City's Smallpox History Inspires New Exhibit
Smallpox is the only disease that's been completely wiped out across the globe but remains one of the most feared. Now, its unique connection to the city is on display at the New York Historical Society. NY1's Kafi Drexel filed the following report.
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If there's any doubt about what vaccination can do to protect entire societies against serious diseases just one look at a replica of a human arm consumed by smallpox might put any questions to rest.
"Be Sure! Be Safe! Get Vaccinated!: Smallpox, Vaccination, and Civil Liberties in New York" is now on view at the New York Historical Society. It spans from the beginnings of a disfiguring and deadly epidemic that threatened millions to the massive 1947 city public health campaign -- from which the exhibit borrows its name -- that would eventually lead to the complete eradication of the scourge.
Jean Ashton, exhibit curator and executive vice president and director of the library at NYHS, recently took NY1 to the start of the timeline with roots back to the 16th and 17th centuries and the Revolutionary War.
"We're standing in front of George Washington's order to inoculate his troops and historians sometimes think this was the most important decision he made during the Revolutionary War. More of his troops were dying of smallpox than war wounds," explained Ashton.
The exhibit also takes a turn into how massive epidemics can even invade pop culture.
"By 1950 there's a Hollywood movie called 'The Killer That Stalked New York' which is totally ridiculous and fictional about a woman who was walking through the city and infecting everybody," Ashton said.
Poetic license aside, the exhibit also aims to implement real dramatic messages about the conflict between public health and private rights. Even under threat of smallpox vaccine safety fears existed. It's a conflict that still exists today in the fight against other diseases.
"There's a huge debate or faux debate about the efficacy of vaccination. Vaccination is probably the single technology that's been introduced into human society that has had the largest and most important impact on human health," said Exhibit Consultant and Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health Professor David Rosner.
The exhibit runs through September 2, 2012 at the historical society.