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A Maven of Maps
create_schwartzTWICE ON THE MAP: Schwartz, a noted surgeon, is also a prominent expert on historical mapmaking. Yet, he observes, the readers of his seminal textbook, Principles of Surgery, “don’t have any idea about my interest in cartography.” (Photo: Adam Fenster)

“Serendipitous” is how Seymour Schwartz ’57M (Res) describes the evolution of his interest in historic maps.

As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, during World War II, he took a typical pre-med curriculum. With the exception of introductory English and a three-credit course on Shakespeare, every class was in science, says Schwartz, who holds the title Distinguished Alumni Professor of Surgery.

“I had no particular interest in history until I saw some maps,” he recalls, sitting beside a reproduction of the first known map to include the Americas, which hangs in his office at the School of Medicine and Dentistry. “Maps provide a palatable way of learning history.”

He acquired his first map—a 1795 map of the state of New York—in 1963. His collection has since grown to become one of the most acclaimed assemblages of rare maps in North America. His holdings focus on the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries—documenting Europe’s earliest contact with, and understanding of, the New World.

“My surgical personality speaks to developing a specialty,” Schwartz says about his decision to focus on a specific region and time period.

As his interest in cartographic history grew, he discovered few examples of scholarship on the mapping of America. So he took on that role. He’s authored seven books on cartography, including the definitive reference work, coauthored with Ralph Ehrenberg, The Mapping of America (Abrams, 1980). He has served on the boards of the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution and the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress.

Schwartz has donated parts of his collection over the years. In 2008, he bequeathed more than 200 of his rare maps to the University of Virginia. In 2010, he donated some of the earliest maps and drawings of western New York to the River Campus Libraries’ Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation. The Schwartz collection at Rochester includes the first map printed in the colony of New York, dated 1733, as well as the earliest known drawing of the region, a circa 1768 etching of the Upper Falls of the Genesee River.

For Schwartz, maps not only offer a means of learning history; they also have aesthetic value. “Maps should be considered works of art,” he says, adding that a true collector should never sell his items for profit.

Since joining the Rochester faculty in 1957, Schwartz has written numerous medical texts, including the authoritative textbook Principles of Surgery, now in its 10th edition under the title Schwartz’s Principles of Surgery (McGraw-Hill). He’s also authored more than 300 scientific papers and edited several of the most respected journals on surgery.

He’s received numerous accolades during his long career. Many have recognized his accomplishments as a surgeon; others have honored his contributions to cartography.

“In the books I’ve written on cartography, the audience generally doesn’t know that I’m a surgeon,” he says. “In contradistinction, the readers of [Principles of Surgery] don’t have any idea about my interest in cartography.”

Two of his honorary degrees—one from the University of Madrid and one from the University of Wisconsin—were awarded for his contributions to both surgery and cartography.

“And that pleases me,” he says.

—Jennifer Roach