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BE SURE! BE SAFE! GET VACCINATED! Smallpox, Vaccination and Civil Liberties in New York

May 15– September 2, 2012

“Smallpox has played a pivotal role in every era of human history. No disease has been so greatly feared or worshipped—no disease has killed so many hundreds of millions of people nor so frequently altered the course of history itself.”
D. A. Henderson, M.D., Smallpox: The Death of a Disease.

NEW YORK, NY– The New-York Historical Society will present BE SURE! BE SAFE! GET VACCINATED!: Smallpox, Vaccination and Civil Liberties in New York, an exhibition that traces the history of smallpox and the efforts to manage it in the crowded environs of New York City, the nation’s largest city. The exhibition will be on view May 15 to September 2, 2012.

Get Vaccinated! is part of a slogan from an incredibly successful 1947 campaign that requested voluntary vaccination to stave off a potential smallpox epidemic. As part of the campaign five million New Yorkers were vaccinated at schools and clinics around the city in two weeks.

“The eradication of naturally occurring smallpox from the world is one of the great triumphs of modern medicine,” said Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “But the victory was not straightforward. As this exhibition demonstrates, the weapons used to achieve it often included practices sometimes at odds with individual rights and desires. In New York City, the story of smallpox presents a microcosm of the conflicts between private liberty and the public good that are still with us today.”

Installed in the Civil Rights Gallery, the exhibition will begin with the use of inoculation (the introduction of matter from a pustule on the body of a smallpox sufferer) in the eighteenth century, and with George Washington’s dramatic decision to inoculate his troops during the Revolutionary War amid rumors that the British were intentionally infecting rebel populations.

Themes that will be emphasized in Get Vaccinated! include the history of vaccination as a medical procedure; the painful conflict between the need to manage disease in an urban environment, and the rights of individuals to resist government interference in their private lives; the continuing debate over the role of public health; and bioterrorism in the past and the present. A section of the exhibition will explore the image of smallpox and similar diseases in modern media, including popular literature, film, and television.

The exhibition team includes curator Jean Ashton, Ph.D., Executive Vice President and Director of the New-York Historical Society Library Division, and advisors David Rosner, Ph.D., Co-Director, Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia University, and James Colgrove, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Public Health at Columbia University.

“This is a timely and eye-opening exhibition as we continue to confront threats from epidemic diseases, parents’ resistance to vaccinations for their children and challenges to basic public health programs,” said David Rosner.

Thanks to the painstaking work of dedicated scientists who used a combination of isolation and vaccination to prevent the spread of the variola virus, smallpox, one of the great enemies of humankind was defeated in 1977. After much controversy, two test tubes of the virus were retained in secure vaults for future study: one in the United States Centers for Disease Control in Georgia; the other in Siberia.

Despite the fact that the last naturally occurring case of smallpox appeared in 1977, however, fear of the disease remains plausible and potent. The virus is still classified by the Centers for Disease Control as a category A bioterrorism agent. In recent years, local health departments have taken steps to educate workers on how to respond to the potential use of smallpox as a weapon of mass destruction, a fear heightened after the attacks of September 11, 2001. In New York, for instance, the State’s Department of Health created pamphlets for the public with facts about smallpox and outlined the contents for specimen collection kits, to be made available in Smallpox Vaccination Clinics around New York City.

“The history of smallpox shows that controlling epidemics involves more than just good science—it also demands the art of public persuasion. New York's battles with smallpox over the years hold valuable lessons for today as medicine confronts pandemic flu, SARS, and bioterrorism,” said James Colgrove.


About the New-York Historical Society

The New-York Historical Society, one of America's pre-eminent cultural institutions, is
dedicated to fostering research and presenting history and art exhibitions and public
programs that reveal the dynamism of history and its influence on the world of today.
Founded in 1804, New-York Historical has a mission to explore the richly layered history
of New York City and State and the country, and to serve as a national forum for the
discussion of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history.

New-York Historical is recognized for engaging the public with deeply researched and
far-ranging exhibitions, such as Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern
America; Slavery in New York; Drawn by New York: Six Centuries of Watercolors and
Drawings at the New-York Historical Society; Grant and Lee in War and Peace; Lincoln
and New York; and The Grateful Dead: Now Playing at the New-York Historical Society.
Supporting these exhibitions and related education programs is one of the world's
greatest collections of historical artifacts, works of American art, and other materials
documenting the history of the United States and New York.

Press contact
New-York Historical Society
Laura Washington
(212) 873-3400 x263

Ruder Finn Arts & Communications Counselors
Sarah Buffum
(212) 715-1594

Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Creative: Tronvig Group