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Henry Doherty Morrey

Smithsonian American Art Museum

"Fuck the red ribbons - Find a cure" button

National Museum of American History
Round yellow button with black border. Says "FUCK THE RED RIBBONS FIND A CURE" in black and red writing.

From the first LGBT pride march in Austin, Texas, in June 1995. This button refers to the AIDS epidemic that began in the US in the 1980s and its lack of a cure. Red ribbons became a symbol of solidarity for those living with AIDS in 1991.

The World's Megacities Are Making Dengue Deadlier

Smithsonian Magazine

While the world’s attention is focused on the Zika virus spreading through the Americas, large urban areas in Southeast Asia are fighting off outbreaks of dengue fever. The mosquito-borne illness causes high fever, rash and debilitating joint pain, and it can develop into a more severe and lethal form. An epidemic this past October swept through New Delhi, sickening more than 10,000 people and killing 41, overwhelming the city’s hospital capacity.

The two species of mosquito primarily responsible for transmitting dengue, Aedes aegypti and A. albopictus, live in close proximity to humans. Our homes are their homes. In urban areas, where most dengue transmission happens, recent housing booms have provided more places not only for humans to live, but also these mosquitoes. The influx of people, increased construction and ongoing travel of humans and mosquitoes around the world have led to a 30-fold rise in urban dengue outbreaks between 1960 and 2010, according to the World Health Organization.

Fighting this problem will mean combining some of the world’s most basic public health measures, like plumbing and sanitation, with high-tech vaccines and mosquito control measures. The goal is to provide a better home for humans while kicking mosquitoes to the curb. It will be tough, says infectious disease expert Duane Gubler of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore. But he believes that this dual focus may finally provide traction against the deadly disease.

“If you can decrease the mosquito population while increasing herd immunity, you can decrease transmission and prevent epidemics,” Gubler says.

An Aedes aegypti mosquito sucks blood out of a human. A. aegypti is the carrier of many diseases, including dengue, and is adapted to live among humans in dense cities. (James Gathany/CDC)

Urban centers have long been magnets for infectious disease. As soon as humanity started living in large cities, epidemics swept through the population, creating death and misery on a scale seldom seen.

Then, as now, epidemics required the confluence of a large pool of uninfected, non-immune people with suitable conditions for the pathogen to spread. For vector-borne diseases, that also meant the presence of the mosquito, tick or flea that helped to move the infection from person to person. Large cities placed all of these factors in close proximity, and the results were catastrophic. Early epidemics of plague and smallpox in ancient Rome, for instance, killed approximately half the population.

More than half of humanity now lives in cities, and that percentage is growing. As more people leave their agrarian pasts for the promise of the big city, many urban centers have boomed into mega-metropolises of more than 20 million people. This rapid influx of people has led to burgeoning slums in the world’s biggest cities, as well as new construction in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. 

The emergence of the modern megalopolis shows that humans ultimately adapted well to their crowded surroundings, but the same has been true for our microscopic pathogens.

Dengue began as a disease of primates that was transmitted in the forests of Africa by mosquitoes. The virus adapted to humans, as did the A. aegypti mosquito, which passed the virus from host to host in its saliva. As humans moved to small villages, the mosquito and the viruses it carried moved with us, causing small outbreaks of dengue.

The African slave trade transported the mosquito, which laid its eggs in the water casks aboard ship, and diseases like dengue, malaria and yellow fever spread around the world. Many of the world’s first large cities were shipping hubs in warm, humid areas, making them conducive to the spread of tropical diseases.

Still, before World War II, outbreaks of dengue occurred only every 10 to 40 years and rarely caught the attention of physicians or public health officials, Gubler says. Then the effects of dengue and other mosquito-borne diseases on military personnel brought dengue back to the forefront, as did the post-war population boom in Southeast Asia and its accompanying rush of urbanization. This change transformed dengue from a tropical rarity into a major urban pathogen.

Initial investment in mosquito control programs slowed the transmission of dengue, but budget cuts in the 1970s and '80s forced health departments to scale back these programs. At the same time, rapid globalization moved people and pathogens around the world faster than ever before.

The world’s megacities also pose another type of risk. The dengue virus has four different subtypes, and infection with one type doesn’t make you immune to any of the others. It’s one of the factors making a dengue vaccine so hard to produce. Even worse, a second infection with the dengue virus isn’t just an inconvenience, it’s also potentially deadly. Because the immune system has seen a closely related virus, it overreacts when it responds to a second dengue subtype. The result is dengue hemorrhagic fever, when an overreactive immune response causes severe internal bleeding and death.

