kept up and counting was often skewed. From the early to mid-nineteenth century, limited medical knowledge combined with a lack of a standing public health authority limited the city’s reactions to contagious disease. Yellow fever, spread through mosquitoes, hit New York City in 1795, 1798, and 1804. In an effort to curtail the rising number of cases, a Health Committee made up of physicians was assembled and given authority by the City Council. Its first act sanctioned quarantine for all ships that carried any form of illness and those arriving from affected areas, particularly Philadelphia. In 1795, the quarantine was violated by a merchant vessel that denied incidences of sickness on board. This violation and blatant disregard for the dangers posed by yellow fever led to an outbreak in the city. Over 750 New Yorkers died, nearly 2 percent of the city’s population.[1] In 1805, New York City’s first Board of Health was appointed by the mayor and City Council. It was generally an apathetic government body with little power that met only at irregular intervals over the next six decades until called upon by a crisis.

The nineteenth century saw more devastating outbreaks as cholera swept through the city in 1832, 1849, and 1854. Cholera’s victims suffered from acute dehydration which caused patients to turn blue.

Cholera faces

Horatio Bartley. Illustrations of Cholera Asphyxia; In Its Different Stages. Selected from Cases Treated at the Cholera Hospital, Rivington Street. New York: Printed by S. H. Jackson, New-York, 1832.

The visceral sights relentlessly reminded New Yorkers of the disease’s dangerous presence. In 1832, a cholera pandemic approached New York City after leaving a destructive trail through Asia and Europe. After cases were reported in Quebec in late June, Mayor Walter Browne enacted a blanket quarantine on all incoming vessels. The Board of Health was called out of hibernation to enforce quarantine and enact efforts to clean up impoverished neighborhoods, such as the Five Points District. The board also commissioned special quarantine hospitals. These were either converted warehouses, taverns, and schools, or were hastily constructed on empty lots, as hospitals at the time did not accept patients with infectious diseases. New Yorkers of means fled the city in hopes that the country air and distance would deter cholera’s onslaught. Between June and September of 1832, 3,515 deaths were attributed to cholera, while 70,000 New York citizens fled for the country, spreading the disease unknowingly across the United States.[2] Cholera descended upon New York City again in 1849. The Board of Health quarantined all incoming vessels and made it illegal to keep hogs within city limits as part of its ongoing sanitation efforts. In this outbreak, the Board of Health reported 5,017 deaths over the course of the summer.[3] Preparedness and stringent sanitary measures during the 1854 epidemic led to a lower mortality rate, and the number of deaths attributed to cholera dropped by almost half, to 2,509.[4]

During the mid-nineteenth century, cholera was not the only disease for which public health officials demanded immediate quarantine for all contaminated incoming vessels. As yellow fever approached New York in 1856, the head physician of the Marine Hospital, which served as a quarantine hospital for both people and products, mapped the incoming quarantined vessels. Elisha Harris’s map indicates where in the harbor the quarantined ships anchored as well as areas along the coast that he believed were susceptible to contaminated paraphernalia.

New York Harbor

Map of quarantined vessels in New York City. Elisha Harris. The Annual Report of the Physician-in-Chief of the Marine Hospital at Quarantine: Presented to the Legislature February 4, 1857. Albany: Charles Van Benthuysen, 1857.

While public health officials and many in the medical field espoused the belief that yellow fever was indeed contagious and in need of strict quarantine, some expressed other concerns. “The restrictions laid upon commerce, with a view to prevent the introduction of yellow fever, are grounded upon the supposition of its contagious and infectious character; whereas, it is a disease of local origin, and incapable of propagation from person to person, or by emanations from the human body.”[5] Though restrictions on commerce continued, despite people’s belief that trading should continue, yellow fever ran rampant through Staten Island and the shores of Long Island. Fort Hamilton and Tompkinsville suffered dozens of cases. Because health was not prioritized by all and quarantine regulations were not strictly adhered to, New York again suffered loss of life.

The cholera epidemic of 1866 saw the advent of the Metropolitan Board of Health, which proactively enforced strict quarantine and sanitary measures prior to the outbreak. Unlike with the previous epidemics, the newly established board set out strict sanitary measures that applied to all businesses and tenement owners. While many New Yorkers vocalized their dissatisfaction with what they thought of as harsh and unnecessary measures, the numbers speak for themselves. Despite an exponentially growing population, the third cholera epidemic claimed the lives of 1,137 New Yorkers as compared to over 5,000 in 1849, and over 3,000 in 1832. As historian of medicine Charles E. Rosenberg wrote, “Physicians had tried to cure cholera; 1866 had shown them their duty was to prevent it.”[6]

The city’s measures proved effective in the late nineteenth century. A worldwide cholera pandemic began in 1881. For over a decade, cholera spread throughout Europe and Asia. After a century of battling the disease, most cities instituted precautions to mitigate loss of life. By the time cholera approached New York City in fall of 1892 in the form of a contagious vessel from Hamburg, Germany, city officials and public health authorities had already prepared strict quarantine procedures. As a result, the expected onslaught never arrived. It is estimated that 32 deaths occurred because of cholera in the fall of 1892, and that the majority of these occurred on quarantined vessels that arrived from contagious cities.[7] The century of experience definitively illustrated that preparation and preemptive quarantine proved effective in slowing or even stopping the spread of contagious disease.

