Upstate News

April 24, 2008
Doretta Royer 315 464-4833

Recently discovered photographs shed light on medical students in Syracuse in the 1880s

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — “Rediscovering the Class of 1885,” a new exhibit at SUNY Upstate Medical University’s Health Sciences Library, celebrates the recent discovery at SUNY Upstate of 25 19-century portrait photographs—the earliest original class pictures in the library’s collections.

Opening April 25, the exhibit will be featured as part of the first Carol M. Baldwin Cultural Crawl April 25 and 26, and will remain on display in the library for several months. The library is located on the first floor of Weiskotten Hall, 766 Irving Ave., Syracuse. The exhibit is free and open to the public.

The exhibit offers glimpses of the lives of medical students in Syracuse in the late 19th century through photographs, medical instruments, student notebooks, exams and other original documents from the library’s Historical Collections.

“By telling the story of how these photographs were ?lost’ for 60 years and then found, the exhibit also draws attention to the underlying question of how the historical record may be preserved—or lost—for future generations, and how our interpretation of the past may be incomplete, or faulty, if the picture itself is incomplete,” said Elise Calvi, curator of Historical Collections in the Health Sciences Library.

According to Calvi, the photographs and their story were discovered in stages.

“Don Jaeger of SUNY Upstate’s Pathology Department was working in a storage room in the basement of Weiskotten Hall where thousands of microscope glass slides are stored, and found the 1885 photos and others on top of 10-foot tall cabinets,” said Calvi. “They were all individual portraits, but had thumbtack holes in all four corners, so I knew they must have been on display somewhere. But where and how?”

Calvi’s answer came months later, when, going through some of the uncataloged negatives in the Medical Photography archive, she found a negative showing how the photographs were originally displayed. “But along with the answer to the mystery came a new intrigue, which, surprisingly, turned out to be quite relevant to the purpose of the Cultural Crawl,” she said. “Visitors to the exhibit will find out the answers to these intrigues, and see how the experiences of 19th-century medical students are relevant today.”

The items on exhibit are drawn from the library’s Historical Collections, which includes several thousand books and journals published from the 16th through 21st centuries; documents, photographs, printed and audio-visual materials, and artifacts documenting the history of SUNY Upstate and its predecessor schools; medical instruments; papers of distinguished faculty; and other materials documenting the history of the health professions in Central New York.

SUNY Upstate’s predecessor was Geneva Medical College, which was founded in 1834 as part of Geneva College. In 1871 the medical college became associated with Syracuse University. In 1950 Syracuse University sold the college to the State University of New York. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States, earned her degree from Geneva Medical College in 1849.

Visit Historical Collections on the second floor of the library and at For more information e-mail calvie@ or call 315-464-4585.

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