Massive cities are more likely to have multiple subtypes of dengue circulating at the same time, increasing the chances for developing dengue hemorrhagic fever. The result is the explosive dengue outbreaks that now regularly strike tropical cities like New Delhi, São Paolo and Bangkok. Dengue is an annual problem in New Delhi, with cases climbing after the yearly monsoon season and peaking in early fall.

Exactly how many people are affected by these outbreaks isn’t clear because a large proportion of disease occurs in resource-poor settings where epidemiological surveillance is limited at best, says Narendra Arora, a pediatrician and infectious disease researcher with the INCLEN Trust in India. In addition, the symptoms of dengue closely match those of other tropical diseases like malaria and chikungunya.

The World Health Organization had estimated that 20,474 people in India are sickened by dengue each year, but a 2014 study in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene by Arora and Donald Shepard at Brandeis University showed that the number was likely more around 6 million, 300 times greater than WHO estimates.

“It showed we really don’t know how much dengue there is. We need to know more about how much of a problem it is,” says Carl-Johan Neiderud, a medical microbiologist at Uppsala University in Sweden.

The view from the Jama Masjid Mosque in New Delhi, India. New Delhi and its suburbs rank among the largest megacities in the world, with more than 25 million people living there. (Kiedrowski, R./Corbis)

Few countries have managed to control dengue permanently, but those with some success have focused on mosquito control.

Unfortunately, anti-malaria measures such as insecticide-treated bed nets aren’t effective against dengue because A. aegypti is active during the day, not at night like the malaria-carrying mosquitoes. A. aegypti is also quite content to live its entire life indoors, and it can breed in very small volumes of water. Their eggs can withstand desiccation for several months, making it easy for them to survive temporary dry spells. That means standing water at construction sites and in slums provide mosquitoes with the perfect places to live and reproduce.

In the recent outbreak in New Delhi, news reports linked the construction of one new apartment complex with a large cluster of dengue cases. Scientists hypothesized that mosquitoes breeding in pools of water in the construction site were fueling dengue cases nearby.

Arora says these new construction sites are not a leading cause of the past year’s outbreak, though he acknowledges that they may have contributed. Instead, he says that inadequate and nonexistent sanitation in New Delhi’s many slums is a far larger contributor to outbreaks. Many of the workers on these projects arrive from other parts of India that see fewer dengue cases, so they are very likely to lack immunity to the dengue virus. They also tend to live in the slum areas, further exacerbating the problem. 

To Arora, going back to public health basics like improving plumbing and sanitation are the first steps. He also cited increasing enforcement of an Indian law that prohibits standing water in residential properties and yards. Fines for violators have been encouraging residents to take sanitation issues more seriously and remove potential mosquito breeding grounds from homes. Other measures, such as installing or fixing window screens and repairing doors and siding where mosquitoes can enter, will also help provide a barrier between humans and mosquitoes.

“It is not just the aesthetics of the place. A cleaner India will have a tremendous health impact,” Arora says.

Gubler cites Singapore as an example of effective dengue control. A combination of public education campaigns and larval and insect control measures have helped keep the city dengue-free for nearly 20 years. Although the countries around Singapore were succumbing to regular outbreaks, “Singapore remained a little island in a sea of dengue,” he says. “But you need political will and economic support for these programs to work. It’s a battle between economics and public health, and public health always loses.”

Clinical trials of new dengue vaccines are ongoing, and three candidates are approaching formal approval. Meanwhile, trials in Brazil and Florida are testing the effectiveness of genetically engineered sterile male mosquitoes, providing another new tool in the war on dengue. Gubler is optimistic: “For the first time in my career, we have the tools to control this disease.”

This Was the First Major News Article on HIV/AIDS

Smithsonian Magazine

Thirty-six years ago, the words “HIV” and “AIDS” weren’t yet invented. But what would later be known as the HIV virus was already at work in the bodies of men in New York and California, perplexing doctors who had no idea why their patients were dying. Then, in July 1981, the United States was given its first look at the mysterious illness with the first major news story to cover the emerging disease. Decades later, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

Entitled “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” the article was penned by Lawrence K. Altman and appeared in the New York Times. At the time, gay men were dying of an unusual disease. They presented with purple spots on the skin, and their lymph nodes eventually became swollen before they died. It seemed to be cancer—but the symptoms matched a type usually only seen in very old people. The people who were dying at the time, however, were young and otherwise healthy. Doctors did not understand what was happening or whether the cancer was contagious.

Doctors later learned that this particular type of cancer, Kaposi’s Sarcoma, is an “AIDS-defining condition” that marks the transition of the HIV virus into its late stages. A month before the article was published in The New York Times, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had reported another set of strange symptoms— Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia that, like the cancer, was occurring in seemingly healthy gay men. But it was unclear if the conditions were linked or why they were happening.

