Kalb: A Museum Exhibit on Public-Health Posters

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. The backdrop: a mob of "unknown spreaders."

Public-health art exploded during World War II, when the government started pouring money into awareness campaigns, lambasting the enemy and the dreaded contagion at once. STD posters exonerated the soldiers they targeted, blaming the spread of syphilis and gonorrhea on loose women, like the lady with the red beret. The tagline of one poster, produced by the U.S. Public Health Service in the 1940s, reads: "You can't beat the Axis if you get VD." Cartoonlike characters suddenly morphed into combat adversaries. In 1945, the U.S. Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery created a malaria poster featuring a mosquito with a human, and stereotypically Japanese, face. Its wings are emblazoned with the Japanese imperial flag's rising sun. Such images mobilized civilian and military populations alike, says Harvard University's Dr. Mary Wilson, who wrote an essay for the exhibit catalog. "The country felt a sense of unity in fighting the common foe," she says.

Big advances in the 1950s—antibiotics, the polio vaccine—meant health posters weren't as urgently needed. Americans believed drugs and technology would eradicate the scourges. Then came 1981. "AIDS blew a giant hole in that belief," says Sappol. HIV/AIDS posters, many of them created by aggressive advocacy groups like ACT UP, used provocative slogans and racy images to make their point. They took on a positive role, too, assuring the public that casual contact was nothing to fear. One poster (tagline: "Don't worry about what you'll pick up at work") shows a hand touching a coffee cup, and reaching for a towel and a wrench.

Health posters continue to educate citizens worldwide about the infectious diseases that plague our planet. Malaria still kills more than 1 million people a year; AIDS has taken more than 25 million lives. The exhibit isn't just a retrospective—it's a reality check, too.