In Praise of Ephemera: Disability History and the New York Academy of Medicine Library

By Dr. Eileen V. Wallis, Professor of History, California State Polytechnic University—Pomona, and the Library’s 2020 Paul Klemperer Fellow

Dr. Wallis completed her Fellowship residency in summer 2022 and will present her research by Zoom on August 2 at 4:00 pm (EDT). To attend her talk, “California and the Search for Medical Legitimacy, 1850–1880,” register through the Academy’s Events page.

As true of many researchers, the hunt for historical primary and secondary sources for my book project, “California and the Politics of Disability, 1850-1970,” has led me down many paths. This book project uses Los Angeles County as a case study to understand how the interplay between state and county governments shaped the lived experiences of Californians deemed “mentally disordered” from 1850 to 1970. “Mentally disordered” was not a socio-medical category, but rather a bureaucratic one. It is, however, still a useful construct for understanding the ways in which California’s politicians, doctors, and progressive reformers lumped together populations experiencing what today we would consider two distinct categories of disability—mental illnesses and developmental disorders—for their own convenience.[1] These were also the two populations arguably most vulnerable to institutionalization in this era, as well as the ones least likely to leave primary sources behind them. The time span of this study was chosen because it encompasses the rise of institutions for the disabled in California; the shift in them from care custodialism; the era of overcrowding, abuse, and crisis; and the ultimate dismantling of most state institutions for the disabled, a process that began in the late 1950s and culminated with the passage of the Lanterman Disability Service Act in 1969 and the beginning of the era of deinstitutionalization.

Disabled Americans are frequently absent from or hidden within the historical record. The study of sickness and disability, Gracen Brilmyer writes, is often marked by “layers of absences, subtleties, inaccuracies, and perspectives that are embodied in records, archives, and the lack thereof.”[2] However, because the New York Academy of Medicine Library began collecting so early, and because the Academy’s interests were so wide-ranging, it has amassed a strong collection of materials of use to anyone interested in the history of disability in the United States. Interestingly, many of the items it holds related to and in some cases created by Californians cannot be found in collections in the Golden State, but only in New York City at the Academy Library.

“Evolution of Treatment Methods of a Hospital for the Mentally Retarded” California Mental Health Research Monograph no. 3, 1965. New York Academy of Medicine Library

In 1965, two researchers working for California’s Department of Mental Hygiene, Esther Pond and Stuart Brody, produced a report called “Evolution of Treatment Methods of a Hospital for the Mentally Retarded.” Focused on what was then-called the Sonoma State Hospital in Sonoma County, California, the state’s oldest institution for the developmentally disabled, this report was officially California Mental Health Research Monograph no. 3.[3] It was prepared specifically for use by the Department, printed on cheap paper, given only a pink paper cover, and was likely expected to be, eventually, discarded. The Department certainly could not have anticipated that it would still exist, more than fifty years later, tucked away in a filing cabinet in the New York Academy of Medicine Library.

Sonoma Home for the Feeble Minded,
California State Archives
Biennial Report of the State Department of Mental Hygiene, p. 3, New York Academy of Medicine Library

Indeed, a remarkable number of materials generated by California’s Department of Mental Hygiene, which operated all of California’s state asylums and institutions for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled through the late 1960s, found their way into the Library’s collections. Another example is the 1950–1952 Biennial Report of the California State Department of Mental Hygiene. Like “Evolution of Treatment Methods,” this report has only a paper cover and is held together with staples. It is, however, lushly illustrated with photos, charts, and graphs, including a page featuring both then-Governor of California Earl Warren (soon to be Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court) and Department head Frank Tallman commenting favorably about the work then being done. Because it covers the years 1950 to 1952, the Biennial Report captures California’s asylums and institutions as the state both embarks on a massive post-war building spree but is also beginning to look for quicker ways to “treat and release” individuals. The report excitedly discusses the use of invasive treatments and psychosurgeries such as electroshock (now known as electroconvulsive therapy or ECT), insulin shock, and lobotomies as heralding a promising new era of medical treatment. The modern reader, of course, knows this is not what would ultimately happen. To read such a report today is jarring, but it is, nonetheless, a valuable snapshot of a key transitional moment for both California and indeed for the care of mentally ill and disabled Americans nationwide.

