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Dr. Stanley Burns, the Man Behind 'The Knick'

Meet the New York ophthalmologist and historian who owns the world’s largest collection of early medical and historical photography and was in charge of making sure The Knick was accurate.

The Burns Archive (all photos courtesy of The Burns Archive)

Stanley Burns, a New York ophthalmologist and historian, has the world’s largest collection of early medical and historical photography, with well over a million photographs in his possession. It’s probably the biggest collection you didn’t know existed. But with the first season of the Cinemax/HBO series The Knick his photographs are being brought to life. Directed by Steven Soderbergh and staring Clive Owen, the show (whose season finale airs tonight) focuses on the fictionalized Knickerbocker hospital in 1900 New York City, right at the dawn of modern medicine. Using his vast collection and his expert knowledge of the field (he’s published 44 books and over 1,100 articles on early medical photography), Burns provided much of the information that inspired the show’s plotlines and ensured its historical accuracy.


Dr. Burns and Clive Owen on the set of 'The Knick.' Photo by Mary Cybulski/Cinemax.

Walking through the Burns Archive, the townhouse on East 38th Street in Manhattan that houses the collection as well as Burns’s ophthalmology practice, is like exploring the Library of Congress if it were maintained by a mad scientist. Framed photographs cover almost every inch of wall space, countless books line the shelves, staircases, and sometimes floors in neat stacks, and many of the rooms look like they have been perfectly preserved for a hundred years.

“Look,” he said as he led me into a room on the third floor decorated with pristine antique furniture, “It’s like you stepped into The Knick.”

VICE: Why did you start amassing your collection?
Stanley Burns: Well I was always a historian, always interested in history. And I’ve been a historian for over 50 years. In the mid 70s a friend introduced me to a medical daguerreotype, and when I checked on the history, the written history didn’t match the visual history. And so I realized I had to collect photography because the evidence in photography with an original photograph is irrefutable—irrefutable truth. Especially in medical photography when you have a surgical picture, there’ll be a caption saying he’s doing such and such an operation, but it won’t describe his shoes, his shirt, what’s on the floor, the type of buckets, what they’re throwing in the buckets, anything like that. A photograph gives a wide expanse of information you don’t get from a written record. They say a photograph is worth 1,000 words. But in every inch of a photograph there’s 1,000 words.


1845 Daguerreotype from upcoming book 'Stiffs, Skulls & Skeletons'

How do you keep track of all the photographs?
I have my own system, in my head. The idea is that I know where everything is and I can put my hands on it. The other thing you should know is I don’t need any sleep. Four hours a day is all I need, unless I have a great topic, and then I need very little. And so I always had two jobs, I had an eight-hour doctor job, and I had an eight-hour writing job.

And there’s still fours hours leftover.
And that’s what I’d use to think about what I’m going to write about the next day. I have trouble going to sleep at times like that because it’s all in my head and I just want to get it out.

An arm to arm blood transfusion

How did you manage to buy up so many photographs?
I was interested in the fact that it was available. People have described my collecting as if it were 1902 and I decided to take all my money and buy every Picasso I could buy. Within three years it had been recognized by Time as the most important emerging historical collection. Once I realized I could buy everything, that’s what I did, because it was not appreciated at the time. It was cost-feasible. I’ve written 44 books and as each book gets written, I can no longer buy the photographs that were written about. They’re too expensive all of a sudden. And I do not collect art, music, or sports.

Why is that?
Because everyone else has that. Everyone collects those things, usually as an investment or something to show people if you’re at a museum. My history of photography is the history of photography as used by people and professionals.


African-American college students, circa 1895

So it’s like a people’s history of photography.
Yes! In other words, how we used it in combat, how we used it in news, how we used it to record ourselves.  I haven’t mentioned that to anyone else. But that’s my history of photography: Photography as defined by how people use it. Like how did African-Americans use it? My collection of African-American photography is that of the middle and upper class in the 19th century, which you don’t hear about. Because when people wrote about the history of blacks, they wanted either the hero or the oppressed. That’s how we got around to [The Knick character] Algernon. They came to my house, and there it was.

A leading black Surgeon demonstrates pathology to other doctors, Paris, circa 1905

Once you see that, you have your show. You know it’s true. You see, without that photograph, I could tell you that happened, but you wouldn’t believe me. They look admiringly at this black doctor, a bunch of white doctors. That’s why I collected photography, and now I’m thrilled because I get to see these photographs come to life on the screen.

Your interest in medical photography, did that come from being a doctor, or your appreciation of photography?
Well it was really from medicine. It was being able to tell the story of medicine, because in the 20th century, physicians made a promise to us that they kept, and that promise was a long, healthy life. See in 1900, the life expectancy was 47 years. People expected to die young, they lived with death; it was very common. They didn’t expect to have an operation and survive it. And as far as I’m concerned, the detrimental part of it is that we’ve removed death from life so you don’t even expect a 96-year-old guy to die. You want to do a heart transplant on him.


