Skip to Main Content

The Clements Collard Fry Collection

Clements Collard Fry slowly amassed an astonishing collection of prints and drawings that he bequeathed to the university after his death

He never thought of himself as a collector. He just bought pieces he enjoyed and could share with others who might appreciate medical history, art, or representations of illness. Humorous, serious, valuable, or sad: if a drawing or print caught his eye, Clements Collard Fry (1892–1955), MD, head of the Division of Mental Hygiene in the Department of University Health at Yale after 1937, made an effort to acquire it.

By the end of Fry’s life, he’d accumulated over 2,000 prints, covering five centuries and the work of hundreds of artists. Susan Wheeler, the Medical Historical Library’s curator of prints and drawings and historical medical posters, knows more about Fry’s collection than anyone else alive, having spent a great deal of time with it. She wrote a book on the subject—Five Hundred Years of Medicine in Art—which was published in 2001.

“Clements Collard Fry developed an interest in collecting fairly early in his life, first focusing on manuscripts and editions of Silas Weir Mitchell, a pioneer in the treatment of nervous disorders and a prominent literary figure,” said Wheeler. “But as Mitchell’s works became harder to find and more expensive, Fry turned to rare medical prints. Over time that interest developed in sophistication, and what you see in the collection today is the culmination of a lifetime of collecting medical art.”

World War II seemed to be a turning point for Fry as a collector. While working in Washington, D.C., with the National Research Council, Fry became immersed in the collection of prints and drawings at the National Gallery of Art. An unusual drawing from this time, “The Crack-Up,” portrays a U.S. soldier who has a breakdown during the Pacific campaign. Taken from an event that the artist (Corporal Wayne Seese, U.S. Army) witnessed, “The Crack-Up” was shown as part of a late 1945 exhibition U.S. Marine Combat Art, that included 130 drawings by 22 Marines. When Fry contacted the artist to learn the story behind the drawings, Seese replied:

The “Crack-Up” came from a scene I witnessed on the island of New Britain, after the Cape Gloucester campaign ... One night as we sat in our ... tent, bedlam broke out across the street at sick bay. Rushing over there, we came upon the scene I have put down on paper.

Yelling, sobbing, and talking, the kid was held down by a couple of his buddies while the doctor prepared a sedative. The scene was pretty weird with hundreds of fellows drawn by morbid curiosity standing in the darkness ...

The kid was a rugged-looking boy about nineteen or twenty, a messman [entry-level assistant to the ship’s steward of a merchant marine vessel] at the time. He stepped out of his tent and in the darkness ran into a tree and went to pieces. Rumor was that he had just received a letter that both his sister and father were killed in an accident, but I don’t know.

“Perhaps to a surprising extent, World War II was viewed through drawings made by combat artists,” said Wheeler. She explained that iconic photographs captured the public’s attention, but that handmade illustrations of events still provided civilians back home with powerful visualizations of the war.

The school continues to acquire prints and drawings through gifts and endowments, adding to the collection’s diversity. They reflect Fry’s aesthetic and professional interests.

“The items we have acquired over the past 50 years build on what Dr. Fry’s collection was,” said Wheeler, “and help bring it into the present. Dr. Fry used to show these prints to his colleagues and students—he liked people’s seeing them and delighting in their stories. We do what we can to continue that legacy.”