Dr. Trikos Lotion, attributed to Émile Lévy (French), c. 1880. Lithograph with color stencil
An abridged version of an interview with William H. Helfand by Innis Howe Shoemaker of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from the catalogue for the exhibition Health for Sale: Posters from the William H. Helfand Collection
(2011). The exhibit
runs through July 31.Innis Howe Shoemaker
Bill, you’ve been on our Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Committee since its beginning in 1967. I’d love to know, how did you begin collecting? William H. Helfand
I began collecting as a result of a course I took at the Barnes Foundation when I was in my final year at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy [now the University of the Sciences]; I had previously received a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. The Barnes accepted me as a student primarily because I knew nothing about art at the time, and I wanted to make up for my complete lack of understanding. Their course was intended to enable the students to understand and appreciate art. I had a scheduled class in bacteriology on the Tuesdays, but I preferred going to the Barnes, so I never actually attended a single session of that course — which I nonetheless passed through the kindness of a friend who gave me his notes to study.
: How old were you then? WHH
: This was in 1951. I would have been twenty-five, single, finishing my education. The Barnes experience made me want to become an art collector myself, but of course I couldn’t afford any significant paintings, so I began to collect prints. My initial acquisitions came exclusively from the Print Club on Latimer Street in Philadelphia. Bertha von Moschzisker was the director and she sold me the first prints I acquired. They were primarily by Piranesi and Renoir, and there was even a Manet. Then one day in 1955 or 1956, after I had begun working for the pharmaceutical company Merck, I noticed an etching in a catalogue from Elkin Mathews, the British book dealer. It was a 1772 caricature of a military pharmacist, and it was called The Chymical Macaroni
. I bought it for five pounds, and I liked it very much, so I began to ask myself if there might be any more prints dealing with medical, pharmaceutical, and related subjects. I’ve been looking ever since, and after more than fifty years I still am able to find objects I never knew existed. IHS
: Did you immediately start buying more after you got that first print? WHH
: After I reflected upon it and asked the dealer if there were other similar prints, I did begin to buy more. I remember visiting Walter Schatzki, the antiquarian bookseller in New York, who had been recommended to me. I looked at the checks I had written then, but although I couldn’t find the check for The Chymical Macaroni
, I did find checks written to Walter Schatzki. These would have been written sometime afterward, indicating that I purchased The Chymical Macaroni
in 1955 or 1956. I still have this print. I’ve never seen another copy anywhere, except in the British Museum. IHS
: Is that right? So I guess soon afterward you must have been hooked, as a collector? WHH
: Well, I found so many wonderful things. I acquired the names of two collectors of medical prints and wrote to them asking for information on possible sources. One was in Paris, Maurice Bouvet, who wrote back a letter that I still have saying that I was thirty years too late. He had accumulated a wonderful collection of prints about pharmacy and medicine — almost all French — that is now a public collection in Paris [the Ordre National des Pharmaciens on avenue Ruysdaël]. Another print collector to whom I wrote was the Canadian pediatrician Theodore Drake. His wife wrote back saying that Drake had just died, but she referred me to an article he had written about his prints that was published in the Journal of the History of Medicine
. She also kindly gave me the names of a few dealers that he had frequented, one of whom was the British dealer Walter T. Spencer. Schatzki and Spencer were the first people who helped me build my collection. Then later I learned that the Philadelphia Museum of Art was assembling a collection of medical prints, which was a total surprise. I made an appointment to see the head of the Print Department, who was then Ding [Kneeland] McNulty, and I told him what I was doing. We eventually became very good friends and did what we could to continue supporting the collection, and I’ve been involved with the Museum’s Ars Medica Collection ever since.