Stephen J. Greenberg, will speak at 2 PM ET on April 6 in the NLM Lister Hill Auditorium on “The Frances Dupuy Fletcher Photo Album” as part of the Library’s World War I Centenary Forum. Circulating Now interviewed him about his work.
Circulating Now: Please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do?
SG: I was born and raised in New York City. I earned my doctorate (in history) from Fordham University and my library degree from Columbia, where I studied rare books with Terry Belanger. I’m just about to celebrate my 25th anniversary at NLM, all in the History of Medicine Division. Currently, I serve as the Head of the Rare Books and Early Manuscripts Section at NLM.
CN: This week, on the centenary of the U.S. Entry in to World War I, you’ll be giving a presentation highlighting a photo album in the collection. Tell us a little about it.
SG: The album was the personal property of Frances Dupuy, a native Washingtonian born in 1863. Some time before the outbreak of World War I, she married an Englishman named Keddey Ray Fletcher and moved to the south of England. She trained as a nurse in England, and worked in hospitals and convalescent homes both in England and later in France. The album contains mementos, certificates, and photographs she collected of her surroundings, her colleagues, and her patients.
CN: What can this album tell us about the history of medicine in WWI?
SG: Most of the images she collected are group shots of colleagues and patients, and tell us little of the details of injury and treatment. But one can easily detect the universality of the nursing experience, based not on the sudden interventions of surgery, but on monitoring the slow and painful recovery of patients from injury and disease. This has been the central role of the professional nurses since Florence Nightingale and before.
CN: You’ve written about several photographic collections here on Circulating Now and you’re a photographer yourself. Give us your take on photography and photo albums of this period.
SG: Up until the end of the 19th century, photography was a complicated and cumbersome business. The introduction and popularity of simple, light, cheap cameras by George Eastman and others just before the turn of the century changed all that. Wars had been photographed before, going back to Roger Fenton in the Crimea (1855), but not in the way World War I was photographed. Instead of buying professionally staged photographs, as was done in the American Civil War, everyone could now make his or her own album. Photo historians call this “vernacular photography,” and it has an unmatched level of spontaneity.
CN: At this hundred-year mark, and especially this week, the Great War is being discussed on all hands, how do you see the role of Libraries during this time?
SG: The role and mission of libraries—to be the physical memory of a society—will not change. However, each anniversary gives us a special impetus to see what librarians can add to the understanding of their collections. This time around, we have the opportunity to digitize the relevant portions of our collections, improving both their accessibility and their preservation. It pleases me more than I can say to see how NLM and its sister libraries are taking up that burden.
The World War I Centenary Forum presentation is part of our ongoing history of medicine lecture series, which promotes awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All lectures are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed on Twitter about the centenary at #WW1 and the lecture series at #NLMHistTalk.
Over the next two years, Circulating Now will periodically publish posts featuring NLM collections that illuminate the medical history of The Great War.