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Cutting-Edge Medicine

Long before Purell.

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Photographs © Stanley B. Burns, M.D., and The Burns Archive


It’s been said that until 1920 or so, you were probably just as well off staying at home, letting your immune system do its work, as you were going to a hospital. Especially in the era before germ theory, when many surgeons didn’t so much as wash their instruments between patients, medical intervention could be as dangerous as disease. Yet even with their crude tools and vague knowledge, doctors and nurses did offer a measure of help and sometimes were able to do more good than harm.

Starting on August 8, Steven Soderbergh’s Cinemax series The Knick will attempt to put viewers on the scene in a New York hospital circa 1900, horse-drawn ambulances and all. Toward that goal, the show has retained as consultant Dr. Stanley Burns, keeper of the world’s greatest collection of early medical ­photography. The images on these pages are the tiniest sampling of the Burns Archive, which comprises more than a million ­photographs packed into his Murray Hill brownstone. The 40-plus books Dr. Burns has published, on themes from ­Victorian funeral portraits to early oncology, are sometimes ­horrifying, more often mesmerizing, and always a reminder that in ­medicine, as in no other field, nostalgia is anything but gauzy.


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