“In hindsight, of course,” wrote Altman in 2011, “these announcements were the first official harbingers of AIDS…But at the time, we had little idea what we were dealing with.”

This led to confusion and, sometimes, panic as scientists tried to figure out what was going on. As Harold W. Jaffe writes in a commentary paper published in Nature Immunology, it was unclear at first whether the disease was new. Rumors began to spread of a "gay cancer"—despite the occurrence of new cases in people who had received blood transfusions, straight women and infants. There was little reliable information about what was going on within the gay community, Harold Levine, a New Yorker who lived through these early days of the epidemic, tells New York Magazine’s Tim Murphy. Levine says he heard about a case of “gay cancer” from friends. "It was a few months before I heard about a second case, then the floodgates opened and it was all we could talk about," he says.

Even after the existence of the HIV virus was discovered to be the cause of AIDS in 1984, stigma about homosexuality and intravenous drug use colored the public’s perception of the disease. Many gay people hid their health struggles, and it took years for President Ronald Reagan to publicly acknowledge HIV/AIDS. Meanwhile, as Smithsonian.com reports, the false identification of flight attendant Gaétan Dugas as “patient zero” spread the rumor that he was responsible for bringing the disease to the United States. But last year, decades after his death from HIV/AIDS, genetic research cleared him of these claims.

Today, the concept of “gay cancer” has been replaced with extensive knowledge about HIV/AIDS, which is not limited to homosexual men and is no longer a death sentence for many patients. According to the World Health Organization, over 35 million people have died of HIV/AIDS thus far, and as of the end of 2015, there were nearly 37 million people living with HIV.

There’s no cure—yet. And stigma is still considered a major roadblock for getting effective treatment to people at risk and infected with HIV/AIDS. The first glimpse of the infection’s deadly consequences is a poignant document of how confusing the epidemic was during its early days—and a reminder of just how far we’ve come.

Meet the Tiny Killer Causing Millions of Sea Stars to Waste Away

Smithsonian Magazine

Last year, a plague broke out in the Pacific. From Alaska to Mexico, millions of sea stars from 20 different species contracted a mysterious disease that condemns nearly 100 percent of its victims to a horrific death. First the sea stars become lethargic. Then their limbs start curling in on themselves. Lesions appear, some of the sea stars' arms might fall off and the animals go limp. Finally, like something straight from the set of a horror movie, an infected sea star undergoes “rapid degradation”—the scientific term for melting. All that is left is a pile of slime and a few pieces of invertebrate skeleton.

Despite the magnitude of the loss, no one knew what was behind the condition, known as sea-star wasting disease. Now a culprit has finally been identified: a virus that has been targeting marine animals for at least 72 years. A large team of American and Canadian researchers revealed the killer today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists first described the sea star disease in 1979, but past epidemics mostly affected just one or a few species and were confined to small, isolated patches of ocean along the West Coast. Scientists put forth various hypotheses over the years to explain the phenomenon, ranging from storms to temperature changes to starvation. Some speculated that an unidentified pathogen might be driving the outbreaks, noting that the outbreak's spread followed the same patterns as an infectious disease. But if that hunch were true, researchers still needed to find out whether it was caused by bacteria, parasites or a virus.

The pathogen hypothesis gained traction in 2013, when the wasting disease broke out not only in California’s marine environments but in its aquariums too. Notably, aquariums that used ultraviolet light to sterilize incoming seawater escaped the epidemic of death. This indicated that the wasting disease had microbial origins, so the study authors began to use the process of elimination to identify the pathogen. After examining hundreds of slides of melted starfish tissue, they found no indication of bacteria or parasites. A virus, they concluded, must be behind the outbreak.

The team decided that an experiment was the fastest way to test the virus hypothesis, so they collected sunflower sea stars from a site in Washington State where the wasting disease had yet to take hold. They placed the sunflower sea stars in different tanks, each of which was supplied with UV-treated, filtered seawater. Then they took tissue samples from infected sea stars and injected the sunflower sea stars with those potentially deadly concoctions. Some of the samples, however, had been boiled to render any viruses in them sterile.

Ten days after being inoculated with the potentially infectious material, the sunflower sea stars began to show the first telltale signs of the wasting disease. Those that had received the boiled samples, however, remained healthy. Just to be sure, the team took samples from the newly infected sunflower sea stars and used them to infect a second batch of victims. Sure enough, the same pattern emerged, with sea stars becoming sick within about a week.  

