Unidentified artist. Riverside Hospital—North Brother Island, n.d. Photographic print. New-York Historical Society, PR 020
What does smallpox have to do with American history? According to David Rosner, Ph.D., Co-Director, Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia University, advisor to the exhibition BE SURE! BE SAFE! GET VACCINATED! Smallpox, Vaccination and Civil Liberties in New York, everything. In this three-part series, written by Rosner, we’ll take a look at the impact smallpox has had on our social fabric.
Few understood how the underlying social conditions could create these horrifying new threats and simply explained the diseases as a statement of God’s will or His displeasure with specific people, immigrant populations, or the commercial or social transformation of the City. Not unlike today, nineteenth century observers blamed the victims of disease for their suffering and deaths rather than seeking answers in the social and physical worlds that created disease itself: the Irish drank and were Catholics; Jews were prone to disease because of their own moral failings; the poor in general were being punished for their own unworthiness; the merchant had a personal quality that left them susceptible to disease.
If the nineteenth century saw the rise of epidemic diseases as major threats, chronic conditions – from cancer to heart disease and stroke – can similarly be understood as emblematic of twentieth century industrial, commercial, and economic forces that expose all of us to a host of new threats from synthetic chemicals to stressful environments. And certainly, one only need read the Times to hear of new associations between low-level lead and its effect on children’s neurology to endocrine disruptors and their effect on reproduction to see very concretely the general point I’m trying to make: that disease is a very social act and that the social worlds we create ultimately determine how we die.
This is a depressing note to leave you on so I only want to provide you with a slightly more hopeful message: if we build the worlds that create disease, we also have the power to create healthful ones. Of course, we’ll never end death but we can certainly build a society that prolongs a healthy and happier life. The smallpox exhibit provides us with much food for thought and I hope everyone here spends some time looking at this terrific exhibit. I appreciate the opportunity to have served as a consultant on it.