Medical library showcases war photographs

The “Portraits of Wounded Bodies” exhibition at the John Hay Whitney Medical Library explores common Civil War medical practices through photographs and medical journals.
The “Portraits of Wounded Bodies” exhibition at the John Hay Whitney Medical Library explores common Civil War medical practices through photographs and medical journals. Photo by Kathryn Crandall.

Civil War clinical photography is currently on display in an exhibit at the John Hay Whitney Medical Library.

Called “Portraits of Wounded Bodies,” the exhibit is open until April 1, showcasing photographs of injured Civil War soldiers alongside medical journals from the era. The exhibit, which draws upon portraits and artifacts from the Whitney Library’s collection, contains a set of 93 images taken at the Harewood Civil War Hospital in Washington, D.C. Exhibit co-curator Heidi Knoblauch GRD ’15 said the exhibit was created to highlight the stories of wounded soldiers and to explore the practice of clinical photography during the Civil War as the country commemorates the war’s 150th anniversary.

“The Civil War was not only a watershed moment in the history of the United States, but also in medical photography,” Knoblauch said in a Monday email.

By showcasing images of wounded soldiers alongside case studies describing the treatments prescribed to the men, the exhibit explores common medical practices during the Civil War era. It offers historical information on the formation of the first ambulance corps, which was created when Union generals decided to devise a more practical method of transporting wounded soldiers to hospitals following the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861.

The exhibit highlights several individual stories by pairing portraits with detailed biographies of particular soldiers. Yale medical history librarian and exhibit co-curator Melissa Grafe said visitors to the exhibit have been “particularly saddened” by the images of private Henry Krowlow who enlisted in the Union Army at age 18. Krowlow was shot in the leg and died after an unsuccessful amputation. Photographs of his body postmortem are included in the exhibit.

Exhibit visitors said Krowlow’s was not the only upsetting display. The collection of photographs also includes an image of a man who had just undergone an amputation carrying a prosthetic leg, as well as an image of a soldier with a bloody eye and scratches across his face.

“The pictures in the exhibit were hard to look at,” said visitor Valerie Gallaher, the mother of a medical school student. “Some of them were really graphic — you could see the blood and bullet holes.”

One of the strengths of the exhibit, Grafe said, is its ability to cater to a wide range of interests. She said that some visitors have focused on learning about photographic practices during the Civil War era, while others have been more interested in the medical history reflected in the exhibit. Gallaher said the exhibit’s location in the Medical Library is key because it emphasizes how far the medical industry has progressed in the last century.

Yale Access and Delivery Services Librarian Melanie Norton, one of the exhibit’s visitors, said she enjoyed reading individual stories like Krowlow’s because they underscore the courage of the soldiers, some of whom were as young as 17.

“In movies about the Civil War, the soldiers always look very old, but this exhibit makes it clear that they were really just teenagers,” Norton said. “I think it’s especially important for students to see how young the soldiers were.”

Knoblauch said she and Grafe began planning the exhibit around July 2011. She was interested in the subject because her dissertation focuses on the development of clinical photography, and she used some of the Civil War photographs in the Medical Library as research materials. Exploring photography techniques used in Civil War hospitals, Knoblauch hoped to showcase the development of photography throughout the 19th century to a wider audience.

The “Portraits of Wounded Bodies” exhibit opened Jan. 16.

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