Reflected Moments: The Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, 1957-1991 – Selections from the Elizabeth Wilcox Photographic Collection


by Pat Molholt
Associate Vice President
Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources [1993]

When I arrived at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center last year to assume responsibility for overseeing its scholarly resources, one of the first things I heard about was the remarkably comprehensive Elizabeth Wilcox Photographic Collection, housed in the Health Sciences Library. Libby Wilcox, a photojournalist who was affiliated with the Medical Center for many years, is well-know for work assigned by Time, Newsweek, and a host of other journals and magazines. My first reaction to hearing about the size of the collection was, “100,000 photographs! What an invaluable resource for the history of this medical center.” It was followed immediately by, “But, how will we ever organize them so that they are accessible to users?” I soon discovered that the answer to my question had been provided by the indefatigable Libby herself.

In 1987 Libby arranged to give her collection of photographic negatives taken at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center to the Presbyterian Hospital in the City of New York, the college of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, the School of Nursing at Columbia University as well as the Alumnae Association of the former Presbyterian Hospital School of Nursing. She specified that the collection be held in the Special Collections Section of the Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library, where it could be made available to interested users. The joint statement of ownership reflects the close links Libby had to the various divisions of the Medical Center while she served as the “un-official” photographer from 1957 to 1991. Moreover, it demonstrates the breadth of her interests here, which took into account nearly every major personality and event at he Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center during her tenure, as well as the rich spectrum of the everyday and the ordinary.

Needless to say, cataloging 100,00 photographs is a daunting task. Without a guide of some sort, however that number of images would be nearly impossible to use effectively. Fortunately, Libby was way ahead of us and had already come to our rescue. From her early days as a photographer, she had kept meticulous archives of her negatives, marking and arranging them in chronological order. Her compulsion for organizing is so strong that she still jokes about titling her memoirs, “Archivist by Accident.” Eventually Libby learned to use a personal computer. By doing so, she was able to create a database of information about her photographs that would allow the viewer to look for images of people, places and events from Medical Center’s history in a variety of ways. And so, the Elizabeth Wilcox Photographic Collection came to us free of the usual problems associated with inheriting such assets.

It is not often that an institution has the good fortune to hold a pictorial record of its history in the depth that the Wilcox Collection documents the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. Fortunately for us, Libby has been around medicine all her life. Her broad perspective on the world of medicine was initiated by her father, who was a physician. It was expanded by her marriage to Herbert “Bud” Wilcox, P&S alumnus, Class of 1934, and a former faculty member of P&S. This intimate connection to the field allowed Libby to forge a union between personal knowledge and professional talent, and to approach the Medical Center from a variety of viewpoints. Her diversity is represented in a body of work that is exhaustive. Images of doctors, nurses, patients, faculty, researchers, and students are captured in her photographic memory on streets, in buildings, classrooms, clinics, offices, operating rooms, and sometimes on social occasions. She even drove to campus during the great “Blackout” of 1965 to record how the hospital coped during the hours of crisis. Earlier, she traveled to Liberia with Columbia medical students who were taking an elective in tropical medicine. Included in this series is a photograph of the moving moment when a young woman is diagnosed with small pox.

Libby’s work, in fact, goes far beyond the merely documentary. She has always been first and foremost a photojournalist and many of her achievement are newsworthy stories told in pictures. She weaves intimate narratives around exchanges among the Medical Center’s cast of characters, most of whom are involved in providing or receiving health care. In story after story, Libby seizes the moment’s ultimate intensity, whether in the doctor taking a patient history, the faculty member teaching, or a mother comforting her frightened child. These are the visions that convey the often unexamined side of medicine, where concern, caring, and delicate sensitivity are the greatest skills exercised.

This catalog presents a selection of photographs that offers a glimpse of the riches within the Elizabeth Wilcox Photographic Collection. We hope that it is the first in a series of catalogs that will document the diversity and growth of the Medical Center as represented in the work of Libby Wilcox. I hope you share our enthusiasm for this splendid gift to the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, a precious insight into our past that is equally important to the history of medicine as a whole.


Reflected Moments is an enlarged digital version of a catalog published in 1993 by the Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library to accompany an exhibition of Elizabeth Wilcox’s photographs at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.

The original catalog was compiled and coordinated by Marvin J. Taylor, Head of Special Collections at the Health Sciences Library, and designed by Richard Miller of the Columbia University Center for Biomedical Communications. Both the exhibit and catalog were made possible with the support of Dr. Pat Molholt, Associate Vice President and Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources, Columbia University Medical Center.

The digital version has slightly altered the ordering of the images as they appeared in the printed catalog and has added a new section, “Places,” that includes photographs that do not appear in the print version. This version was coordinated and revised by Stephen E. Novak, Head, Archives & Special Collections, and designed by Andy Lin.

Copies of the paper catalog are still available for purchase at $25. All proceeds from sales of the catalog go to the maintenance of the Wilcox Photographic Collection. Please contact Archives & Special Collections at or (212) 305-7931 to purchase a copy.

Copyright Notice and Requests for Reproductions

The copyright on all the photographs in this exhibit are held jointly by Columbia University in the City of New York and the New York-Presbyterian Hospital and may not be reproduced without their permission.

No photograph of a patient or a visitor was taken or published without the granting of a witnessed signature on a permission release.

Inquiries regarding reproduction of these images should be directed to the Head, Archives and Special Collections, Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library, Columbia University, 701 West 168th St., New York, NY 10032 or to

Photographs from the Collection