By Laura McNulty
As an artist, May Lesser (1927-2001) seemed destined to produce works of art relating to the medical field—her father, brother, husband, and three of her four children were doctors. As a child, Lesser would secretly look at her father’s anatomy books, admiring the drawings contained within. Lesser received her undergraduate degree in fine arts from the H. Sophie Newcomb College at Tulane University and went on to complete a graduate degree in painting at the University of Alabama. Lesser also studied anthropology at Columbia University and child psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, after which Lesser moved to California and joined the art department at UCLA. While working in the art department, she turned to the anatomy department in order to learn more about bone and muscle anatomy. Working closely with the anatomy department in classrooms and laboratories, Lesser had the idea of observing and drawing students as they worked, rather than focusing just on anatomical specimens. Dr. Charles Sawyer, an anatomy professor, suggested that Lesser follow a class of students as they progressed through medical school. So, Lesser began observing and capturing the adventures of the UCLA medical school class of 1971. She would sit in lectures, laboratories, and operating rooms, sketching and engraving copper plates as she observed the students and their professors. She would then go back to her studio and print the plates in color. As a result, Lesser produced a different perspective of medical school; by focusing on the people rather than the tools and techniques, she made doctors and their work more human. As Lesser put it, “there is a loveliness in human beings helping another.” The etchings produced in this period make up the bulk of the collection of May Lesser’s work held at the National Library of Medicine.
In the summer of 2012, I was brought on as an eager, pre-program conservation student volunteer to clean and rehouse this collection of thirty-nine Lesser prints which were donated to the Library in 2011. Working closely with Ginny Roth, the Prints and Photograph (P&P) Curator, and Holly Herro, the Conservation Librarian, I was responsible for removing the prints from the frames and then treating and rehousing them. The prints came to the Library in frames that did not create a stable environment for the works, so my first task was to get the prints out of the frames and assess the condition of the each print. Most of the prints had been attached to support boards with starch and acrylic-based adhesives.
After determining the best course of treatment, I went to work removing the tape carriers and adhesives from the etchings. Wielding a micro-spatula and a jar of methylcellulose, I became proficient at applying the methylcellulose to the starch-based adhesive residue, waiting for about ten minutes, and then carefully removing it.
Naturally, some of the starch-based adhesive left residue on the paper, and this is where I learned the importance of regular, old-fashion spit in conservation practices. One of the natural enzymes in spit is known as amylase, which breaks down starches. With a little bit of spit on the end of a cotton swab, I gently removed the starch-based adhesive residue from the paper.
For the most part the starch-based adhesive was cooperative and cleanly came off of the paper. But, the acrylic adhesive was more stubborn. With the most stubborn acrylic adhesive, I had to employ a heated spatula to remove the carrier, along with a slide-warming tray as a heat source, to swell the adhesive so that it would let go of the paper. Once the prints were cleaned, and after Holly and Ginny approved my work, I created a more stable housing environment for the prints. Using photo corners, I attached the prints to acid-free, lignin-free mat board, placed a piece of pH neutral tissue paper on top of the print, and then placed it into a Mylar sleeve.
These new enclosures create the stable environment for the works of art necessary to keep them in good condition for a long time.
Determined to see the collection processed from beginning to end, I returned to NLM this summer as a student intern in the Pathways program. After adding call numbers to each print, I created catalog records for them, thereby making them available in the Library’s online catalog. In addition, I am happy to report that the collection of thirty-nine prints can now be found in the NLM Digital Collections.
Laura McNulty is a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is currently working as a conservation intern at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, PA.