(original image)

With that damning evidence in hand, the next step was to identify the virus. The researchers genetically sequenced and sorted the infected sea stars’ tissue. Those analyses yielded a nearly complete genome of a previously unknown virus, which the researchers named sea star-associated densovirus. This virus is similar to some diseases known to infect insects and also bears genetic resemblance to a disease that sometimes breaks out among Hawaiian sea urchins.

The team did not stop there. To ensure that the virus was indeed the killer, they sampled more than 300 wild sea stars that were either infected or not showing any symptoms and measured their viral load. Those that had the disease had a significantly higher number of viruses in their tissue than those that were disease-free, they found. They also discovered the virus in plankton suspended in the water, in some sediment samples and in some animals that weren't displaying symptoms such as sea urchins, sand dollars and brittle stars. This suggests that the microbe might persist in various environmental reservoirs, even when it’s not breaking out in sea stars. The team even found the virus in museum specimens dating back to 1942, suggesting that it has been around for at least seven decades.

Now that the viral killer has been identified, the researchers are left with some crucial questions. What triggers the virus to suddenly emerge, and how does it actually go about killing the sea stars? Why do some species seem immune, and why has this latest epidemic been so severe compared to past outbreaks? Is there any way to prevent the disease from completely wiping out the West Coast’s sea stars?

The researchers have a few hunches. Divers in 2012 reported a sunflower sea star overload in some marine environments, so it could be that the unusual surplus of animals spurred a particularly frenzied outbreak. It's also possible that the virus recently mutated to become more deadly than it was in the past. The scientists note that these are all just guesses, but at least now they know where to look to start looking for answers.  

Even West Africans Who Don't Catch Ebola Are Being Hurt By the Disease

Smithsonian Magazine

At last count, Ebola has infected 5,006 people and killed 4,493; health experts acknowledge that's likely an underestimate. Though Nigeria was declared free from the disease by the World Health Organization, the virus is still coursing through Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

Experts with the CDC expect things to get much, much worse before they get better. And Ebola is taking a massive toll—not just on the people who contract the disease—but on a much larger group of people living in West Africa.

Ostracized Orphans

One of the most abrupt secondary consequences of someone dying to Ebola is the effect it has on their family. If the victim is a parent, their children may become orphaned. As the Telegraph writes, as many as 5,000 children have been orphaned by the outbreak. These children may be totally free of the Ebola virus but that doesn't exempt them from the stigma of the disease. 

Such is the fear of infection in the country’s small towns and villages that neighbours are shunning the surviving children of the dead, ignoring the long established African tradition of taking orphan children into your home.

Now charity workers are warning it will take months of care and counselling to rebuild the children’s shattered lives and persuade communities to accept them again.

No Room for Normal Healthcare

Hospitals in Ebola-stricken regions are out of beds. With doctors and nurses focused on the Ebola epidemic, and hospitals overwhelmed, care for other diseases is slipping. This means that, in Liberia, children are at risk for health problems that would normally be treatable because there's no room for them in health care facilities, says UNICEF.

Children are not receiving protective vaccinations or being treated for the common childhood illnesses that account for the majority of deaths in children under 5 years of age – including malaria, pneumonia, diarrhoea, and severe acute malnutrition.

As terrible as Ebola is, the major killers of children around the world are vaccine-preventable diseases and malnutrition. With a healthcare system pushed past the brink, some of these children may needlessly die.

Another consequence of saturated hospitals, says UNICEF, is that “pregnant women have few places to deliver their babies safely.”

Running Out of Food

According to Reuters, food prices in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia are up 24 percent since the Ebola outbreak began. Farmers are dying to the disease, and quarantine measures to prevent the spread of the virus are also preventing the free flow of food to market. The measures have “led to food scarcity and panic buying,” says Reuters.

"Planting and harvesting are being disrupted with implications for food supply further down the line. There is a high risk that prices will continue to increase during the coming harvest season," said WFP spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs.

A Devastated Economy

On the longer term, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said that the Ebola epidemic is ravaging her country's economy. “She said the outbreak had undone much of the recovery achieved in the wake of Liberia's 1989-2003 civil war,” Reuters wrote.

The International Monetary Fund has cut its forecast of how much the African economy will grow this year, is part because of Ebola, says Bloomberg:

“The Ebola outbreak could have much larger regional spillovers, especially if it is more protracted or spreads to other countries, with trade, tourism, and investment confidence severely affected,” according to the IMF. “In Ebola-affected countries, fiscal accounts are likely to deteriorate, and, where public debt is manageable, fiscal deficits should be allowed to widen temporarily.”

