Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis Opens

By Anne Garner, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts and Rebecca Jacobs, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Museum of the City of New York

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Typist wearing mask, New York City, October, 16, 1918. Courtesy of the National Archives.

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.

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Orders for hospitalization for Mary Riley, August 29–31, 1854.

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.

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Letter from Mary Putnam Jacobi to Sophie Boaz, February 27, 1884.

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.

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Jordan Eagles, Blood Mirror, 2015–present Artwork on gallery floor. On loan from the artist.

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.

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Sonia Shah, Excerpt from Mapping Cholera: A Tale of Two Cities, 2015. Designed and built by Dan McCarey. Courtesy of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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Postcard, Harlem Hospital. From the collection of Dr. Robert Matz.

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.

 

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Diphtheria pamphlets

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.)

Summer Reading Suggestions – Part I

“There is a narrative power to epidemics … these events typically unfold dramatically and contain elements of discovery, reaction, suspense, conflict, illness, perhaps death, and one hopes, resolution.” -Howard Markel, When Germs Travel

 

This September we open an exhibition with our partners (and next door neighbor) The Museum of the City of New York; Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the influenza pandemic of 1918 which infected an estimated quarter of the world’s population and caused the death of more people than the First World War.

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Prompted by this centenary, the exhibition and its related programs are the New York City site of the exploration of germs living in people the way people live in cities, along with sister sites in Hong Kong and Geneva. This international collaboration, Contagious Cities, was developed by the Wellcome Trust. Inspired by the Reading Room at the Wellcome Trust’s home in London, our exhibition will include a reading room of books and articles visitors can read.

If you just can’t wait till September to dig deeper into tales of cities’ roles in causing and controlling disease or the stories of human ingenuity, fear, and compassion in the face of sickness; pick among these titles for not-your-usual summer reading. Please bear in mind titles suggested below may not be in the exhibition’s reading room, but that’s where your local library steps in: find yours here.

Hear them Here: Authors Speaking at our Programs

  • The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, John M. Barry
  • Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes, and the Immigrant Menace, Alan M. Kraut
  • Infectious Fear: Politics, Disease, and the Health Effects of Segregation, Samuel Kelton Roberts
  • After Silence: A History of AIDS Through its Images, Avram Finkelstein
  • Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, Sonia Shah

Many people aren’t aware of the 1918 influenza pandemic or how widespread and deadly it was in New York, the United States, and globally; so John Barry’s account of the pandemic’s history in The Great Influenza and connecting it to current day challenges like avian flu is a good foundation read. Readers can attend on Sept. 27th [coming soon to our events page] to hear Barry in panel discussion on the legacy of the 1918 flu and how surviving future pandemics may be as much a political issue as a medical one. Moderating that conversation will be Alan Kraut, author of Silent Travelers, a look at the medicalized prejudice that so often targets immigrants.

Infectious Fear Cover_RobertsGerms themselves may be blind when it comes to who infect; but outbreaks don’t strike populations with equity. We tackle the fraught intersection of disease and disparity in a discussion on Nov. 28th  [coming soon to our events page] and give the thumbs-up to our moderator Professor Samuel Roberts’ thought-provoking book Infectious Fear. For a closer look at the lived experiences of disease and how those infected are remembered or all too often forgotten join us in February 2019  [coming soon to our events page] for Remembering the Dead; you’ll have plenty of time to check out panelist Avram Finkelstein’s unflinching look at the AIDS crisis and the responses of artist-activists; After Silence. We face our future with infectious diseases in a discussion in April 2019 lead by journalist Sonia Shah. She weaves an amazing story with history, reportage and personal narrative in Pandemic: Tracking Contagions about how we are making predictions about the next major pandemic.

If you’d like a nonfiction read for a younger audience pick up Jim Murphy’s An American Plague. This is a dramatic retelling of the yellow fever epidemic in 1793 Philadelphia, a survival challenge to the city’s inhabitants as well as the young nation itself with a good spotlight on the incredible role of the Free African Society in caring for the sick. An American Plague pairs nicely with Laurie Halse Anderson’s fictional Fever 1793, also intended for the middle-school reader but from the point of view of its 15-year old heroine Mattie.

Which brings us to works of fiction more generally …

Fiction: Disease as a way to Explore the Body and Self; the Individual and Society

  • Fever: A Novel, Mary Beth Keane
  • The Last Man, Mary Shelley
  • Blue Pills a Postive Love Story, Frederik Peeters
  • The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton

For a change of pace from incisive facts and socio-scientific trends, delve into the highly personal story of Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant to the United States better known as ‘Typhoid Mary,’ in Mary Beth Keane’s Fever. From Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame, there’s an apocalyptic story of humankind brought face to face with its own destruction due to plague in The Last Man complete with thinly veiled versions of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and herself. Most of the English Romantics were deceased by the time Shelley wrote this, so an undercurrent of eulogizing comes through in her tone as she explores the failure of imagination to save society.

Translated from the French by Anjali Singh is Frederik Peeters’ graphic novel, Blue Pills – A Positive Love Story, the story of a man’s relationship with his girlfriend and her son who are both HIV+. The black and white artwork allows for an arresting depiction of what is literally happening to the protagonist and simultaneously what he is perceiving and coping with in the moment.

You didn’t think there wouldn’t be a Michael Crichton, did you? The Andromeda Strain is the kick-off novel of bio-tech thrillers with its deadly microbe brought back from space on a military satellite.

Bonus book:

Eleven Blue Men and Other Narratives of Medical Detection, Berton Roueché

One of the best writers from The New Yorker, Roueché’s short stories are superbly written vignettes of medical mystery solving.