Cover, “Lanterman Mental Retardation Services Act” brochure, c. 1971. New York Academy of Medicine Library

Many of these items are only discoverable by using the Library’s printed catalog, as they were acquired before the advent of online catalogs and have not yet been included in the Library’s projects to convert its printed catalogs to digital form. Some are what is known as ephemera, items that were created for a “specific, limited purpose” and for “one-time or short-term use.”[4] In the last two decades historians have found them to be an incredibly rich source of information, often capturing information about people (women, African Americans, the working classes, etc.) who are “rarely visible in archival collections or mainstream publications.”[5] These absences become more profound the farther back in time one travels. Thus, scholars often make use of institutional and medical reports like Pond and Brody’s and the Biennial Report to try to excavate from within them as much as possible about the lived experiences of Californians in state institutions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

For the researcher interested in American disability history, the Library’s printed catalog volumes lead to a treasure trove of primary sources, and well-worth exploring alongside the online catalog. When combined with its other holdings, the New York Academy of Medicine Library’s collections show tremendous promise for furthering our understanding of the history of disability in the United States.[6]


References

[1] English authorities used the term in similar ways, although usually without including mental illness. For a discussion of that context, see Mark Jackson, The Borderland of Imbecility: Medicine, Society, and the Fabrication of the Feeble Mind in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000).

[2] Gracen Brilmyer, “Towards Sickness: Developing a Critical Disability Archival Methodology,” in Journal of Feminist Scholarship Volume 17 Issue 17 (Fall 2020): 27.

[3] Sonoma State Hospital began in the 1870s as California’s first state Home for Feeble-Minded Children, a name which unfortunately tells us a great deal about how these individuals were perceived by society at the time. It later became the Sonoma State Home, the Sonoma State Hospital, and finally the Sonoma Developmental Center.

[4] The nature of such items unquestionably poses challenges for librarians and archivists, both in their physical care and in how to catalog them. Rebecca Alternatt and Adrien Hilton, “Hidden Collections within Hidden Collections: Providing Access to Printed Ephemera,” in The American Archivist Volume 75, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 2012): 173.

[5] There is debate in the field as to what is and what is not ephemera. Rebecca Altermatt and Adrien Hilton, for example, argue that any kind of government document is not ephemera. However, as this report was not a publication of the state of California itself but of one department within that government, and created for short-term internal use, the question is open for debate. Altermatt and Hilton, 173.

[6] As disability history and Disability Studies have evolved as research fields, scholars have pushed to move us beyond the medical model of disability, which sees disability as mainly a pathology, as something to be cured, to the social model, which urges an examination of disability as both a social construction and as a lived experience. As scholars Susan Burch and Ian Sutherland explain, “disability is often less about physical or mental impairments than it is about how society responds to impairments.” Susan Burch and Ian Sutherland, “Who’s Not Here Yet? American Disability History,” in Radical History Review Issue 94 (Winter 2006): 128–29.

The Faces Behind Our Fellowships

By Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian

The Library has two residential research fellowships, the Paul Klemperer Fellowship in the History of Medicine and the Audrey and William H. Helfand Fellowship in the History of Medicine and Public Health. While there is plenty of information on our website about how to apply for our fellowships, there is no information there about the people for whom they are named, and it seems appropriate to share a little bit about them.

Paul Klemperer (1887–1964) spent much of his career at Mount Sinai Hospital, where he held the position of pathologist from 1927 until his retirement in 1955. Born outside of Vienna, Klemperer first enrolled at the University of Vienna, intending to become a lawyer. At the suggestion of his father, he took a class on psychoanalysis taught by family friend Sigmund Freud and began to study medicine instead. After receiving his medical degree in 1912, he spent two years studying pathological anatomy, and then served as a physician during World War I. In 1921, he emigrated to the United States, spending a year in Chicago before moving to New York, teaching briefly at the New York Post-Graduate Medical School before joining the staff at Mount Sinai. He also taught pathology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University for many years, and after retirement continued to teach the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Paul Klemperer, M.D. (1887–1964). NYAM Library Collections.