Even if a vaccine is developed, or control measures are able to reign in the Ebola epidemic, the current outbreak's effects will likely ripple throughout society for years if not decades to come.

The Flu Has Been Making People Sick for At Least 500 Years

Smithsonian Magazine

There’s no doubt about it—flu season is here. The CDC reported in late December that over half of America is experiencing a high rate of flu, and the numbers are expected to climb.

The offending strain this year—to blame for about 95 percent of cases—is H3N2, which is bad news for anyone hoping that the flu shot might guarantee an infection-free winter. Thanks to a virus mutation that occurred after the shot was manufactured, this year’s vaccine is believed to be only 33 percent effective at preventing the flu. (Though experts recommend that people—especially children, pregnant women, the disabled and the elderly—still get the vaccine, since some protection is still better than none at all.)

It is hard to talk about the flu without mentioning the most deadly of all flu pandemics—and the most deadly of all disease outbreaks in history—the 1918-1919 “Spanish flu.” The pandemic got its name from the erroneous assumption that the disease originated in Spain, but it killed up to 50 million people around the world.

Scientists believe the Spanish flu may actually  have first emerged in China, but there's not full agreement on that. What we’re surer of, however, is that the virus—or at least variations of it—has been around for hundreds of years.

The first flu pandemic is thought to have begun in the summer of 1510 and to have affected people in Africa and Europe before moving east through the Baltic States. This first flu didn't inflict a particularly high mortality rate, but fifty years later, the outbreak of 1557 was significantly more deadly. This round, the flu caused pleurisy and pneumonia-like symptoms in people from China to Europe; it's believed to have persisted for more than two years.

Seven other major pandemics—plus a rash of smaller epidemics confined to single cities, regions or countries—are thought to have occured prior to 1918, too. The peak of one pandemic that began in 1781 saw two-thirds of Rome’s population falling ill and over 30,000 new cases each day in St. Petersburg. (That starts to make last season's 53,470 confirmed flu cases seem more manageable.) 

Some medical historians say that the virus goes back even further than the 16th century and into antiquity. They point to a suspiciously flu-like illness mentioned in writings dating as far back as 412 B.C.  Reports of "a certain evil and unheard of cough" spreading through Europe in December 1173 cause some to believe flu pandemics have been around since the Middle Ages. (Other historians strongly caution that a lack of documentation means reliable evidence is lacking.)

All in all, over the past 500 years, some researchers believe that a flu epidemic has occurred approximately every 38 years. As the virus moves, it mutates, creating new strains and fresh epidemics despite human resistance and prevention efforts. How bad will this year’s season be? We can’t say for sure, but hey, at least you have the advantage of modern medicine to combat the symptoms—unlike your ancestors, who didn’t even have those nice lotioned tissues to comfort them.

The Long Shadow of the 1976 Swine Flu Vaccine 'Fiasco'

Smithsonian Magazine

In the spring of 1976, it looked like that year’s flu was the real thing. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t, and rushed response led to a medical debacle that hasn’t gone away.

“Some of the American public’s hesitance to embrace vaccines — the flu vaccine in particular — can be attributed to the long-lasting effects of a failed 1976 campaign to mass-vaccinate the public against a strain of the swine flu virus,” writes Rebecca Kreston for Discover.  “This government-led campaign was widely viewed as a debacle and put an irreparable dent in future public health initiative, as well as negatively influenced the public’s perception of both the flu and the flu shot in this country.”

To begin with: you should get a flu shot. You should certainly get all of your other vaccines and make sure your children get them. They will protect you and others from getting deadly and debilitating things like mumps, whooping cough, polio and measles. But this is a story about one time over 40 years ago when poor decision-making on the part of the government led to the unnecessary vaccination of about 45 million citizens. We can't blame it for the modern anti-vaccine movement, which has more recent roots in a retracted paper that linked one vaccine to autism, but it certainly had an effect on the public's view of vaccines.

On February 4 1976, a young soldier named David Lewis died of a new form of flu. In the middle of the month, F. David Matthews, the U.S. secretary of health, education and welfare, announced that an epidemic of the flu that killed Pvt. Lewis was due in the fall. “The indication is that we will see a return of the 1918 flu virus that is the most virulent form of flu,” he said, reports Patrick di Justo for Salon. He went on: the 1918 outbreak of “Spanish flu” killed half a million Americans, and the upcoming apocalypse was expected to kill a million.

Spanish influenza was another form of swine flu, di Justo writes, and researchers at the Centers for Disease Control thought that what was happening could well be a new, even deadlier strain that was genetically close to the 1918 strain.  

