Courtesy of Stanley Burns

Over the past four-and-a-half decades, ophthalmologist and historian Stanley B. Burns has collected more than a million photographs that depict the evolution of medicine. Recently, more than 15,000 of these photographs were acquired by the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library at Yale.

The Stanley B. Burns M.D. Historic Medical Photography Collection includes images of physicians at work, operation rooms, surgical specialties and nurses. Preliminary records of the collection can be viewed in Orbis and Archives at Yale, and the library will digitize portions of the collection as resources allow.

According to Melissa Grafe, librarian of medical history and head of the Medical Historical Library, the newly added Burns Collection is one of the largest photography collections relating to the history of medicine from 1839 to the 1970s.

“The Burns Photography Collection really makes a difference in our understanding of what medical history was like in the past,” Grafe said.

The formation of the Burns Collection and its emphasis on medical history began decades before COVID-19. Burns, the collection’s creator, began collecting photographs in 1975 and has since contributed to documentaries, curated exhibitions and consulted on feature films. He also worked with the Cinemax series called “The Knick,” which featured his photographs in the show.

Archivist Katherine Isham holds a 1911 ornate album containing cartes de visite, small photographic portraits mounted on cardboard (Photo courtesy of Terry Dagradi)

Burns said people are drawn to his collection because historical photographs are interesting and deliver evidence of historical circumstances. “[Historical photographs] provide the safety net of time to allow you to look at things you wouldn’t want to see,” Burns said.

This acquisition reflects the medical library’s drive to expand their collections from books, prints and medical instruments to include more visual materials. Presently, the library’s collections include the Robert Bogdan Disability Collection, which is composed of photo-postcards, and the Bert Hansen Collection. The collection includes graphic art documenting medical practice in the United States.

The Burns Collection features different photographic techniques — including daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes — which are processes used to develop photographs. This range of formats lends a “visual excitement” to the collection, according to Katherine Isham, an archivist in the Medical Historical Library. Daguerreotypes from the Burns Collection can be viewed in the Materiality, Fragility and Loss in the Medical Archive online exhibition. 

“The history of medicine is a very humanitarian field of study and photography really provides an immediacy with a researcher. It makes it real and comprehensible in a way that even an illustration might not,” Isham said. 

Along with the photographs, Yale also acquired Burns’ papers, files and research documents. These records supplement the collection by providing further insights into the stories behind the photographs.

This 1847 daguerreotype documents one of the earliest uses of ether in operation. It was presented to one of the surgeons as a souvenir after the procedure. (Courtesy of Terry Dagradi)

Conservator Laura O’Brien-Miller works on conserving and preserving the photographs of the collection. As part of her tasks, O’Brien-Miller works with Isham to determine restoration needs and storage facilities for the photographs.

But the pandemic changed how O’Brien-Miller approaches her work, as her formerly hands-on profession has largely become an online experience. She said it was a huge project, but she appreciated how the virtual format allowed her to respond to problems immediately.

The pandemic has also brought the collection into a sharper focus by highlighting themes that are particularly relevant right now. The images, which depict disease, medicine and triumph “reinforce what we are experiencing right now,” according to Grafe. 

Besides the photography collection, Burns is endowing a library fellowship that, when completely funded, will support research in the collection. There are plans to display the Burns Collection in the form of a physical exhibition in the rotunda of the Medical Library in 2022. 

Dominique Castanheira | dominique.castanheira@yale.edu