Microbes in Manhattan

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A new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York focuses on NYC in sickness and in health


  • “Germ City” entrance. Photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

  • Letter by Mary Mallon originally to the editor of the New York American (later re-addressed to her lawyer), 1909. Photo courtesy of the New York County Clerk’s Archive  

  • An iron lung used to treat polio. Photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

  • “Blood Mirror,” by Jordan Eagles, 2015-present. Photo by Leo Herrera

Hear the words “Germ City” and New Yorkers conjure images of bacteria-laden subway poles and rat-infested dumpsters. But “Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis,” a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, is not a gross-out showcase. Rather, the exhibition tells the history of New York’s long battle against infectious disease. It’s a chronicle of the city’s social and cultural evolution, one in which densely populated neighborhoods and the complex movement of people and goods created ideal conditions for the spread of germs and disease — not to mention the transmission of ideas and activism that sparked remarkable medical innovations, and even cures.

Organized in collaboration with The New York Academy of Medicine and Wellcome, “Germ City” is part of an international project called Contagious Cities, which looks at epidemic preparedness in cities around the world.

The MCNY’s thoughtful curation amplifies historical echoes between disparate diseases since the turn of the last century. One can connect the dots between Jewish immigrants stigmatized as trachoma carriers as they entered Ellis Island, discrimination against African-Americans reinforced by associating them with tuberculosis and the homophobia propagated by the HIV/AIDS crisis. Various artifacts speak to the way immigrants, the poor and minorities have long been saddled with blame for the spread of disease; the exhibition’s most powerful representation of this stigma is “Blood Mirror,” Jordan Eagles’s 2015 display of blood donations from 59 HIV positive men preserved in UV resin. (The piece protests the Food and Drug Administration’s 30-year ban on gay men donating blood within 12 months of their last sexual encounter.)

Lest we forget that New York City’s sick, or merely stigmatized, were literally cast off to the city’s margins, the spectacularly eerie North Brother Island in the East River makes an appearance. A handwritten letter from Typhoid Mary (Mallon) expressing her frustration over being quarantined there in isolation for nearly three decades — though she was not actually sick (Mallon was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever) — is juxtaposed with photographer Christopher Payne’s 2008 image of North Brother Island, “Isolation Room, Tuberculosis Pavilion.” Payne captures the atmosphere of abandonment and decay on the deserted island in the wake of disease, a striking counterimage to the shiny and gentrified island that Manhattan is today.

The exhibition spends a lot of time on the way cultural forces spread diseases, but patrons will also get a sense of how a city that brought diverse peoples — and their potions — in close proximity led to a different sort of transmission. A book of traditional Chinese recipes that includes a “Formula for Cough and Cold” that uses purple aster root, mulberry leaves and field mint is displayed along with a handwritten recipe for chicken soup from an Eastern European Jewish immigrant. Today, what New Yorker hasn’t tried both a steaming bowl of “Jewish penicillin” and an herbal remedy based in traditional Chinese medicine? (The authenticity and appropriation of both is another matter.)

A massive iron lung on display used in the treatment of polio is a reminder that a mere century ago, parents feared that their children would not live until adulthood. The exhibition, in fact, commemorates the centennial of the global flu epidemic, during which one-third of the world’s population was sick with the flu and over 50 million people died worldwide.

As it always does in a crisis, New York City mobilized quickly during the 1918 flu epidemic. The City instituted staggered work hours to mitigate subway crowds, set up decentralized care throughout the city, started public health lectures at movies and even outlawed spitting, explained exhibition curator Rebecca Jacobs. In an age of public health campaigns and keychain bottles of hand sanitizer, it is hard to conceive of just how revolutionary these steps were at the time.

By putting germs and pathogens in historical context, “Germ City” also makes clear how our use of disease as a metaphor has invaded our discourse. We go to war against epidemics and battle against cancer. A film essay at the outset of the exhibit includes evening news clips in which Ebola is referred to as the “ISIS of disease.” From Nazi Germany to our current administration, the rhetoric of immigrants who “infestat” cities has been used to dehumanize and justify prejudice. It’s worth considering how this type of language makes modern New Yorkers conceive of contagion and transmission, be it the virus causing that seasonal cold half the city can’t shake, or the virulent information spread through modern social networks. When it comes to the next epidemic, none of us is immune.

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