To avoid an epidemic, the CDC believed, at least 80 percent of the United States population would need to be vaccinated. When they asked Congress for the money to do it, politicians jumped on the potential good press of saving their constituents from the plague, di Justo writes.

The World Health Organization adopted more of a wait-and-see attitude to the virus, writes Kreston. They eventually found that the strain of flu that year was not a repeat or escalation of the 1918 flu, but “the U.S. government was unstoppable,” di Justo writes. They had promised a vaccine, so there needed to be a vaccine.  

This all happened in the spring, with emergency legislation for the “National Swine Flu Immunization Program,” being signed into effect in mid-April. By the time immunizations began on Oct. 1, though, the proposed epidemic had failed to emerge (although Legionnaires' Disease had, confusing matters further.)

“With President Ford’s reelection campaign looming on the horizon, the campaign increasingly appeared politically motivated,” Kreston writes. In the end, one journalist at The New York Times went so far as to call the whole thing a “fiasco.” Epidemiology takes time, politics is often about looking like you’re doing something and logistics between branches of government are extremely complicated. These factors all contributed to the pandemic that never was.

The real victims of this pandemic were likely the 450-odd people who came down with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological disorder, after getting the 1976 flu shot. On its website, the CDC notes that people who got the vaccination did have an increased risk of “approximately one additional case of GBS for every 100,000 people who got the swine flu vaccine.”

Several theories as to why this happened exist, they say, “but the exact reason for this link remains unknown.” As for the flu shot today, the CDC writes, if there is any increased risk it is “very small, about one in a million. Studies suggest that it is more likely that a person will get GBS after getting the flu than after vaccination.”

Oral history interview with Jack Pierson, 2017 January 16-17

Archives of American Art
5 sound files (6 hrs., 10 min.) digital, wav

Transcript: 84 pages.

An interview with Jack Pierson, conducted 2017 January 16-17, by Alex Fialho, for the Archives of American Art's Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project, at Pierson's home in New York, New York.

Pierson speaks of growing up in Plymouth, Massachusetts; being surrounded by "old stuff" amassed by his parents and relatives; working summers in his teen years in order to save enough money to live in New York City for several weeks with a family friend and visit museums; being particularly taken with the glamor of Nancy Sinatra and other singers from the age of six; being bullied as a young gay boy and relating more to children who didn't judge; the impact of seeing a Mark di Suvero show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in his teens; his early music obsessions with Nancy Sinatra, then Diana Ross and the Supremes, followed by Alice Cooper and David Bowie; writing poetry in high school and attending one year at Hofstra University with the intention to study graphic design; spending a month in Europe before taking a year to work in a factory and save money; attending Massachusetts College of Art and Design and being drawn to the performance program; his involvement in the punk scene; the influence of the B-52s in his '50s completist work; recalling the impact the Diane Arbus monograph had on him while at Hofstra; moving into photography; spending a summer in Provincetown with friends; the realization that he could become a successful photographer; working at Boston restaurant 29 Newbury among artists, writers, and musicians; his relationship with Mark Morrisroe; feeling the desire for fame; first learning of gay-related immunodeficiency (GRID); transferring to Cooper Union and moving to New York City; working at Patrick Fox Gallery; how a Christmas trip to Miami Beach turned into a six-month stay; being away from New England and embracing a new self-confidence and freedom; his first shows at Simon Watson and Pat Hearn; working odd jobs for several years while studio painting; befriending Robert Miller and eventually styling his home in Miami Beach; finding validation in his personal creativity when Bruce Weber hired him to style a Vogue shoot; printing 50 of his own photographs in poster size for a show; finding commercial success from works created after heartbreak in Los Angeles; testing positive for HIV; feeling more emboldened to live as fully as he could; attending the March on Washington and his response to the AIDS quilt; mourning the loss of a generation of gay mentors to youth today, and feeling strongly about giving back through teaching; perseverance and making work to perhaps make someone else's life better; working in Provincetown after being awarded a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center; the prayer-centered work in the Luhring Augustine show created as a direct result of being HIV-positive; his pink show as a celebratory show, of still being alive; his work in three Whitney biennials; the death of long-time friend Pat Hearn and honoring her at a Cheim & Read show; the genesis of his show at Regan Projects. Pierson recalls Azariah Eshkenazi, Rob Weiner, Donald Burgy, Stephen Tashjian [Tabboo!], Kathe Izzo, Mark Morrisroe, Pat Hearn, David Armstrong, Roberta Juarez, Colin de Land, Shaun Regan, and Pete Moran.

Oral history interview with Julie Ault, 2017 November 14-16

Archives of American Art
Audio: 6 sound files (6 hr., 3 min.) digital, wav

Transcript: 90 pages

An interview with Julie Ault conducted 2017 November 14 and 16, by Theodore Kerr, for the Archives of American Art's Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project, at a studio in Brooklyn, New York.

