Duck Decoys, Fly Fishing Flies, Abdominal Procedures, and New Jersey Medical History: The 2017 MHSNJ Lunar Society Meeting

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Edgar Burke

Dr. Edgar Burke in his penthouse apartment at the Jersey City Medical Center.

On February 8, 2017, the Medical History Society of New Jersey (MHSNJ) and Rutgers University Libraries co-hosted the MHSNJ’s fifth annual Lunar Society winter meeting, held in the Pane Room at Alexander Library. Over 30 MHSNJ members, surgeons, librarians, and even an art history graduate student attended.

Not only was the meeting a series of three presentations about New Jersey medical history, it was also an art show. On display prior to the formal program were a selection of small paintings (mostly 4” x 4”) of surgical procedures and anatomical structures created by Dr. Edgar Burke (1890 – 1950). A longtime surgeon at the Jersey City Medical Center, Dr. Burke was also an artist of considerable skill. His realistic paintings of wildfowl, duck decoys, and fly fishing flies were published in several books in the 1930s and 1940s, and sell at auction to this day. Last spring, RBHS – Special Collections received a donation of over 800 previously unknown Burke medical artworks. These were the gift of Mr. and Mrs. James Neumeister, the son-in-law and daughter of Dr. Burke’s last surgical resident. While Dr. Burke undoubtedly used these paintings in teaching and in his own surgical practice, this Lunar Society event was likely their very first public exhibition.

In my presentation, I discussed Dr. Burke’s biography (such as is known – he seems to have been a rather private person), archival challenges in preserving and describing his artworks, and potential uses of this unique collection by medical and surgical historians, and perhaps even art historians.

I was followed by Dr. Theodore Eisenstat of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, who provided a surgeon’s perspective on Dr. Burke’s paintings. Both of our presentations were enhanced by digitized images of Burke’s artwork, produced in the Digital Curation Research Center with the support of Isaiah Beard and James Hartstein.

The meeting’s final presentation was by Dr. Linda Whitfield Spinner, an authority on the history of medicine in Middlesex County. She discussed the role of women in the formation of two early New Brunswick hospitals. Founded in 1884 with support from Mrs. Grace Wells and other local women, the New Brunswick City Hospital became the John Wells Memorial Hospital, which later became Middlesex General Hospital and is now Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. The Sisters of Charity of the Order of Grey Nuns of Montreal were instrumental in establishing St. Peter’s Hospital in 1907.

Following the presentations, many attendees enjoyed lunch and fine conversation at the  Rutgers Club. The next meeting of the Medical History Society of New Jersey will be held in May, at the Nassau Club in Princeton.

Robert Vietrogoski