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Director’s Council of Public Representatives (COPR)

NIH Public Bulletin – April 2010

“Contagious” Exhibition Sure to Go Viral

Format: Web Site
Institute: National Library of Medicine (NLM)

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 campaigns 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 strategies.

NLM recently launched an online version of "An Iconography of Contagion," an exhibition hosted by the National Academy of Sciences in 2008. The online version features more than 20 North American, European, Asian, and African health posters from the 1920s to the 1990s. Using images that are by turns beautiful, humorous, jarring, or unexpected, the posters cover infectious diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS, gonorrhea, and syphilis. In pictures, text, and captions, "An Iconography of Contagion: A Web Exhibition of 20th Century Health Posters" shows the interplay between medical science, politics, public understanding of disease, war, and cultural values and prejudices. It was curated by medical historian Michael Sappol of NLM's History of Medicine Division.

Next Steps

You can view "An Iconography of Contagion: A Web Exhibition of 20th Century Health Posters" at "An Iconography of Contagion," the physical exhibition, is on tour through Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences. For booking information, please contact Alana Quinn at or (202) 334-2415.

This page last reviewed on November 1, 2012

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