Ault speaks of the nature of memory and giving an oral history; her skepticism of linear narratives; leaving rural Maine for Washington, DC at age 17; her family history; her interest in popular culture and commercial culture as a teenager; disco and nightclubs in Washington and New York in the late 1970's; working a variety of day jobs in New York, including a telephone answering service; meeting Tim Rollins for the first time in Maine; her interest in conversation; her relationship to questions; the formation of Group Material in 1979; her relationship with Andres Serrano; Group Material's collaborative dynamic, and its effect on her personal development; the complexities of trying to write or tell history; the shifting configurations and contexts of Group Material over 17 years of activity; mounting, and thinking critically about, individual exhibitions after Group Material; the first AIDS Timeline in 1989; the ephemerality of the Timeline; book projects as a means of depositing personal memories; her first memories of the AIDS crisis beginning in 1983; Group Material's Democracy and AIDS series at Dia in 1988; investigating the tension between art and activism in the context of HIV/AIDS; Karen Ramspacher's entry and contributions to Group Material; the initial decision to employ the form of a timeline and four arenas of research; different audience relationships and reactions to the Timeline; the collaborative process of creating the Timeline; losing NEA funding after the Timeline, amid the early '90s culture wars; Group Material's second exhibition of AIDS Timeline in 1990; her friendship with Felix Gonzalez-Torres; Group Material's third exhibition of AIDS Timeline in 1991; the Macho Man, Tell It To My Heart exhibition; and an acknowledgement of topics that could not be covered in the interview. Ault also recalls Doug Ashford, Vikky Alexander, Yolanda Hawkins, Mundy McLaughlin, Sarat Maharaj, Gertrud Sandqvist, Marybeth Nelson, Patrick Brennan, Hannah Alderfer, Peter Szypula, Sabrina Locks, Larry Rinder, Richard Meyer, Bill Olander, Marcia Tucker, Gary Garrels, Charles Wright, Frank Wagner, Martin Beck, Nayland Blake, Anne Pasternak, Mary Anne Staniszewski, John Lindell, Tom Kalin, Donald Moffett, Marlene McCarty, Jochen Klein, Lisa Phillips, Andrea Miller-Keller, Steven Evans, and others.

Oral history interview with Frank Holliday, 2017 January 24-26

Archives of American Art
Sound recording: 5 sound files (5 hr., 18 min.) digital, wav

Transcript: 136 pages

An interview with Frank Holliday conducted 2017 January 24 and 26, by Theodore Kerr, for the Archives of American Art's Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project, at Holliday Studios in New York, New York.

Holliday speaks of a beautiful relationship with his Grandmother Holliday; growing up in suburbia with a glamorous mother and industrialist father; being encouraged to draw and paint constantly to keep busy and out of trouble; realizing at a young age that art can bring happiness and cheer to others; feeling free and open until society told him he was different and the resulting need to protect himself by trying to be super-masculine; attending junior high in Greensboro, North Carolina during integration and becoming a young politician bringing people and groups together; studying ballet at the North Carolina School of the Arts during high school; continuing his study in New York City until visiting the Museum of Modern Art and deciding he was destined to be a painter; moving to San Francisco at age 18 to live among gay people; the utopian counter-culture that existed before AIDS; making art constantly through photography, film, painting; the theft of much of his early work over the years; realizing he needed to return to New York to escape his street-oriented lifestyle in San Francisco; attending School of Visual Arts; studying gay men semiotically through signs and social cues with Keith Haring and Bill Beckley; working at Warhol's Factory on Union Square and Interview magazine; the genesis of Club 57; imagining his sets at Club 57 as installations with live people; the appeal of his projects being anti-everything; learning about a "gay cancer" and his then-boyfriend becoming sick and dying from an unknown brain issue; living under the assumption that he was HIV-positive for eight years before falling extremely ill with pneumonia; learning of his HIV/AIDS diagnosis two weeks before "the cocktail" came out in 1996; his breakthrough show "Trippin' in America" in 2001; the process of getting sober six years before his diagnosis; learning to make art without the feeling the need to rely on drugs for creativity; meeting his partner of nineteen years and learning to feel worthy of love; self-hatred and homophobia after getting sober; gaining a tremendous respect and appreciation for the gay community living bravely just as they were; witnessing the World Trade Center towers collapse on 9/11; answering a Craigslist ad and being cast in a movie; acting in several films including "American Gangster;" trading three years of acting lessons with Bill Esper for one painting; how acting helped with his painting; comparing his body being tuned to painting as a dancer's is to music; how living with AIDS has made him very aware of the physical-ness of his body and what it means to be alive; the importance of leaving his mark on his art; academia taking over the art world; feeling looked over in retrospectives of AIDS artists, but identifying more as a human with a disease than as an "AIDS artist;" and purposefully leaving room in his paintings to allow the viewer to enter and experience. Holliday also recalls Harvey Milk, Michael Lowe, Mike Bidlo, Philip Taaffe, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Art Garibay, Henry Post, Bill Collum, and Elizabeth Murray.

