Invisible enemies have long been an elusive subject to illustrate. But throughout print history, artists have tried their hand at capturing various angles of disease. When epidemics strike, we can try to pull back into our own print collections to see examples of medical prints, diagnostic illustrations, maps and surveys used as tracing tools, and even representational satirical images. However with American prints, there are few “medical images of any kind from around 1750 until the mid-nineteenth century. Not even of something as common as bleeding.”1
A hallmark of visuals—in whatever manifestation—is that they can tell us about events in real-time (as do those created today). Sometimes these showcase erroneous public health advice owing to an undeveloped understanding of the workings of the human body. But prints can also include those created by and for the scientific community, government agencies, and by the press to inform the public; still other pandemics proved the fodder for caricatures and cartoons. In my brief survey, I’ve seen few illustrations of American epidemics (I’ve looked for ones on smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, tuberculosis, influenza, polio, malaria, and typhoid fever). Printed material with examples of popular medicine included illustrations in books and pamphlets used by physicians as well as engraved labels, trade cards, portraits of treating doctors and others.2
I am interested in exploring the intersection of medicine and material culture regarding pandemic history to share. As many of these images are great study-images, the images are available here. We hope to offer this as a multi-part series, and would love other institutions and dealers to submit their favorites so we can capture a range of prints, periods, places and treatments, especially of America.
An unillustrated version of this piece originally appeared in the AHPCS News Letter (Volume 44, Issue 4).
1. Charles Greifenstein, Curator of Archives & Manuscripts at the College of Physicians quoted as speaking to author Jim Murphy (p. 157) in his book An American Plague, 2003.
2. “Every man his own doctor”: Popular Medicine in Early America was an exhibition at member institution The Library Company of Philadelphia in 1998 and the entire full-text exhibition catalogue is available in Google books. It is a wonderful and well-illustrated read, particularly relevant during the current pandemic.