Articles

Visualizing Disease: A Survey of Public Health Posters

by Allison Meier on July 17, 2014

The benefit of sleeping under a mosquito net. Chromolithograph by A. Guillaume.

“The benefit of sleeping under a mosquito net.” Chromolithograph by A. Guillaume. (all images courtesy Wellcome Library)

Striking visuals have long been essential to disease awareness, using art to convey the invisible menace of a microscopic virus and its destructive symptoms. A new exhibition — Picturing Tropical Diseases, or Retratar as Doenças Tropicais: Imagens escolhidas de histórias diversas — explores historic and contemporary images from health campaigns.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images L0023767 The malaria mosquito forming the eye-sock

Malaria mosquito forming the eyes on a watching face (courtesy Wellcome Library)

The exhibition opened earlier this month at the Instituto de Higiene e Medicina Tropical in Lisbon, Portugal, with diverse images from the Wellcome Library, World Health Organization, Public Health Image Library, and the University of York. A companion publication — Tropical Diseases: Lessons from History — is available for free at the University of York digital library.

In the introduction to Tropical Diseases by editors Alexander Medcalf and Sanjoy Bhattacharya at the University of York, they write: “[Tropical diseases] have burdened populations for millennia, but it is only comparatively recently that these diseases have been scientifically defined, and efforts to control, combat and eradicate them have been developed.”

Focused on malaria, leprosy, Guinea worm disease, sleeping sickness, river blindness, Chagas disease, kala azar, and others, the disease management posters were popularized at the beginning of the 20th century. Particularly prevalent for malaria, posters often showed a mosquito as a villainous caricature bent on devastation. The Digital Public Library of America also recently shared malaria posers on their Tumblr, one of a joyful cartoon mosquito that’s just zipped through a home with the doors and windows open proclaiming: “I wasn’t kept out, so I spread malaria all about!” Other posters aimed to shock, vividly showing the feverish, painful symptoms, or offer stern tips on how to stay healthy with mosquito nets and eliminating stagnant water.

The Computer Virus Catalog online has been showcasing artists illustrating “the worst viruses in computer history.” While in a very separate realm from public health, they’re an interesting counterpart to the continued use of art in giving an image to infections with a visual urgency.

L0024907 The malaria mosquito under a spotlight, with scenes showing Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org The malaria mosquito under a spotlight, with scenes showing how to avoid catching malaria. Colour lithograph after a design attributed to Reginald Mount. By: Reginald MountPublished:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

“The malaria mosquito under a spotlight, with scenes showing how to avoid catching malaria,” color lithograph after a design attributed to Reginald Mount (courtesy Wellcome Library)

V0010524 Advice to British soldiers about malaria. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Advice to British soldiers about malaria. Coloured pen drawing by Copp. Lettering: Precautions against malaria not too little not too much but just right! Copp. Drawing ca. 1944 By: CoppPublished:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Copp, “Advice to British soldiers about malaria” (1844), drawing (courtesy Wellcome Library)

Australian public health information poster on the tiger mosquito and the grey 'night-biting' mosquito as carriers of disease (dengue, yellow fever and filaria), advising citizens to clean up water-holding rubbish, produced by Brisbane City Council Department of Health after the 1926/1927 dengue epidemic. Colour lithograph, ca. 1928.

Australian public health information poster on the tiger mosquito and the grey ‘night-biting’ mosquito as carriers of disease (dengue, yellow fever and filaria), advising citizens to clean up water-holding rubbish, produced by Brisbane City Council Department of Health after the 1926/1927 dengue epidemic. Color lithograph, 1928. (courtesy Wellcome Library)

Picturing Tropical Diseases, or Retratar as Doenças Tropicais: Imagens escolhidas de histórias diversas continues at the the Instituto de Higiene e Medicina Tropical (Rua da Junqueira Nº100, Lisbon, Portugal) through September 30.

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