New York’s resilience through nineteenth-century epidemics demonstrates the effectiveness of public health measures such as enforced quarantine and increased sanitation. Though the population of New York City continued to grow throughout the nineteenth century, the number of deaths from epidemic disease fell. The Board of Health, once a listless and irregular fixture, grew into a metropolitan medical authority whose public health measures alleviated the spread of contagion. A version of quarantine has always been employed during times of crisis. Public health in the twentieth century expanded the practice to include individual and self-quarantine. In late 2019, news broke of a novel, deadly, and extremely contagious virus Despite the developing information concerning COVID-19’s spread, the federal government did not have a consistent response to the possibility of a worldwide outbreak. And, unlike previous contagious threats, such as cholera in 1880 and smallpox in 1947, the city did not quarantine immediately and did not implement sanitary measures until after the coronavirus—unbeknownst to authorities—had already spread through the population. New York City’s history conclusively shows that basic public health measures, properly enacted, serve as New York’s most powerful weapon against epidemics. The consequences of ignoring and downplaying serious medical threats result in needless loss of life, a story shown over and over again in the nineteenth century, up to the great influenza pandemic of 1918, and now replayed in our current day.


[1] John Duffy, History of Public Health in New York City, 1625–1866: Volume 1 (Russell Sage Foundation, 1968), 104.

[2] J. S. Chambers, The Conquest of Cholera: America’s Greatest Scourge (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1938), 63.

[3] Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 114.

[4] Duffy, 588.

[5] “Yellow Fever and Quarantine—Letter from a Non-Contagionist,” New York Daily Times, September 9, 1856.

[6] Rosenberg, 212.

[7] Paul S. B. Jackson, “Fearing Future Epidemics: The Cholera Crisis of 1892,” Cultural Geographies, 2012, 43–65, 52.

Highlighting NYAM Women in Medical History: Sara Josephine Baker, MD, DrPh

By Hannah Johnston, Library Volunteer

This the first entry in our series on female New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) Fellows and their contributions to society. Please also see our biographical sketch of Mary Putnam Jacobi, the first female Fellow.

A pioneer in public health and champion of preventative medicine, New York Academy of Medicine Fellow Dr. Sara Josephine Baker (1873–1945) had a significant impact on the landscape of maternal and infant health outcomes in the early twentieth century in New York City. Throughout her long career as a physician and health inspector, Baker introduced and supported numerous measures to reduce maternal, infant, and child mortality and morbidity, particularly in immigrant and low-income communities within the city. Her work saved countless lives and had substantial influence within the larger structure of medicine and public health in New York and beyond.[1] Baker and her career were exceptional in many ways, but in particular, she engendered greater public trust in the medical profession by encouraging greater reliance on doctors while still allowing for and expecting continued trust in other sources of knowledge.

Portrait as director of the Bureau of Child Hygiene

Portrait of Sara Josephine Baker. In S. Josephine Baker, Fighting for life (1939). NYAM Collection.

Baker, who was often referred to affectionately as “Dr. Jo,” earned her medical degree from the Women’s Medical College at the New York Infirmary, which was founded by early female physicians Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell.[2] Following her graduation, she began practicing in New York while serving as a medical inspector for the New York Life Insurance Company and as a part-time medical examiner for the city. In 1907, she was appointed Assistant Commissioner of Health, and by the following year was named the first director of the Bureau of Child Hygiene.[3]

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The doctors and nurses of the Bureau of Child Hygiene in 1909. In S. Josephine Baker, Fighting for life (1939). NYAM Collection.

Among Baker’s chief concerns as director were those regarding the high infant mortality and morbidity rates in the city, especially in communities with low rates of access to sanitary medical care. In her 1939 autobiography Fighting for Life, she noted the high rates of infant blindness, illness, and deaths in the city, and attributed them to overreliance on the unqualified advice of neighbors and friends as well as a lack of sanitation of spaces and materials.[4] In 1913 she wrote a pamphlet for new mothers, in coordination with the New York Milk Committee, titled “Talks with Mothers,” instructing them on how to best prevent these and other issues, as well as urging them to consult with medical professionals whenever possible.[5] Additionally, Baker lamented high rates of infant, child, and maternal mortality in New York. Many of her public health and preventative care efforts were directed toward lowering these mortality rates, particularly by improving access to pasteurized milk and sanitary medical care. Sanitation was not Baker’s sole focus, however; she marveled at how babies living in tenements seemed to be doing better than foundlings living in sanitary hospitals, and concluded that “personal care from a maternally minded mother” was as important for a baby’s survival as sanitation.[6] She then implemented a program where “tenement mothers” fostered foundlings from the hospital, which led to a drastic drop in the mortality rate among these babies — from 50% to 33% generally, and from 100% to 50% among “hopeless cases.”[7]

