Aside from being born in 1830, very little is known about Oscar G. Mason's childhood, education, or training as a daguerreotypist. The earliest available information reveals he worked for the Charles and Henry Meade gallery as their chief camera operator at their Broadway location shortly after its 1850 opening. After his tenure with the Meade brothers, Mr. Mason worked in Springfield, Massachusetts and Northfield, Vermont before returning to New York City.
Before the outbreak of the Civil War, Bellevue Hospital - the oldest public hospital in the United States - had established itself as one of the finest teaching hospitals in America. It also established the first civilian hospital photographic department, and hired Mr. Mason as a photographer. The exact date of his employment at Bellevue is questionable, but many sources cite the year 1856. By 1868, principal construction on the Bellevue department of photography was finally completed, and included a 12 x 14 foot skylight and a 6 x 12 foot laboratory darkroom. More than 12000 positive paper prints were made in the Bellevue photographic department in 1869 alone, due in large part to the hard work and strong leadership of Oscar G. Mason. According to apothecary and chief financial officer John Frey, "Members of the medical profession begin to visit the Department periodically, for the purpose of obtaining such photographs as pertain to each one's more especial class of investigation. Many interesting cases of skin disease, factures, and results of important surgical operations have been fully illustrated by series of photographs, which give opportunity for comparison and study not offered by any other means." Mr. Mason began photographing unidentified bodies that had not significantly decomposed and these photographs were placed in Bellevue's exhibition room for a year so that positive identifications from relatives and/or friends could be obtained.
In addition to his duties as photographer, Mr. Mason also promoted the extensive use of photography in the medical profession. In 1883, he strongly urged surgeons to photograph rather than sketch important medical cases. His photograph of a woman with the rare malady known as elephantiasis created a major sensation when published in George Henry Fox's text, Photographic Illustrations of Skin Diseases. He also served as a photographic consultant for a team of physician instructors that included John Call Dalton, Francis Delafield, and Lewis Albert Sayre. Mr. Mason also used photography as an instrument of social reform, taking the photographs of Bellevue patients that appeared in Helen Campbell's 1893 book, Darkness and Daylight; or, Lights and Shadows of New York Life.
Four years' later, when X-ray photography made its official debut at Bellevue, Mr. Mason was promoted to radiographer. He resigned from the hospital in 1906, but continued to take photographs of unclaimed corpses until the New York police department established its Bureau of Unidentified Dead. In later years, he concentrated on astronomical photography and became a consultant for astronomer Lewis Morris Rutherfurd. He also served as a member of several important photographic organizations including the Photographic Association of America, the American Photographical Society, the Photographic Exchange Club of Philadelphia, and the Photographic Society of Philadelphia. In addition, he was a frequent contributor to The Photographic Times weekly publication, president of the American Institute, Photographic Section, and was the American Microscopical Society's secretary and treasurer. Oscar G. Mason lived out the remainder of his life at 211 West 80th Street in New York City, where he died on March 16, 1921 at the age of 91. His longevity has been attributed to his strict vegetarianism, and his contributions broadened the base of photography from artistic medium to valuable tool of medical science.
1921 Abel's Photographic Weekly, Vol. XXVII (Lorain, OH: Abel Publishing Company), p. 342.
2009 Craig's Daguerreian Registry (URL: http://craigcamera.com/dag/).
1869 Ninth Annual Report of the Commissioners of Public Charities and Correction, New York for the Year 1868 (Albany: Charles Van Benthuysen & Sons), pp. 143, 145, 152-153.
2010 A Note on George Henry Fox and O. G. Mason (URL: http://www.artandmedicine.com/wood/Preface.html).
1869 The Philadelphia Photographer, Vol. VI (Philadelphia: Benerman & Wilson), p. 202.
1921 The Photographic Journal of America, Vol. LVIII (Philadelphia: Frank V. Chambers), p. 153.
1883 The Photographic Times, Vol. XIII (New York: Scovill Manufacturing Company), p. 496.
2010 Report of the Photographic Department of Bellevue Hospital for the Year 1869 (URL: http://www.artandmedicine.com/ogm/1869.html).
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