His students and colleagues were devoted to him. In 1962, the Academy presented him with the Academy Medal for Distinguished Contributions to Biomedical Science. In his remarks George Baehr, his colleague at Mount Sinai, noted that Klemperer’s skill as a pathologist combined with his skill as a teacher made him a much-loved figure in all the institutions to which he had a connection. Neuropathologist Stanley Aronson, in a 1989 reminiscence in the Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine, recalled him as “one who was shy yet effective, retiring yet generous, undemonstrative yet passionate, learned yet learning, always learning. For he was truly our teacher.”[1]

After he retired, Klemperer devoted significant time to the study of the history of medicine. He wrote the preface and introduction to the Academy’s publication of a translation of Giambattista Morgagni’s noted book on pathology, The Seats and causes of diseases investigated by anatomy, as well as translating five letters of Morgagni. He also wrote the introductions to several other volumes in the Academy’s history of medicine series. To honor his memory and his devotion to the history of medicine, some years after his death an anonymous group of donors endowed the fellowship that bears his name, first awarded in 1996.

William H. Helfand (1926–2018), a Philadelphia native, pursued a career as a pharmaceutical executive for Merck. His work dovetailed with his collecting interests in prints, posters, and such pharmaceutical ephemera as trade cards and almanacs, and he wrote extensively on their social history.[2] He and his wife, Audrey, endowed positions and fellowships at several institutions, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the Grolier Club. In 1998, the couple endowed the NYAM Library fellowship that bears their name, with the first fellowship awarded in the 1999–2000 academic year.

William H. Helfand (1926–2018). Image from the New York Times, October 5, 2018.

From the beginning, the Helfand fellowship supported research on the ways that visual materials enhance the study of the history of medicine, public health, and the medical humanities. Our own Library collections are far richer in these areas because Bill supplemented his endowment with gifts of materials from his own collections, Chief among these is the William H. Helfand Collection of Pharmaceutical Trade Cards, which is digitized and available here. In addition to trade cards, Bill gave the Library almanacs, broadsides, caricatures, prints, sheet music, and other medical ephemera. Our Helfand collection is one of many; others can be found at the Huntington Library, Yale University, Duke University, and the Library Company of Philadelphia.

If you are a scholar working on a history of medicine project, please consider our fellowships. Applications are being accepted until September 17, 2021, for a month’s residence at the Library. Successful applicants will be notified by October 22, and the next two fellows may work any time during the 2022 calendar year.

Lists of all the projects that have been supported through these endowments can be found on the fellowship pages for the Klemperer Fellowship and the Helfand Fellowship; application procedures are found there as well.

_________


[1] Baehr, George. “Citation and Presentation of the Academy Medal to Paul Klemperer, MD.” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 38, no. 4 (1962): 240; Aronson, S. M. “The legacy of Paul Klemperer.” The Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine, New York 56, no. 5 (1989): 347–350.

[2]William Helfand, a Collector Intrigued by Quackery, Dies at 92,The New York Times, October 5, 2018.

Apply for Our 2020 Fellowships

We’re pleased to announce that our two annual fellowships are open to applications!

nyam_rbr_106

The Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room, where our fellowship recipients will conduct their research.

The Academy Library offers two annual research fellowships, the Paul Klemperer Fellowship in the History of Medicine and the Audrey and William H. Helfand Fellowship in the History of Medicine and Public Health, to support the advancement of scholarly research in the history of medicine and public health. Fellowship recipients spend a month in residence conducting research using the library’s collections.

Applications for our fellowships are being accepted now through late August for fellowships that may be used at any time during 2020.

Preference in the application process will be given to those whose research will take advantage of resources that are uniquely available at the Academy, individuals in the early stages of their careers, and, for the Helfand Fellowship, applications which include an emphasis on the use of visual materials held within the Academy’s collections and elsewhere. Applicants should provide information in their proposals about the collection items they plan to use, either by including a bibliography of resources they intend to consult or discussing those items in detail in the context of the application essay. Changes in the Library that are scheduled to take place beginning in the second half of 2019 will impact applicants whose projects rely heavily on 19th and 20th century serial literature or on monographs published during the second half of the 20th century. 

Applications are due by the end of the day on Friday, August 23, 2019. Letters of recommendation are due by the end of the day on Monday, August 26, 2019. Applicants will be notified of whether or not they have received a fellowship by Monday, October 4, 2019.

Prospective applicants are encouraged to contact Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian, at 212-822-7313 or history@nyam.org with questions or for assistance identifying useful materials in the library collections.

Click on their names to read blog posts about their projects from our most recent fellowship recipients, Matthew Davidson (Klemperer) and Tina Peabody (Helfand).

We look forward to hearing all about your projects!

Apply for our 2017 Research Fellowships

Does a one-month residence in The Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room, immersed in resources on the history of medicine and public health, sound like a dream come true?

