Since the mid-1800s the New York Academy of Medicine has been ensuring that the city’s doctors have a unified voice and resource base, and since landing in their longtime headquarters in the 1920s the organization has curated one of most extensive libraries of historic medicinal texts anywhere in the world, all available to view by the general public.
The academy’s semi-secret library holds over 500,000 books, pamphlets, and other pieces of aging ephemera. Beginning with a donation to the academy in 1847, the collection has grown over the years thanks almost entirely to donations and some prizes purchased specifically for the library. Most of the items in the sprawling catalogue date from between the 15th and 18th centuries, including almost every single piece of medical writing printed in North America during the 1700s. Among the rich leather volumes and brittle pamphlets are rare works by Sigmund Freud, historic works on disease and obstetrics, and famously, a pair of prototype dentures made of real teeth that were the model for George Washington’s replacement chompers.
Thanks to the preservation and conservation efforts of the academy staff, the aging books and papers are kept in terrific condition, even in spite of the inexorable frailties that time constantly imposes on the works. In fact, one of the major efforts of the library today is to get as many of the items digitized as they can before they are lost to time and deterioration.
Anyone interested in the odd history of bodily discovery and treatment, or just stunning collections of old tomes, need only make an appointment to see one of the most impressive hidden libraries in the city.