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New York City is only as strong as the medical and emergency workers who keep its residents safe and healthy. Today, as the coronavirus pandemic has brought the city to a standstill, health care professionals are bravely heeding the call to action and saving countless lives despite the dangers to their own health.
These heroic actions stem from a long tradition of service to society. To explore some of the parallels between the past and present, BuzzFeed News spoke with Sean Corcoran, curator of prints and photographs at the Museum of the City of New York, who shared with us a fascinating collection of pictures from the turn of the 19th century that capture the innovation and dedication of New York City hospitals from over 100 years ago.
The Byron Company Collection is the archive of a multigenerational commercial photographic company that began with Jospeh Byron in 1892 and was eventually taken over by his son Percy Byron and run until 1942. The collection came to the Museum of the City of New York under the auspices of the first curator of photography, Grace Mayer.
Without access to the company logbooks, which are inaccessible at the moment, it's impossible to say specifically why these particular images were made. They could have been made at a client's request or in speculation that a commercial client or newspaper might use the image in the future, like stock photography today, or a somewhat obsessive interest in the city combined with a master's ability to make very large format photographs in almost any environment.
These photographs are fascinating because they are images made just as the United States began the professionalization of a doctor's training — Johns Hopkins Hospital had only introduced basic science instruction and a residency program in 1891. This was a time when the city's tenements were rife with disease and a better understanding of the causes and ways to combat the illnesses were slowly being understood. Remember, in just a few short years, the saga of Typhoid Mary would grip the city, and the nation then faced the 1918 flu pandemic.
I just think it is important to reiterate that health care workers have been on the front lines battling infection and disease here in the city for centuries. Although our scientific understanding has improved, it continues to be these individuals working for the common good who are our true line of defense. Additionally, these images make you consider the critical investments, and lack thereof, in infrastructure that ensure the city's health and safety.