A firm believer in social medicine, Baker formed her opinions and efforts regarding public health around the needs and circumstances of the communities she served. Her commitments to serving immigrant and low-income communities can be clearly seen in her considerations of the practice of midwifery in the city and of the needs of working mothers. Despite feeling that midwives in the U.S. were largely “very clumsy [practitioners] indeed who had got into the profession as [amateurs] and stayed in to make a living,” Baker recognized that many women, especially those who had grown up in countries where midwives were more widely respected and utilized, were uncomfortable with the “American” practice of (male) physician-attended birth.[8] Positing that without midwives women might put themselves at further risk by seeking the help of unqualified neighbors and friends before seeking a doctor (if they could even afford to), Baker became focused on implementing a system to regulate the practice of midwifery in the city to ensure higher standards of care. This stance put her at odds with many of her peers, and in Fighting for Life, she described a “hot discussion” with her colleagues at the New York Academy of Medicine over the matter.[9] In order to ensure the well-being of infants whose mothers were in the workforce, a common occurrence particularly in low-income households at the time, Baker developed the Little Mothers League to educate older children on the proper care of infants. Since older daughters were often tasked with caring for their siblings while their parents worked, Baker believed it was important to ensure that everyone caring for babies was prepared to do so. The education girls received from the Little Mothers League, Baker reasoned, also had the positive side effect of larger-scale understanding of the proper care of children, as the “Little Mothers” shared their new expertise with their parents, friends, and communities.[10]

Sara Josephine Baker’s long, wide-ranging, and impressive career saw significant improvements in the well-being of mothers and children in New York City and beyond. Aside from her efforts to improve the care of infants, she championed preventative healthcare for toddlers and school-aged children and mothers, and was instrumental—twice—in catching the first known asymptomatic carrier of typhoid, “Typhoid Mary” Mallon.[11] By the time she retired in New Jersey with her partner Ida Wylie and their friend Louise Pearce in the mid-1930s, New York City had the lowest urban infant mortality rate in the United States.[12] Sara Josephine Baker’s social and preventative approach to medicine engendered greater and more widespread public trust in medical professionals while respecting the need for other sources of knowledge and care, and made New York City a healthier place.

References

[1] Manon Parry, “Sara Josephine Baker (1873-1945),” American Journal of Public Health 96 No. 4 (2006), pp. 620–621.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sara Josephine Baker, Fighting for Life (New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1939), 116–119, New York Academy of Medicine Library, New York, NY, Special Collections, Call No. WZ 100 B168 1939, Film 8865 no. 5.

[5] Sara Josephine Baker, “Talks with Mothers” (New York, NY: The New York Milk Committee, for the Babies’ Welfare Association of New York City, 1913), New York Academy of Medicine Library, New York, NY, Pamphlet Collection, Box 97, Call No. 115239.

[6] Baker, Fighting for Life 119–121.

[7] Ibid. 120.

[8] Ibid. 112.

[9] Ibid. 114.

[10] Ibid. 132–137.

[11] Parry.

[12] Ibid.

Finding Cause in Street Cleanliness:  The Citizens’ Association of New York Report of 1865

By Anne Garner, Curator, Rare Books and Manuscripts

It’s 1863. New York’s streets are dismal.  Downtown, the scents of manure, garbage and chemicals permeate the air.  The streets are littered with debris, and in some places, are navigable only by wading through standing water. The gaps between cobblestones catch sewage and other dirt discharged from nearby tenements.

Public health statisticians estimate that New York has upwards of 200,000 cases of preventable and needless sickness every year. The Board of Health, controlled by corrupt politicians, is ineffective.  In newspapers like Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News and Harper’s Weekly, the condition of New York’s thoroughfares is a punchline. Editorials, cartoons and newspaper stories blame immigrant populations, the poor, and an indifferent municipal government. [1]

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T. Bernhard Gillam, “The Streets of New York,” Harper’s Weekly, February 26, 1881.

