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Homage to the crown prints

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2004 - Summer


At 50, one of the world’s best collections of medical imagery draws on humor and history.

A woman diagnosed with hysteria is the centerpiece of a popular lithograph, a copy of which once adorned Sigmund Freud’s consultation room in Vienna. The 1887 print shows the hypnotized woman before a roomful of men. Two assistants reach out to break her fall; beside her, French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot lectures about hysteria.

Une Leçon du Docteur Charcot à la Salpêtrière is part of the collection of prints on medical topics that Yale psychiatrist Clements C. Fry, M.D., began assembling in the early 1930s. When Fry, the former director of student mental health at Yale, died in 1955, he left his 2,000 prints to the university. Now nearing its 50th anniversary, it is one of the world’s largest and most prominent collections of medical prints.

Fry selected prints as records of medicine’s history and public image; for their rarity; and—as often as not—because he found them funny: a 1937 New Yorker cartoon by Whitney Darrow Jr. shows a woman dressed as Napoleon, complete with sword, campaign hat and oversized epaulets. Her hand tucked into her jacket, she faces a balding psychiatrist across the desk, who tells her: “It’s a pity I didn’t get to your case earlier, Mrs. Perkins.”

An 1859 lithograph by Honoré Daumier combines satire with historical evidence that lay people tried their hands at the novel therapy of hypnotism. A man dangles a huge diamond ring above the face of a mesmerized matron. “The new entertainment at parties,” the caption reads, “or, how to amuse and make a fool of yourself in public without a quarrel.”

By day Fry, who joined the faculty in 1926 and pioneered mental health for students, ran the Division of Mental Hygiene at the Department of University Health. He devoted his leisure time to collecting, says Susan E. Wheeler, M.A., curator of the Clements C. Fry Collection of Medical Prints and Drawings, which is housed in the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library. “This was his avocation, his relaxation. To be a collector was very typical in that era in this environment,” says Wheeler, whose book, Five Hundred Years of Medicine in Art (Ashgate), catalogs the collection.

Fry considered his bachelor apartment at Trumbull College a sort of medical museum, but his intent was less scholarship than pleasure. “What I try to do is to get the things I can have fun with,” he wrote to a print seller in the 1930s.

Several recurring themes appear in the satirical prints that interested Fry, says Wheeler. “One is the ineffectiveness of the doctor. … Another is the cost of medicine. What you also see in the satirical prints is people making fun of pain—laughing at the pain of illness and the pain of therapy.”

Although Fry collected works by Rembrandt and Hogarth, artistic merit alone wouldn’t justify a place in his collection. He wanted prints that depicted the history of medicine. For example, Anatomical Theatre at Leiden, shows more than a dozen well-dressed men and women wandering through the dissection hall. The rare 1610 engraving by W. Swanenburg demonstrates that educated people of the early 17th century were fascinated by anatomy.

Fry’s spirit lives on in the library’s continuing effort to keep the collection current.

“The collection is a living collection,” says Wheeler.

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