The Burns Archive – New York, New York - Atlas Obscura

The Burns Archive

A staggering collection of photographs depicting medical, social, and historical change. 


Dr. Stanley Burns lives in a museum of his own making.

The walls of the ophthalmologist’s brownstone home are covered in incredible photographs depicting anatomical oddities, medical procedures, historic events, social movements. There are drawers full of daguerrotypes and closets crammed with photos in boxes labeled “Skulls,” and “Crime Scenes.” And that’s a mere fraction of his collection. The Burns Archive, which incorporates images from the mid-19th century through the 1950s, numbers over a million photographs. 

The archive is a uniquely comprehensive visual documentation of how the world, particularly the field of medicine, has changed since photography was first introduced. Many of the photos in Dr. Burns’ collection, which he has been amassing since 1975, depict dark or disquieting aspects of life. Victorian post-mortem photography is well represented, as are blood-soaked crime scenes, the violent struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, and the horrors of war, both civil and international. 

The most striking part of the archive is the collection of medical photographs. From the 19th-century images of med students smiling beside a half-dissected human corpse to the sepia-toned photographs of bodies distorted by genetic abnormalities, skin conditions, and tumors, the collection offers a fascinating look at how we have approached medical care over the decades.

Dr. Burns and the archive’s Creative and Operations Director, Elizabeth Burns, have produced several books of photographs from the collection, on topics as diverse as news art, podiatry, bereavement, injured Civil War soldiers, and “Stiffs, Skulls, and Skeletons.” Photographs from the collection regularly appear on the walls of major galleries and museums. The Burnses also serve as Medical, Historical, and Technical Consultants on the HBO series The Knick, which depicts turn-of-the-century surgical procedures with stomach-churning accuracy.

Know Before You Go

The Burns Archive is not open to the public. Private tours are available by appointment. 212-889-1938 or Between Lexington Ave and Third Ave.

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October 9, 2015

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