Capturing Mid-Twentieth Century Medicine in Art

I’ve been reading some history of medicine and anthropology on re-emerging infectious disease lately. The label, ‘re-emerging’ infectious disease, is a response to the mid-20th century attitudes when eradication was the goal for many, if not most, pathogens.  The eradication of smallpox will stand out all the more awesome because we now know it will be a rarity. Polio is still so close, and yet so far. These pathogens are ‘re-emerging’ because they were thought to be beat, conquered or at the very least managed. It was an age of confidence, some might say over confidence.


This picture is floating around the internet. I don’t know where it originally came from or where this sculpture is located. It just seems to typify that era so well. The buff man of medicine holding back death itself. I guess its supposed to portray strength and confidence. This era is foreign enough to me that it’s just off-putting, such bravado and over-confidence. I doubt that few of us who became professionals in the era of HIV, much less SARS or ebola or the ‘re-emergence’ of old foes like pandemic influenza,  cholera and plague can understand the level of confidence that prevailed in the mid-20th century.

Does anyone know more about this sculpture or where it came from? It seems somehow familiar to something I seen in St. Louis, but not the figure of death. It looks like the 1950s or 1960s to me?

Update: Thanks to the wonder of twitter, Heather Battles found it for me. It’s at the Fulton County Health Services, 99 Jesse Hill, Jr. Drive, SE Atlanta, GA 303034 google map . She found out the artist’s name, Julian Hoke Harris.

4 thoughts on “Capturing Mid-Twentieth Century Medicine in Art

  1. Michelle,

    You do have some interesting observations on your blog. I’m afraid I can’t help you on the sculpture. But as to eradication.

    Smallpox was a great deal more difficult than many can or have comprehended, however much I and others have endeavored to communicate. In fact, in each of the last 4 countries with smallpox, the outcome hung in the balance at several discrete times and might well have failed had it not been for particular events, people, selection of improbable options that succeeded whatever our doubts may have been, and, of course, there were the timely arrival on the scene of a new invention (the bifurcated needle) and our decision to convert vaccine production in a number of developing countries to the freeze-dried process. To have all of this come together as it did was highly improbable. Thus, at the major eradication meeting 4 months after the declaration of eradication: “What next do we eradicate?” I said that I saw no candidates then or in the foreseeable future. At this point, I believe there is one long shot possibility — but only one!


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  2. Dr Henderson,

    I’m thrilled that you read my blog. Your team’s eradication of smallpox will be one the greatest medical achievements of the 20th century. Most of what I know of that era is from reading. I do remember getting the smallpox vaccination in the 1970s with that needle and it failed. My GP decided not to repeat the vaccination because he said smallpox was almost gone. (With hindsight, I bet his vaccine was out-dated.) He never passed on a vaccination so it really stuck in my mind even then, along with the bifurcated needle. I have hope for polio if the politics can be managed. With the eradication of rinderpest, its a shame that eradication of measles isn’t on the horizon.



  3. I would guess 1930s. It looks like Art Deco to me, the sort of sculpture you see on the Department of Labor building in Washington, DC, not to mention Stalinist art in the FSU.


  4. Hello Michelle,
    I very much enjoy your blog. Thank you. The bas relief looks like the Rockefeller Center in NYC. It should be in the “History of Mankind” wall but I’m sure it is not. I’ll look for it next time I’m in the vicinity.
    I’m sure you have seen the “Smallpox is dead” poster and journal cover from the WHO. What an achievement on the part of Dr. Henderson and others.
    Sealy Gilles


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