THE EPIGRAPHS TO THESE POEMS are taken from the case studies and notes of George Henry Fox (1846-1937), one of the most important American pioneers in dermatology; a clear, brilliant, compassionate writer, physician, and teacher whose work influenced generations. He was surgeon to the New York Dispensary's Department of Skin and Venereal Diseases and later Professor of Diseases of the Skin at New York's College of Physicians and Surgeons. He argued that "[t]he study of Skin Diseases without cases or colored plates is like the study of osteology without bones, or the study of geography without maps." He, therefore, began having his patients photographed at a New York studio and eventually by O. G. Mason, the medical photographer at Bellevue Hospital. These photographs he shared with other physicians, and eventually published as Photographic Illustrations of Skin Disease (1880), Photographic Illustrations of Cutaneous Syphilis (1881), and Photographic Illustration of Skin Disease (Second Series, 1885).
The images in these volumes were printed by Edward Bierstadt as Artotypes, a photomechanical process also known as collotype. They were then painstakingly and individually hand-colored by Viennese trained medical artist Dr. Joseph Gaertner. Fox's books are, needless to say, as important to the history of photography as to the history of medicine. These books have a nobility and beauty about them, curious as such words might seem in the context of any sort of disease, but especially diseases of the skin. This is possibly due to the fact that the photographer, O. G. Mason, was also a social photographer, like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, and he illustrated the work of one of the century's leading social reformers, Helen Campbell's Darkness and Daylight; or Lights and Shadows of New York Life. Not every image here was made by Mason, but the best of them, especially those made of Bellevue patients, are his.
Time's passage distances us from the genesis of many photographs and alters our perceptions of them. This can be seen no more dramatically than here. Today these are no longer merely clinical documents but documents of the spirit, of endurance, and of suffering. They are moving in a way they would not have originally been when such diseases and conditions were rampant. But all of these poems are not about nobility of spirit. Some of them are filled with hatred and cruelty because thought some people may suffer with stoic heroism, not all of them do. Suffering just as often brings out the worst in us as it does the best.
In his first book Fox supplied cases studies of the individual in the photograph prior to the discussion of the disease. In Cutaneous Syphilis these case studies, as well as any identification of sitters, are dispensed with or turned into a single factual note or two for obvious reasons. Occasionally, however, a few personal facts about a sitter can be pieced together from within the text. In the 1885 volume the case studies reappeared but in a highly abbreviated form. In reading these books one is constantly touched by the compassion and good sense Fox always exhibited—especially with regard to syphilis. When he published his biography, Reminiscences, at the age of 80 in 1926, he devoted but a page and a half to his books, works which not only aided countless physicians but in the few hundred cases presented can barely begin to suggest the lives he touched.