By Anne Garner, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts and Rebecca Jacobs, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Museum of the City of New York
On certain October mornings during 1918, masks like the one in the above photograph would have been a common sight on New York’s streets. Men and women wore them on their commutes to work, or even while doing their jobs, as office workers, postal carriers, and sanitation workers. Over 30,000 New Yorkers died during the 1918 influenza pandemic. And yet, because the city had learned from other contagious disease outbreaks and adjusted its public response and infrastructure accordingly, these numbers were comparatively low side-by-side with other American cities.
A hundred years later, Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis, opening today at the Museum of the City of New York, explores New York City’s history of battles with contagious disease. The exhibition is co-presented with The New York Academy of Medicine, in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust as part of their Contagious Cities project. Contagious Cities encourages local conversations about the global challenge of epidemic preparedness.
Germ City tells the very personal stories of New Yorkers’ experiences and their responses to the threat of contagious disease over time using historical objects, oral histories, and artwork. Artist Mariam Ghani’s film, inspired by Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, invites audiences at the main gallery’s entrance to engage with the themes of metaphor and disease. Ghani’s work leads into the main gallery, where the stories of the some of the city’s many microbes—flu, cholera, diphtheria, the common cold, cholera, smallpox, TB, polio, HIV, and others —are explored through scientific models, historical objects, and contemporary artworks.
During the 1854 cholera epidemic, physicians visited the homes of the sick and issued orders for hospitalization, most hastily written on scrap paper. According to these notes, this patient, Mary Riley, delayed going to the hospital and died the following day.
The impact of diphtheria, another devastating disease of the 19th and early 20th century, is crystalized in the compelling story of Ernst Jacobi, the son of Abraham Jacobi, the father of pediatrics and himself a committed diphtheria researcher. An 1884 letter in the New York Academy of Medicine’s collections, written by Abraham Jacobi’s wife, the physician and activist Mary Putnam Jacobi, documents the devastating death of Ernst from diphtheria.
While this first section of the exhibition establishes just some of the contagious diseases that have hit New York over time, the remaining four sections of the exhibition probe the responses of the government, medical professionals, and ordinary citizens to the threat of epidemics. A common first response to contagion is to contain it. Visitors learn about New York’s man-made quarantine islands, Hoffman and Swinburne, and the exile of “Typhoid Mary” to nearby North Brother Island. These islands, now covered in overgrowth and closed to the public, are still visible from Manhattan’s shores.
Jordan Eagle’s Blood Mirror, a sculpture created with the blood of gay, bisexual, and transgender men to protest the U.S. government’s ban on their donating blood, provokes viewers to consider the potential consequences of linking particular identities with disease and thus isolating populations.
The exhibition also explores the ways researchers, public officials, and ordinary New Yorkers have attempted to gather information in an effort to fight contagion. The Citizens’ Association of New York’s map of lower Manhattan illustrates the 1864 survey of New York households, conducted by physicians going door-to-door recording instances of typhoid, cholera, and other deadly diseases.
A copy of one survey, conducted by Dr. William Hunter, records the living conditions of a family of three recent Irish immigrants living on West 14th Street—all with typhoid fever. Science journalist Sonia Shah’s “Mapping Cholera” project illuminates the similarities between nineteenth-century New York’s vulnerability to cholera and more recent outbreaks in Haiti.
Over time, New Yorkers have been reliant on medical research, medicine, and family and professional caregivers to provide respite from disease. A collection of postcards from the Academy Library donated by retired physician Dr. Robert Matz depict key institutions where epidemiological research, treatment, and care were given in an effort to save the lives of the city’s sickest. Many of these facilities—hospitals, sanitaria, and health resorts—have been torn down or transformed over time, becoming another invisible layer in the city’s architectural history.
New Yorkers sought care from old family recipes, as with Selma Yagoda’s recipe for chicken soup, and from patent medicines, cheap formulas widely available over the counter, which claimed to cure many ailments, including malaria and the Spanish flu.
Germ City also engages with the ways cities create infrastructure and policies that support health. Public officials sometimes used creative delivery methods to communicate health information to wider audiences. In 1929, The Diphtheria Prevention Commission inundated the city’s subways and streets with placards and brochures in Spanish, Polish, Yiddish, and Greek, directing New Yorkers to get immunized for diphtheria. David Lynch’s 1991 “Clean Up” video offers a dark and at times surreal look at the city’s rat problem, illustrating the importance of public hygiene. A number of private and public organizations mobilized to minimize disease outbreaks through outreach and education.
Following the main gallery, visitors are invited to engage hands-on with copies of collections materials in the “Reading Room,” in a range of formats (visual, audio, video). People can share their own family stories of disease through our public collecting initiative.
Germ City will be on view until April 28th, 2019. In coordination with the exhibition, the Academy is offering a slate of programming in partnership with the Museum of the City of New York. The first of these, “The World’s Deadliest Pandemic: A Century Later,” will take place at the Museum on September 27th. We hope to see you there (register here.)