An Iconography of Contagion

flyfeetdiseasenlm“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.”

The National Academy of Sciences has a new exhibition that shows the evolving cultural representation of infectious disease in the US. A lot of these posters are part of the WPA (Works Progress Administration of the Depression-era) Poster Collection at the Library of Congress (view Newsweek gallery here – I think the “Beware the Cancer Quack” one is just hilarious).

“Pneumonia strikes like a man eating shark… led by its pilot fish the Common Cold!”

The fact that these images seem funny today is a testament to how public health awareness has really spread. I love looking at historical artifacts because it reminds me of how oftentimes change is the only thing that is constant. In my opinion, anyone with a strong grasp of history develops a skepticism towards current religious doctrine (particularly Catholicism since its institutional voice and interpretation of the Bible has changed so much through the centuries). At the same time, they also develop a skepticism towards science, which I find extremely positive. Sometimes I think people have such a faith in the power of science that they forget just how wrong or biased scientists have been in the past (refer to A Short History of Nearly Everything) and how a blind and absolute belief in anyone is dangerous. History provides perspective on our own views and the factors that went into creating them.

Historical government posters often seem to scream propaganda (“Uncle Sam wants YOU!”). For better or worse, this kind of art is always an exercise in psychological manipulation.There’s this WPA malaria poster (sorry couldn’t find image online) created during World War II that depicts a mosquito with a Japanese face, in an attempt to mobilize civilians against two common enemies. Yet the poster also seems to label an entire race as disease-ridden pests.

In the midst of other health warnings, I also found this poster troubling in its treatment of women. If you look through the WPA Poster Collection, several posters emerge that seem to accuse loose women and prostitutes of being spreaders of venereal disease while portraying the innocent soldier as the victim, the implication being that a certain gender is responsible and worthy of condemnation.

And yet, even my indignation over such racism and misogyny can be perhaps set aside given the context of history. I disagree with those who often condemn Dickens for anti-Semeticism or the Greeks for misogyny. They are creatures of their own times and it doesn’t make sense to impose our modern standards upon them.

color film copy slide LC-USZC2-5161color film copy slide

Last but not least, here’s some non-public health WPA posters that I thought were too funny not to share. Clearly, “Loose lips sink ships.”

On a random note: it’s a little disheartening to see that I’ve had 300+ hits but only had a few comments. It hurts my poor self-esteem terribly much. So.. please comment, dear reader. 🙂


4 thoughts on “An Iconography of Contagion

  1. Pingback: Bulletin: Updates in the Social Marketing Field « SocialButterfly.

  2. Hi! I know this post is a little bit old, but I just found you because of this post specifically. I want to read more of your stuff, but this post in particular is really connected to my new blog. My blog continues research I have been doing for a year now on infectious disease in film and literature and the sociological aspects—how humans react in a pandemic, how just being human is related to disease, etc. I’d love to have your voice in the dialogue we are trying to get going there. Let me know what you think:

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