What to do?  In December of that same year, a group of citizens met with Mayor Gunther, the recently elected reform candidate to consider the city’s social problems. The following year, these concerned citizens formed the Citizens’ Association of New York, dedicated to a cause they describe in simple terms: “public usefulness.” [2]  The organization quickly determined that physicians should play a prominent role in sanitary reform, and organized the Association’s Special Council of Hygiene and Public Health. [3]

In May of 1864, the Council embarked on a street-by-street sanitary inspection of New York City. Medical inspectors – all physicians—were assigned to 31 districts throughout the city in an attempt to gather detailed information about New Yorkers and their living conditions. For seven months, the inspectors visited every household in Manhattan and used a nine-page survey as their guide. [4]

​​During the course of the survey, the inspectors filled seventeen volumes of observations and notes comprising the most “precise and exacting account of a city’s health and social conditions ever compiled.” Many of these notebooks, including some remarkable hand-drawn maps, are available at The New-York Historical Society. The image below is taken from the Society’s archives and shows a tenant house for 200 people at 311 Monroe Street, in the 9th District. [5]

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Record of Sanitary Inquiry, 7th ward, 9th District, {BV Citizens’ Association}. Reposted with permission of the New-York Historical Society.

This survey, presented by medical inspector William Hunter to former New York Academy of Medicine President Joseph M. Smith, records the living conditions of a family of three recent Irish immigrants living in a three-story tenement on W. 14th Street in late October of 1864. The unit was comprised of David, age 30, described in the survey as an “intelligent but uneducated” gardener, Ellen, age 28, and Margaret, age 6. The survey suggests that all three family members had typhoid fever, likely contracted on their journey to America from Ireland just a few months before.  Though the family’s living conditions were described as “good,” Hunter notes that the six families in their apartment were living in close quarters in just six rooms, with only two windows as a source of light and ventilation, and in such proximity to the horse stable that the horse could freely wander into their hallway. [6]

Surveys of this depth and length were kept for every household throughout the city’s 31 wards.  Wards were frequently assigned to physicians who knew the neighborhoods and the residents.  Most of the residents were given a thorough medical exam, and the nuisances of their environment were recorded in detail. [7]  Each ward’s physician contributed a district report, summarizing their findings. Ezra Pulling, who was the sanitary inspector for the fourth ward, contributed a report on his district and his data was poured into the making of this extraordinary map, published along with the report in 1865.  ​

2CANY_reportcouncilhygiene_sanitarychartfourthward_ca1865_watermark

Map of the Fourth Ward of the City of New York. Report of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health of the Citizens’ Association of New York. New York:  Appleton, 1865.

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Fourth Ward map, detail of Gotham Court

The long, rectangular building that you see here at the center of this detail is a tenant house called Gotham Court.  The stars here indicate that outbreaks of typhus and smallpox have occurred in the house.  Privies in the basement were discharged into subterranean drains or sewers that run through each alley and then outside through grated openings, blocking much of the waste. Inside, each individual has an average of 275 cubic feet.  If these dimensions are difficult to picture, imagine a closet 5 feet square and 11 feet high, allotted per person, for their body and for everything they own as well. Nineteen children were recorded as unvaccinated for smallpox (the only vaccine available at this time) here, and it was also noted that clothes were being manufactured in the building as well—clothes that were exposed to cases of typhus and measles. [8]

In another section of the map, we see a number of tenant houses north of the Bowery surrounded by stables, with a brewery and a coal yard at the east.  Less than 30 percent of the privies in this district are connected with drains and sewers, and at least ten of these, as marked on the map by black squares, are in extremely offensive condition. A number of these are indicated on the map below.

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Fourth Ward map, detail of the Bowery

The impact of the publication of the Citizens’ Association report and the map itself was mixed. The report led to higher sanitation standards throughout the city, and forced the attention of government officials, who passed a law to create the Board of Health.[9]  Under this law, at least three of the Board’s nine commissioners needed to be physicians. Though the Council went to great lengths to visually and verbally document the city’s housing conditions, the Council didn’t investigate wage equity or the frequency and rate of unemployment. Historian Elizabeth Blackmar has argued that “the surveys fueled the movement for developing building codes and sanitary inspection as a means of guaranteeing better housing, but they also erased from discussion reflection on the larger economic relations that produced them.” [10]  In some cases, the report’s writers unfairly drew a line of causation directly from better living conditions to economic security, implying that given the right housing, the poor could flourish, independent of employment opportunities, fare wages, and access to healthcare.

In spite of its shortcomings, the report offered keen observations about the city’s conditions, and was instrumental in inspiring great reform in the city.  Today, IMAGE NYC, a project launched by the Academy with the CUNY Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research / CUNY Graduate Center earlier this year, embraces the methodology the Citizens’ Association deployed over 150 years ago, and largely for the same reason: to better understand the social determinants of health.  The site has an interactive map of New York City’s current and projected population, 65 and older.  Much like the Citizens’ Association map, the idea is to determine environmental risks and benefits to certain populations.  Here, instead of physicians canvassing the neighborhoods to note conditions, community members can use the 311 app to take pictures and send them to the city.

The Fourth Ward Map, published as part of the 1865 Report of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health, as well as the 1864 survey form documenting the household of the Irish immigrants living on 14th street, are on view in Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis, until this Sunday, April 28th.

References

[1] Bert Hansen. “The Image and Advocacy of Public Health in American Caricature and Cartoons from 1860 to 1900.”  American Journal of Public Health. Nov. 1997, v. 87, no. 11.

