A Unique Look at Public Health History

public health poster showing a fly spreading diseaseA unique look at the history of public health can be found on the National Library of Medicine Web site. An Iconography of Contagion: A Web Exhibition of 20th-Century Health Posters from the collection of the National Library of Medicine was launched in February.

The site was adapted from the physical exhibition that was curated by Michael Sappol of the History of Medicine Division and hosted by the National Academy of Sciences in 2008. The online exhibition features more than 20 health posters from the 120s to the 1990s from North America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

Using images that are by turns beautiful, humorous, jarring and unexpected, they cover infectious diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS, gonorrhea and syphilis. In pictures, text and captions, An Iconography of Contagion shows the interplay between medical science, politics, public understanding of disease, war, and cultural values and prejudices.

Public health took a visual turn about 100 years ago. In an era of devastating epidemic and endemic infectious disease, health professionals began to organize coordinated campaigns that sought to mobilize public and government action through eye-catching posters, pamphlets and motion pictures. Impressed by the images of mass media that increasingly saturated the world around them, health campaigners were inspired to present new figures of contagion, and recycle old ones, using modernist aesthetics, graphic manipulations, humor, dramatic lighting, painterly abstraction, distortions of perspective and other visual strategies. They devised a new iconography of contagion that emphasized visual legibility and the pleasure of the view.