NLM 20th-Century Health Poster Exhibition, “An Iconography of Contagion,” Opens at the National Academy of Sciences

"An Iconography of Contagion: 20th-Century Health Posters in the Collection of the National Library of Medicine," an exhibition at the National Academy of Sciences, organized in collaboration with the National Library of Medicine (NIH), will be on display from Sept. 2 - Dec. 19 at the National Academy of Sciences, 2100 C St., NW, Washington, DC (nearest Metro stop: Foggy Bottom). It is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays; admission is free; photo ID is required for admittance. 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. This exhibition features more than 20 health posters from the 1920s to the 1990s, from North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. It covers infectious diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS, gonorrhea, and syphilis.

The posters show the interplay between public understanding of disease and social values. They reflect the fears and concerns of the time, and the state of medical knowledge. And they show how beautiful and entertaining images and designs were used to educate the public on matters of life and death. Curator Michael Sappol, National Library of Medicine medical historian, will give a free gallery talk on Thursday, Sept. 18, from 6 pm to 8 pm at the National Academy of Sciences, 2100 C St., NW

Press Contact: Alana Quinn, Outreach Manager Cultural Programs, National Academy of Sciences 202-334-2415; e-mail Public Contact: 202-334-2436; e-mail

Last reviewed: 16 September 2008
Last updated: 16 September 2008
First published: 15 September 2008
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