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Newly acquired trove of historic photos captures evolution of medicine

In one image, a physician injects a Civil War veteran with morphine, a common practice that led to widespread addiction after the war. In another, a gold-framed daguerreotype from 1847, an unconscious patient sprawls on a white-draped table, surrounded by men in frockcoats and cravats, documenting one of the earliest uses of ether in operation.

Then there’s the haunting postmortem photograph of a 22-year-old physician who died caring for patients in an 1849 cholera outbreak — a poignant reminder of the risks medical professionals are facing today.

These are just some of the 15,400 photographs in a unique collection recently acquired by the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library at Yale that documents — in black-and-white and sometimes graphic detail — a history of medicine from 1839 to 1950.

Among the library’s largest and most notable acquisitions to date, the collection both celebrates the evolution of medicine and bears witness to untold human pain and loss.

The Stanley B. Burns M.D. Historic Medical Photography Collection includes images of physicians and medical scientists at work, operation rooms, hospital wards, laboratories, nurses and nursing, notable physicians, surgical specialties, and war medicine. There are also thousands of photos of patients and disease states. The collection is notable for its range of forms, including photo albums, framed photographs, publications, cartes de visite (small photos mounted on cardboard), cabinet postcards, and personal collections assembled by noted physicians. Virtually every format is represented, including boxes of lantern slides and 253 unique daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes from the earliest years of photography.

The Burns Collection is one of the most compelling and comprehensive visual records of medical history ever assembled,” said Melissa Grafe, the John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History and head of the Medical Historical Library, the medical library’s special collections repository. “From early depictions of surgery to profoundly personal family images and photo albums, it shows how deeply medicine is interwoven in human lives.”

The collection’s photographic albums, some assembled by physicians, bring alive important chapters of medical history, such as the conquest of yellow fever in Cuba in 1904, the international response to the pneumonic plague epidemic in China in 1911, and facial reconstruction at Walter Reed Army General Hospital documented by medical photographer Alice Becht in 1920.

Turning the pages of these albums, I am often struck by how visible the patient is, providing some window into past lives and, in some ways, human suffering,” Grafe said. “At other times the collection is a celebration of medicine, highlighting surgical moments and medical techniques that we may take for granted today.”

The wide range of materials complements many of the library’s existing collections, including striking images of mental illness published in the “Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière”; thousands of photo-postcards and other images that make up the Robert Bogdan Disability Collection; and more than 100 iconic portraits of Civil War soldiers.

Other materials in the Burns Collection document the development of medical education. Bound volumes of Dr. Howard Kelly’s “Stereo-clinic,” for

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