[2] Report of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health of the Citizens’ Association of New York. New York: Appleton, 1865, P. vii.

[3] John Duffy.  A History of Public Health in New York City 1625-1866.  New York: Russell Sage, 1968. Pp. 553-556.

[4] Report of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health of the Citizens’ Association of New York. New York:  Appleton, 1865.

[5] See also the excellent blog by Reference Librarian Mariam Touba of The New York Historical Society, here.

[6] Citizens’ Association of New York: Council of Hygiene and Public Health. Report of pestilential diseases and insalubrious quarters. New York: n.p., 1864.

[7] Duffy, p. 556.

[8] Report of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health…1865. P. 49-54.

[9] Duffy, 557.

[10] Elizabeth Blackmar.  “Accountability for Public Health: Regulating the Housing Market in Nineteenth-Century New York City.” In Hives of Sickness, edited by David Rosner. Rutgers University Press, 1995. Pp. 42-64.

Dr. David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Early Republic

Today’s guest post is written by Victoria Johnson, author of  American Eden (Liveright, 2018). On October 9, Dr. Johnson will give a talk at the Academy on David Hosack (1769–1835), the visionary doctor who served as the attending physician at the Hamilton-Burr duel in 1804. Hosack founded or co-founded many medical institutions in New York City, among them nation’s first public botanical garden. The following is adapted from American Eden, which is on the longlist of ten works nominated for the National Book Award in Nonfiction for 2018.

David Hosack’s twin passions were medicine and nature. As a young medical student he risked his life to defend the controversial practice of corpse dissection because he knew it was the best chance doctors had to understand the diseases that killed Americans in droves every year. He studied with the great Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush and went on to become a celebrated medical professor in his own right. He drew crowds of students who hung on his every word and even wrote down his jokes in their notebooks. He performed surgeries never before documented on American soil and advocated smallpox vaccination at a time when many people were terrified of the idea. He pioneered the use of the stethoscope in the United States shortly after its invention in France in 1816. He published one innovative medical study after another—on breast cancer, anthrax, tetanus, obstetrics, the care of surgical wounds, and dozens of other subjects. In the early twentieth century, a medical journal paid tribute to Hosack’s many contributions by noting that “there is perhaps no one person in the nineteenth century to whom New York medicine is more deeply or widely indebted than to this learned, faithful, generous, liberal man.”[i]

Andrew Marshal anatomy course

David Hosack’s admission card to Andrew Marshal’s anatomy course in London, 1793/94. Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, Columbia University Health Sciences Library.

Yet although Hosack found surgery vital and exciting, he was certain that saving lives also depended on knowing the natural world outside the human body. As a young man, he studied medicine and botany in Great Britain, and he returned to the United States convinced that it was at their intersection that Americans would find the most promising new treatments for the diseases that regularly swept the country. Hosack talked and wrote constantly about the natural riches that blanketed the North American continent. The health of the young nation, he argued, would depend on the health of its citizens, and thus on the skill of its doctors in using plants to prevent and treat illness.

In 1801, Hosack bought twenty acres of Manhattan farmland and founded the first public botanical garden in the young nation. He collected thousands of specimens and used them to teach his Columbia students and to supervise some of the nation’s earliest pharmaceutical research.

painting of David Hosack

David Hosack with his botanical garden in the distance. Engraving by Charles Heath, 1816, after oil paintings by Thomas Sully and John Trumbull, Collections of the National Library of Medicine.

Because of his garden, Hosack became one of the most famous Americans of his time. His medical research there cemented his reputation as the most innovative doctor in New York. When Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr needed an attending physician for their 1804 duel, they both chose David Hosack. Thomas Jefferson, Alexander von Humboldt, and Sir Joseph Banks sent Hosack plants and seeds for his garden and lavished praise on him. In 1816, he was elected to the Royal Society of London, an extraordinary honor for an American.

Today, though, few people know Hosack’s name, and his botanical garden grows skyscrapers year-round. It’s now Rockefeller Center.

Learn more about this luminary individual; join us for Losing Hamilton, Saving New York: Dr. David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Early Republic at the Academy on Tuesday October 9th at 6pm.

References:
[i] Dr. David Hosack and His Botanical Garden,” Medical News 85, no. 11 (1904): 517-19 [no author], p. 517.

 

Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis Opens

By Anne Garner, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts and Rebecca Jacobs, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Museum of the City of New York

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Typist wearing mask, New York City, October, 16, 1918. Courtesy of the National Archives.

On certain October mornings during 1918, masks like the one in the above photograph would have been a common sight on New York’s streets. Men and women wore them on their commutes to work, or even while doing their jobs, as office workers, postal carriers, and sanitation workers. Over 30,000 New Yorkers died during the 1918 influenza pandemic. And yet, because the city had learned from other contagious disease outbreaks and adjusted its public response and infrastructure accordingly, these numbers were comparatively low side-by-side with other American cities.