Rare book room

The Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room

The Academy Library offers two annual research fellowships, the Paul Klemperer Fellowship in the History of Medicine and the Audrey and William H. Helfand Fellowship in the History of Medicine and Public Health, to support the advancement of scholarly research in the history of medicine and public health. Fellowship recipients spend a month in residence conducting research using the library’s collections.

Applications for our fellowships are being accepted now through late August for fellowships that may be used at any time during 2017.

Preference in the application process is given to early career scholars, although the fellowships are open to anyone who wishes to apply, regardless of academic status, discipline, or citizenship. While both fellowships are for researchers engaged in history of medicine projects, the Helfand Fellowship emphasizes the role of visual materials in understanding that history.

Applications are due by the end of the day on Friday, August 26, 2016. Letters of recommendation are due by the end of the day on Monday, August 29, 2016. Applicants will be notified of whether or not they have received a fellowship by Monday, October 3, 2016.

Prospective applicants are encouraged to contact Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian, at 212-822-7313 or history@nyam.org with questions or for assistance identifying useful materials in the library collections.

Apply for our 2016 Research Fellowships

Are you working on a history of medicine project that would be enhanced by spending a month mining our collections?

NYAM Library, Rare Book Room photos by Amy Hart © 2012We are now accepting applications for the Paul Klemperer Fellowship in the History of Medicine and the Audrey and William H. Helfand Fellowship in the History of Medicine and Public Health. Each fellow receives a stipend of $5,000 to support travel, lodging, and incidental expenses for a flexible period between January 1, 2016 and December 31, 2016. Fellows are expected to spend at least four weeks in New York City, working at The New York Academy of Medicine. Besides completing a research project, each fellow will be expected to make a public presentation at the Academy and submit a final report.

Both fellowships are designed to support researchers who can demonstrate how an opportunity to immerse themselves in our rich holdings will enhance their work. Preference in the application process is given to early career scholars, although the fellowships are open to anyone who wishes to apply, regardless of academic status, discipline, or citizenship. While both fellowships are for researchers engaged in history of medicine projects, the Helfand Fellowship emphasizes the role of visual materials in understanding that history.

The application deadline is Monday, August 17, 2015. Letters of recommendation must be received by Friday, August 21, 2015. Fellowship recipients will be notified by Thursday, October 1, 2015.

Perspective applicants are encouraged to contact Arlene Shaner, Reference Librarian for Historical Collections, at 212-822-7313 or history@nyam.org with questions or for  assistance identifying useful materials in the library collections.

2014–2015 Helfand and Klemperer Research Fellows

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

We are pleased to announce the 20142015 Helfand and Klemperer Research Fellows: Laura Robson (University of Reading) and Heidi Knoblauch (Yale University).

Rösslin, Eucharius. The byrth of mankynde, otherwyse named the womans booke. [London : Tho. Ray[nalde]], 1545.

The Audrey and William H. Helfand Fellowship in the History of Medicine and Public Health  focuses on the use of visual materials. Laura Robson will explore how medical works in the sixteenth century used images and texts from Andreas Vesalius’ anatomical treatise, the Fabrica. She will use Geminus’s Compendiosa (1545) and Raynalde’s translation of The byrth of mankynde (1545) to demonstrate the complex relationship between anatomical image and text and to unite the history of the book with the history of the representation of the body.

Louis A. Sayre Personal Casebook with multiple photographs, drawings, and ephemera of his patient, Aldoph Roussell ca. 1867

Louis A. Sayre Personal Casebook with multiple photographs, drawings, and ephemera of his patient, Aldoph Roussell ca. 1867

Our Paul Klemperer Fellow in the History of Medicine, Heidi Knoblauch, will use Lewis Sayre’s casebooks, the Photographic Review of Medicine and Surgery, and Bellevue Hospital Records. Looking especially at images and records from the Photographic Department at Bellevue Hospital (1868−1906), the first such department in a civil hospital in the United States, she will explore how 19th- and early 20th-century medical professionals in the U.S. used photographs of patients. What did physicians intend to do with photographs? What role did patients play in the collection of photographs? Her research will track how patients and physicians conceived the confidential nature of recording, collecting, and disseminating medical information (an ongoing question for medical archivists and historians).

Keep an eye out for guest posts from our fellows, who will also present their work at the end of their fellowships.