Bellevue hospital ambulance with attendants, circa 1895

What do you think the value is of having death more in our consciousness?
So that your expectation of what your life is about is different—I mean that’s really the most important thing. What the doctors did with all these great discoveries is remove death. For instance I live in a townhouse, and one of the rooms in the house, I always explain, is called the parlor. Well, in 1910, they removed the term “parlor” from Ladies Home Journal. They wouldn’t accept a picture of a house that said “parlor.” The parlor had to be called the living room—which was the exact opposite of the parlor, which was the death room—in order to get away from the idea of death. And then the parlor became the funeral parlor. See, most funerals were done at home, in the parlor—the main room of the house. When the show is set, death was an active part of life. You did not expect to live long, and you couldn’t even expect to die quickly if you were going to die.

Hospital ward, New York City hospital, circa 1905

What is it about this time in the history of medicine that you respond to?
I respond to it because it was the first time that people could go to a doctor and know they were going to be helped and healed. Before the 1890’s, good luck. Think about President Garfield! Let’s talk about that. He’s shot in 1881. He gets shot here, the bullet lodges in his spine near the muscle. How did he die? The doctors stuck unclean hands in him looking for the bullet and spread his wound open. He had a big gash that just festered. He died a horrible, painful death. It was the philosophy of the time that you should take the bullet out, but they should have left him alone. That was 1881, he was President of the United States, and the best doctors came to dig their hands in him. Ten years later, he would have had a chance to live.


Brain surgery, circa 1920

So what changed during the time period The Knick is set in?
What we’re seeing in the show is all the great inventions that were occurring. You’re going to see the difference between antiseptic surgery and aseptic surgery, you’re going to see the fact that some people could carry a disease, carry it and kill you, but not be affected by it. This was a concept people did not understand before this time. This was the greatest period in the history of medicine, and [William Stewart] Halsted who [Owen’s character] Thackery is modeled after, laid down the principles of modern surgery, which are still followed today.

William Halsted at the opening of the new Johns Hopkins operating theater, 1904

Were you pretty hands-on with the specifics of the show?
Yes! Clive took private lessons, but all the other nurses and doctors came here and I taught them how to operate. And when we were done, they felt that probably it was the most valuable thing they would ever get from the show, because in any emergency they would know how to suture, how to tie. The nice part is, the actors were better than medical students. They were so serious about learning how to handle the clamps and things like that. And all of these principles still apply today. Every doctor does it the same way, and they don’t even really use fancier instruments.

Dr. Burns and Clive Owen on the set of 'The Knick.' Photo by Mary Cybulski/Cinemax.


What was your involvement on set?
I was on set three to five days a week. I’ll give you an example. It’s interesting because the first day I caused a small uproar. We were going to have our first operation, you saw that already in the first episode, and I walked in there and they put 100 doctors or so in the audience, and I said, “This is wrong, we can’t shoot this.” I said to Steven [Soderbergh], “If Martin Scorsese invited you to watch him film, would he put you in the top row? No, he would be next to you in the bottom row.” They had put all the good-looking doctors that were up front, and the older ones in the back, but really it was the older doctors that were always closest to the surgeons. So they stopped the action and changed it. Because otherwise people are going to call in and say, “Hey, that’s not right.” And believe me, it was right, we worked very, very hard to make it accurate.

Surgical scene, Dr. William Rodman operating, Philadelphia 1902

Is there something you wanted the show to communicate to the public?
My whole goal in my life is to popularize the history of medicine and to show the great strides that medicine has made, and to get more public awareness about what it was like, because we have no memory of pain. If women had memory of pain, they wouldn’t have another child. We always like to forget our bad stuff. You asked how I got my pictures. People wanted to get rid of the pictures of bad treatments, bad results, bad patients. Once you realize you’re doing it wrong, how many pictures do you want around? That’s the way medicine is, and that’s the way the world is. So with The Knick, I tried to show some of the greatest things that happened in that time and at the same time show some of the things that went wrong. The main thing is, doctors and people in general 100 years ago were just as smart, just as inventive, just as innovative [as we are today], but they labored under inferior knowledge and technology. So they did what they thought they could do to help and heal. We look back at it and it’s wrong, it’s erroneous, and I guarantee 100 years from now they’ll look back and say the same thing about us. I have no doubt. But that’s something I wanted the show to communicate.

I think it’s safe to say that they couldn’t have done it without you.
It seems that way. Steven always says that. They could’ve done it, it just would not have been as spectacular as it is.

Giancarlo T. Roma is a Brooklyn-based writer and musician. Follow him on Twitter.