A hundred years later, Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis, opening today at the Museum of the City of New York, explores New York City’s history of battles with contagious disease. The exhibition is co-presented with The New York Academy of Medicine, in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust as part of their Contagious Cities project. Contagious Cities encourages local conversations about the global challenge of epidemic preparedness.

Germ City tells the very personal stories of New Yorkers’ experiences and their responses to the threat of contagious disease over time using historical objects, oral histories, and artwork. Artist Mariam Ghani’s film, inspired by Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, invites audiences at the main gallery’s entrance to engage with the themes of metaphor and disease. Ghani’s work leads into the main gallery, where the stories of the some of the city’s many microbes—flu, cholera, diphtheria, the common cold, cholera, smallpox, TB, polio, HIV, and others —are explored through scientific models, historical objects, and contemporary artworks.

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Orders for hospitalization for Mary Riley, August 29–31, 1854.

During the 1854 cholera epidemic, physicians visited the homes of the sick and issued orders for hospitalization, most hastily written on scrap paper. According to these notes, this patient, Mary Riley, delayed going to the hospital and died the following day.

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Letter from Mary Putnam Jacobi to Sophie Boaz, February 27, 1884.

The impact of diphtheria, another devastating disease of the 19th and early 20th century, is crystalized in the compelling story of Ernst Jacobi, the son of Abraham Jacobi, the father of pediatrics and himself a committed diphtheria researcher. An 1884 letter in the New York Academy of Medicine’s collections, written by Abraham Jacobi’s wife, the physician and activist Mary Putnam Jacobi, documents the devastating death of Ernst from diphtheria.

While this first section of the exhibition establishes just some of the contagious diseases that have hit New York over time, the remaining four sections of the exhibition probe the responses of the government, medical professionals, and ordinary citizens to the threat of epidemics. A common first response to contagion is to contain it. Visitors learn about New York’s man-made quarantine islands, Hoffman and Swinburne, and the exile of “Typhoid Mary” to nearby North Brother Island. These islands, now covered in overgrowth and closed to the public, are still visible from Manhattan’s shores.

Jordan Eagle’s Blood Mirror, a sculpture created with the blood of gay, bisexual, and transgender men to protest the U.S. government’s ban on their donating blood, provokes viewers to consider the potential consequences of linking particular identities with disease and thus isolating populations.

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Jordan Eagles, Blood Mirror, 2015–present Artwork on gallery floor. On loan from the artist.

The exhibition also explores the ways researchers, public officials, and ordinary New Yorkers have attempted to gather information in an effort to fight contagion. The Citizens’ Association of New York’s map of lower Manhattan illustrates the 1864 survey of New York households, conducted by physicians going door-to-door recording instances of typhoid, cholera, and other deadly diseases.

A copy of one survey, conducted by Dr. William Hunter, records the living conditions of a family of three recent Irish immigrants living on West 14th Street—all with typhoid fever. Science journalist Sonia Shah’s “Mapping Cholera” project illuminates the similarities between nineteenth-century New York’s vulnerability to cholera and more recent outbreaks in Haiti.

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Sonia Shah, Excerpt from Mapping Cholera: A Tale of Two Cities, 2015. Designed and built by Dan McCarey. Courtesy of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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Postcard, Harlem Hospital. From the collection of Dr. Robert Matz.

Over time, New Yorkers have been reliant on medical research, medicine, and family and professional caregivers to provide respite from disease. A collection of postcards from the Academy Library donated by retired physician Dr. Robert Matz depict key institutions where epidemiological research, treatment, and care were given in an effort to save the lives of the city’s sickest. Many of these facilities—hospitals, sanitaria, and health resorts—have been torn down or transformed over time, becoming another invisible layer in the city’s architectural history.

New Yorkers sought care from old family recipes, as with Selma Yagoda’s recipe for chicken soup, and from patent medicines, cheap formulas widely available over the counter, which claimed to cure many ailments, including malaria and the Spanish flu.

 

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Diphtheria pamphlets

Germ City also engages with the ways cities create infrastructure and policies that support health. Public officials sometimes used creative delivery methods to communicate health information to wider audiences. In 1929, The Diphtheria Prevention Commission inundated the city’s subways and streets with placards and brochures in Spanish, Polish, Yiddish, and Greek, directing New Yorkers to get immunized for diphtheria.  David Lynch’s 1991 “Clean Up” video offers a dark and at times surreal look at the city’s rat problem, illustrating the importance of public hygiene. A number of private and public organizations mobilized to minimize disease outbreaks through outreach and education.

Following the main gallery, visitors are invited to engage hands-on with copies of collections materials in the “Reading Room,” in a range of formats (visual, audio, video). People can share their own family stories of disease through our public collecting initiative.

