Danger! Mosquitoes! Sex!

By Kalb, Claudia | Newsweek, July 21, 2008 | Go to article overview

Danger! Mosquitoes! Sex!


Kalb, Claudia, Newsweek


Byline: Claudia Kalb

Women were the villains when it came to STDs, as brought to you by the U.S. Public Health Service in the 1940s.

There she is, a sultry woman with dark, heavy lashes, arched eyebrows and lips like Angelina Jolie's. A red beret sits on the back of her head, a cigarette dangles from her mouth. In the 1940s, she stood for everything a man might want--style, sophistication, sex appeal. But the text around her head warns of hidden dangers. This woman, it says, could be "a bag of trouble." Masked behind her erotic lure: syphilis and gonorrhea. She is pestilence in drag.

It is art. It is medicine. It is politics and history, too. Born in the world of commercial advertising, health posters like this one emerged in the 20th century as a powerful new way to educate the public about infectious disease. Dramatic images incited fear; headlines alerted the public that coughing, mosquitoes and sex could spread tuberculosis, malaria and VD. Now 22 of these posters from the United States and abroad appear in "An Iconography of Contagion," a new exhibit at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. Curator Michael Sappol, who culled the finalists from hundreds of posters housed at the National Library of Medicine, says the exhibit reflects a time when people believed that the creation of visually compelling images was going to be "the scientific and modern way to conquer disease and build a better society."

Even the liveliest posters contain symbols of danger and death. Dark shadows appear routinely. In a 1951 British poster, "Tomorrow's Citizen," a small boy casts an adult-size shadow against a blue backdrop. "He must not be handicapped by venereal disease passed on by parents," the text reads. Skulls appear in other designs. And the anonymous crowd--representing both urbanization and the impact of disease on mass populations--is a familiar sight. A poster produced by the National Tuberculosis Association, a pioneer in health propaganda, shows a father reading the newspaper, surrounded by his family. …

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