Dr. Stanley B. Burns, a New York-based ophthalmologist, had been collecting guns for years when, during a trip to Paris in 1975, a friend pointed out a historical medical daguerreotype. Likely taken during the 1840s, it showed a South American man with a jaw tumor.
“From that moment on it was the end of guns,” he said.
Among the 1 million or so historical pictures he’s collected in the ensuing decades, roughly 100,000 involve medical science, and he has written dozens of books and hundreds of journal articles that are punctuated with photos of the way medicine used to be practiced: the earliest survivors of anesthetically aided surgery; teams of men tasked with handling typhus-infected bedding; patients who suffered from mysterious diseases.
Many also chronicle bygone traditions like house calls, or, more darkly, postmortem photos that were popular among families in the early days of photography.
Burns has donated “tens of thousands” of images to museums but he has not sold a single one from his vast Burns Archive, he said. But early next month Sotheby’s will auction off roughly 50 photos and daguerreotypes, in a sale that could bring in as much as $1 million. Among them are a handful of early medical photos, some of which are seen below.
“They convinced me: Why do I need all of this?” Burns, 78, said as he offered a tour of the midtown-Manhattan townhouse where he keeps his collection, and where 1,000 of his photos fill the walls. “But I’m not selling all of it.”