Germ City will be on view until April 28th, 2019. In coordination with the exhibition, the Academy is offering a slate of programming in partnership with the Museum of the City of New York. The first of these, “The World’s Deadliest Pandemic: A Century Later,” will take place at the Museum on September 27th. We hope to see you there (register here.)

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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

References:
[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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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

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Entrance to the New York Academy of Medicine.

Reference:
[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

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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

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

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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.

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

References

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.

2https://archive.org/stream/SelectionsFromTheWorkOfBarnetPhillipsCompanyArchitecturalDecorators/BarnetPhillipsCompanyCca107588#page/n0/mode/2up  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.

Explore the Academy Library Timeline

By Robin Naughton, Head of Digital 

The New York Academy of Medicine Library began in 1847 with the intention of serving the Academy fellows, but in 1878, after the collection had expanded to include over 6,000 volumes, Academy President Samuel Purple and the Council voted to open the Library to the public.  It continues to serve both the Academy fellows and the general public, providing an unprecedented level of access to a private medical collection.  Today, the Academy Library is one of the most significant historical libraries in the history of medicine and public health in the world.

The Academy Library’s history spans almost 170 years and a glimpse into this history is documented in this interactive timeline. While the timeline does not represent everything that has occurred in the Library, notable milestones can be seen here. The story starts with the founding of the Library on January 13,1847, with a gift from Isaac Wood of Martyn Payne’s Medical and Physiological Commentaries and continues forward to the recent renovation and naming of the Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room.

 

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Figure 1:  The New York Academy of Medicine Library Timeline (Created using Northwestern University’s Knight Lab Timeline JS).

 

Timeline Highlights


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New York Academy of Medicine, Archives.

 

 

 

Academy’s First Permanent Home: In 1875, the Academy purchased and moved into its first permanent home at 12 west 31st Street. This image of the Academy’s first building will take you back to a different time.

 

 

 

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New York Academy of Medicine, Archives.

 

 

 

 

Academy’s Current Home: In 1926, the Academy moved to its current location on 103rd Street and 5th Avenue. The architectural firm York & Sawyer designed the building.  A 1932 expansion added three new floors on the northeast side of the original structure above the existing floors.  Today, you can visit the Academy at this location and explore the historic building.

 

 

 

 

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Apicius’ de re culinaria, 830 A.D. 

 

 

Cookery Collection: In 1929, Margaret Barclay Wilson gave the Academy her collection of books on food and cookery, which includes a 9th-century manuscript (De re culinaria) attributed to Apicius, and sometimes referred to as the oldest cookbook in the West.

 

 

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George Washington’s lower denture, 1789.

 

 

George Washington’s Teeth:  Yes, that’s right!  In the spring of 1937, the descendants of John Greenwood gave the Academy the lower denture created by New York dentist John Greenwood for Washington in 1789. The denture is just one of the artifacts that the Library owns.

 

 

 

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Librarians Gertrude L. Annan and Janet Doe, both in The Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine., vol. 50, no. 10, 1974.

 

 

Honored Librarians: In 1974, the Academy honored Gertrude L. Annan and Janet Doe, long-time librarians for their contributions to the Library.

 

 

 

 

There are many more highlights in the timeline so click through and enjoy.

The Tech


The Academy Library timeline was created using Northwestern University’s Knight Lab open-source timeline tool called TimelineJS. The tool was released under the Mozilla Public License (MPL), making it possible for anyone to create timelines to embed and share publicly.

TimelineJS is an easy tool to create a timeline with just a few steps. Here are some things to keep in mind when creating a timeline:

Content: Have content ready prior to creating

It’s important to have content ready prior to creating the timeline.  For the Academy Library timeline, there was already a text version of the timeline that could be used to create the interactive timeline. Together Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian and I edited, updated and added images to the timeline. Starting with some content allowed us to devote time to enhancing the timeline by finding and adding associated images.

Media:  Make media publicly available

It is important that the media resources used in the timeline are publicly available.  TimelineJS uses URLs to access and display the media files (images, videos, maps, Wikipedia entries, Twitter, etc.). Thus, items behind firewalls or logins will not be accessible to the public. Make sure to upload images to a publicly available server and use that URL for the timeline.

Google Sheets: Add all content and links into spreadsheet and publish

Google Sheets is the data source for the timeline and this means that all data for the timeline is managed in Google Sheets. Once the Google Sheets file is published, the URL is used by TimelineJS to create the timeline, link to the timeline and embed code for websites.

If you’re familiar with Google Sheets or have used any spreadsheet program, then you know the process of adding content to the spreadsheet. If you haven’t used any spreadsheet program before, think of Google Sheets as a table with multiple columns and rows where you’ll input data for the timeline.

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Figure 2:  TimelineJS Google Sheets Template

To get started, the TimelineJS template and directions provide a good guide to the parameters of the timeline with each row representing a screen and each column a component of that screen. For example, the date structures are very flexible and the timeline can include a full date and time or just a year. Also, in the background column, adding a hex number for color can change the background color or including a link to image will show a background image.

