Digitized copies are provided for research before the use of originals. Because the records include Protected Health Information (PHI) as defined by the US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), access is allowed only under the terms of Archives and Special Collections’ Access Policy to Records Containing Protected Health Information. Some photographs may not be permitted to be published due to the provisions of the HIPAA Privacy Rule.
Rights: Herbert & Elizabeth Wilcox ceded the copyright to her photos jointly to Columbia University in the City of New York and Presbyterian Hospital in the City of New York. Please contact Archives & Special Collections for information on using images from the collection.
The over 100,000 images, the bulk negatives and contact sheets, taken by Elizabeth "Libby" Wilcox (1916-2000), the unofficial Medical Center photographer from 1957 to 1991, comprise an unparalleled picture of life at one American medical center during the last half of the 20th century. As the wife of Herbert Wilcox, Jr., a long-time faculty member and attending physician at Columbia-Presbyterian, Mrs. Wilcox had access to the workings of the Medical Center. She illustrated countless in-house publications including annual reports, fundraising brochures, school catalogs, and the Center's monthly newsletter, the Stethoscope. While it covers a wide range of activities, the collection is unusually rich in images of nursing, pediatrics and surgery. It is also a visual record of the vast changes that took place in the physical fabric of the Medical Center during this period.
History and Biography
Elizabeth “Libby” Wilcox (née Wilson) was born in 1916 to physician Gordon Wilson and Elizabeth Elliott Wilson in Baltimore, Maryland. She attended Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore.
A freelance photographer whose work in advertising and on assignment for featured articles was published in Time, Newsweek, Life, Ladies Home Journal, Parents, Saturday Evening Post and other national publications, Wilcox became known for her work documenting health care at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center (currently known as the Columbia University Irving Medical Center of the New York-Presbyterian Hospital) located in Washington Heights, New York City. Her work is celebrated for images of figures such as obstetric anesthesiologist Virginia Apgar and former U.S. President Herbert Hoover as a patient (1962).
Wilcox claimed that she took her first photograph after receiving a camera from her husband, Herbert Wilcox, Jr. during their wedding trip, in which he bet her $20 that she’d never use it. She began photographing children and opened a studio in Baltimore while her husband was overseas during World War II. After he returned, they moved to New York City where she opened another studio in Riverdale, Bronx. Although self-taught, she later participated in a workshop conducted by Ansel Adams in Santa Cruz, California and received a Polaroid Foundation grant and show at the IBM Gallery.
Her work with medical subjects began in 1957 when she was hired to document the progress and treatment of kidney disease for the Childhood Nephrosis Clinic at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center where her husband was on the faculty. This led to other contracts and commissions, illustrating medical research, healthcare, and other activities associated with the Medical Center. Some photographs were reportedly taken by her husband. She became the “unofficial” photographer of the CPMC for the next 30 years. Some of her photographs of the medical center were used in advertising for the pharmaceutical industry and Blue Cross Blue Shield.
In 1962, she accompanied Columbia University medical students abroad for the “Medicine in the Tropics” program in West Africa. During her trip, she was also on assignment for The Episcopalian magazine, Chase Manhattan Bank, and IBM World Trade Public Relations to document the use of IBM computers in Lagos, Nigeria.
In 1965, she took another trip to West Africa, partially funded by the Ford Foundation to document a program to teach Africans the use of modern farming equipment. While in Liberia, she also photographed nurses from the Columbia School of Nursing working at the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company plantation hospital.
Wilcox was the only photographer initially allowed to photograph the birth of the William and Peggy Kienast quintuplets delivered at Presbyterian Hospital on February 24, 1970. Her photographs were published in the New York Times March 28, 1970.
Elizabeth married Dr. Herbert B. Wilcox, Jr. in 1937. They had sons Herbert, Gordon, and Thomas. They resided in Riverdale, Bronx before retiring and relocating to Redding, Connecticut and later Massachusetts.
After receiving her collection, the Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library at the Medical Center curated a 1993 exhibit of her work titled, “Reflected Moments …” An accompanying exhibition catalog of the same title was published under the direction Marvin J. Taylor, then head of Special Collections, and Pat Molholt, then Dean and Associate Vice President for Education and Scholarly Resources.
The Library hosted another exhibit: “Snapshots from the Past: Photos of the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center from the Elizabeth Wilcox Photographic Collection 1957-1990” held March 15-June 15, 2004, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.
Elizabeth Wilcox died in North Branford, Connecticut at the age of 84 on May 6, 2000.
Published works: Wilcox, E. (1993). Reflected moments, the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center 1957-1991: A selection of photographs from the Elizabeth Wilcox Photographic Collection. New York: Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library, Columbia University.
 Stillman, Dorothea. “E. Wilcox: ‘Have camera, will travel’. Redding Pilot June 28, 1979.
 New York Times May 9, 2000
 “Flashback,” The reporter ([New York, N.Y. : Columbia University Health Sciences) June 2000] From “Wilcox, Elizabeth” Vertical Files, Archives & Special Collections, Health Sciences Library, Columbia University.
Pace, Eric. “Elizabeth Wilcox, 84, dies; photographed hospital scenes,” New York Times May 14, 2000. From “Wilcox, Elizabeth” Vertical Files, Archives & Special Collections, Health Sciences Library, Columbia University.
Wilcox, Elizabeth. [WilcoxIndex.doc] 1993. Word document. Archives and Special Collections, Columbia University Health Sciences Library.
The collection has been divided into 4 series: I. Negatives; II. Slides; III. Contact Sheets; IV. Printed photographs.
The collection contains photographs taken by Wilcox, the bulk being 35mm black and white negatives, in addition to color negatives and slides, 120mm and 4 x 5 formats, contact sheets, vintage prints, and tear sheets from her published work. Some materials may retain Wilcox’s editing marks, particularly contact sheets.
The bulk of the photographs depict interior scenes within Presbyterian Hospital, Babies Hospital, Vanderbilt Clinic, Harkness Eye Institute, and other institutions in what is now the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, but also contains personal photo shoots. Wilcox captured myriad scenes of the inner workings of Presbyterian Hospital and its affiliated clinics and centers, showing doctors, nurses, medical and nursing students, administrative and facility staff, volunteers and patients. Some faculty, students and staff are affiliated with the College of Physicians and Surgeons, School of Nursing, College of Dental and Oral Surgery, and School of Public Health.
There are many views of patient care, including surgery, emergency care, and ward rounds. Wilcox documented blood banks, x-rays machines and other medical devices, computers and emerging technologies. A wide-range of events are represented, such as alumni reunions, commencements, nurses’ tea, and other staff events. She also documented other hospital functions including cafeteria workers, cooks, and custodians. Images of buildings and grounds capture construction and demolition of the Medical Center, along with panoramas and aerial views capturing the Hudson River and George Washington Bridge.
Detailed description of photographs are found in notes left on negative glassine sleeves and manila envelopes along with indices created by Wilcox at the time of her donation (1991-1992). Due to the idiosyncratic nature of these sources, they can be researched internally with the aid of Archives & Special Collections staff.
Wilcox indicates that another filing system (EW) contained non-Columbia related images. Although she did end up donating some of these images--such as those taken in Liberia—most of her original negatives not related to CPMC and healthcare are not part of this collection.
Subject Headings and Related Records
Gift of Elizabeth Wilcox, 1991-1992, and photographic prints collected by the library from other sources.
Processed and finding aid written by Jennifer Ulrich, 2018.