 

The Influence of Sunshine and Pure Air: New York City Parks and Public Health

By Emily Miranker, Project Coordinator

My first picnic of the summer was picture-book perfect. Norman Rockwell would have approved: my friends and I clustered on blankets sipping lemonade, lightly toasted by the sun and gently cooled by a breeze, occasionally tossing a stray ball back to a child or sharing tidbit of our cold chicken lunch with an eager puppy.

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Central Park’s Harlem Meer.  Photo:  Emily Miranker

The belief that public parks are “a fundamental need of city life,”1  goes very deep. The father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted ‑to whom (along with Calvert Vaux) New York City owes not only Central Park; but Prospect Park, Carroll Park, Fort Greene Park, the Parade Ground and Von King Park,2 commented that it was more than delight in nature that made parks so vital. There was a health benefit too. “The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.”3

The Park Association of New York City (today New Yorkers for Parks) took up Olmsted’s charge after his death. Several small associations banded together in 1908 to form The Parks and Playgrounds Association of the City of New York; primarily concerned with advocating for children with no outdoor spaces in their neighborhoods. This organization merged with the Battery Park Association and the Central Park Association to become the Park Association in 1928. “Our purpose,” they declared, was to advocate park extension, defense and betterment, as parks were “essential to the mental, moral and physical well-being of city dwellers.”4  The starting point was that ever persistent New York City need: land.

Our collection boasts a wonderfully-designed pamphlet from this period soliciting support for the Park Association.  The pamphlet argues for the maintenance of city parkland, and the acquisition and development of more land dedicated to greenspace.

The pamphlet includes a colorful fold-out map. On the map, green illustrates the city’s parks as of 1927, yellow, the land purchased and intended for park use but not yet developed, and red, land recommended for purchase by the 1927 Metropolitan Conference on Parks but not yet purchased by the city.

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Fold-out map published by the Park Association of New York City.  To Protect and Extend our City Parks for Posterity.  ca. 1927.

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Inside of pamphlet with introductory letter from President Nathan Straus.  To Protect and Extend our City Parks for Posterity.  ca. 1927.

The pamphlet’s call to action is to “make the yellow and red green.” Indeed, many of those patches on the map have since become green.

The Trust for Public Land (TPL), whose mission to create and protect land for people ensuring healthy and livable communities is much like the Park Association’s just on the national scale, spends a fair amount of time bolstering their advocacy for parks with research on the health benefits they provide. In 2006, TPL released a white paper on the health benefits of parks, underscoring the argument that parks are a wise investment for communities.5 You can read the report online for percentages, statistics, financials, and citations of peer-reviewed work; but in brief: greenways enable people to exercise, improve mental health, offer vital space for child play, and contribute to the creation of stable communities

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A 2011 geographic map of the distribution of parks and playgrounds done by the Built Environment and Health research team at Columbia University.6

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Map of New York City parkland (the dark green) created by The Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore rating system.7

A Fellow of The New York Academy of Medicine wrote on this very topic back in 1899. Dr. Orlando B. Douglas bemoans the lack of numbers to support his firm belief in the rejuvenating power of parks in The Relation of Public Parks to Public Health, written for the American Park and Outdoor Art Society. What he lacks in hard scientific data, he makes up for in poetic writing:

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Orlando B. Douglas’ The Relation of Public Parks to Public Health, published in 1899.

While he didn’t have the same kind of data to fortify his arguments available to TPL more than a hundred years later, Douglas supports his claims that “the public park system in cities resulted in diminishing the rate of nervous disease [and] the improvement of the general health in cities”9 with testimony from twenty-one other doctors throughout the state of New York. I imagine that Dr. Douglas would have been thrilled at our ability today to quantify the beneficial effects of parks; though his pamphlet is more enjoyable reading than modern white papers.

References

1.  To Protect and Extend our City Parks for Prosperity. New York: Park Association of New York City; 1929.

2. “Olmsted-Designed New York City Parks,” NYC Parks. Accessed June 14, 2016. https://www.nycgovparks.org/about/history/olmsted-parks

3. Frederick Law Olmsted, “The Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees,” The Saturday Evening Post, July 18, 1868.

4. To Protect and Extend our City Parks for Prosperity. New York: Park Association of New York City; 1929.

5. “Parks,” Built Environment and Health Research Group at Columbia University. Accessed June 14, 2016. https://beh.columbia.edu/parks/

6. “ParkScore: New York, NY,” The Trust for Public Land. Accessed June 14, 2016. http://parkscore.tpl.org/map.php?city=New%20York

7.  https://www.tpl.org/health-benefits-parks accessed June 14, 2016.

8.  The Relation of Public Parks to Public Health. Boston: Rockwell and Churchill Press; 1899.