Oral history interview with Alexandra Juhasz, 2017 December 19-21

Archives of American Art
Audio: 6 sound files (5 hr., 56 min.) digital, wav

Transcript: 117 pages

An interview with Alexandra Juhasz conducted 2017 December 19 and 21, by Theodore Kerr, for the Archives of American Art's Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project, at Juhasz's home in Brooklyn, New York.

Juhasz speaks of her commitment to AIDS activism; her intellectual, bohemian, culturally Jewish upbringing; developing her feminism, political consciousness and activism in high school and college; her relationship with James "Jim" Robert Lamb; moving to New York for graduate school in 1986; the beginning of her AIDS activism and video-making practice in the late '80s; reflecting on her privilege and positionality in her activist work; her commitment to making marginal work; Jim Lamb's role in Video Remains, followed by his death and enduring inspiration for her work; the striking and surprising aspects of participating in an oral history; historical and theoretical underpinnings of video-making as an activist strategy and process; making activist video with the WAVE collective; the stakes, challenges, and costs of marginalized communities fighting for self-representation; making activist video with Swarthmore college students; the artistic milieu of New Queer Cinema; producing The Watermelon Woman and recently re-releasing it; moving to Los Angeles and having a period of silence in AIDS activism; returning to AIDS activism by making Video Remains; her ongoing collaborative writing about AIDS with Theodore Kerr; and her most recent projects. Juhasz also recalls Eve Sedgwick, Joe Guimento, Jon Engebretson, Jean Carlomusto, Tom Kalin, Avram Finkelstein, Amber Hollibaugh, Maxine Wolfe, Miguel Prieto, Robert Vasquez-Pacheco, Charles Ludlam, Everett Quinton, Carolyn Lesjak, Yannick Durand, Juanita Mohammed, Sharon Penceal, Aida Matta, Glenda Hasty, Marcia Edwards, Kenrick Cato, Megan Cunningham, Cheryl Dunye, Zoe Leonard, Pato Hebert, Alisa Lebow, Sarah Schulman, Todd Haynes, Ellen Spiro, and others.

Oral history interview with Eric Rhein, 2017 February 26-April 16

Archives of American Art
8 sound files (9 hrs., 29 min.) digital, wav

An interview with Eric Rhein conducted 2017 February 26-April 16, by Theodore Kerr, for the Archives of American Art's Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project, at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Rhein speaks of his youth in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and New York State's Hudson Valley; as a child, creating within the immersive educational community experience of his father's university art teaching, including a focus on ceramics; the personal influence of his uncle Lige Clarke, a gay rights pioneer; early sexual experiences; formative experiences in art making and theatrical endeavors in high school; attending the School of Visual Arts in New York City, while simultaneously being immersed in New York's East Village art scene; early work in puppetry, including work for George Balanchine; significant romantic relationships; the shifts of his studio from the East Village, to Long Island City, and most recently to Jersey City; his devoted carrying of memories of friends who died of complications from AIDS; artwork made in response to the AIDS crisis; receiving his HIV diagnosis in 1987, and its implications for his life and artwork; finding support through groups like The Healing Circle and Friends In Deed; the relationship between creativity, nature, and spirituality; initial and ongoing work with Visual AIDS; HIV stigmatization in relation to body image and appearance; his extreme bodily fragility, near-death expereince, and subsequent return to physical vitality; resiliency; medical care he received for HIV-related illnesses and the lifesaving effect of protease inhibitors; the genesis, forms, and evolution of his AIDS memorial, "Leaves;" art-making as a form of AIDS activism, as well as emotional evolution; his body of work as a memoir to his life's experience; the use & significance of salvaged and recycled materials; the genesis and significance of his "Lazarus" photographic self-portrait; the realities of long-term HIV survivorship, psychological vulnerability, and his commitment to continue healing; art-making as a way of isolating from the world; the sense of community among artists touched by HIV/AIDS; returning to the School of Visual Arts from1998 to 2000, and receiving a Master's Degree; immersing himself in spirituality, including Native American and Eastern belief systems and healing arts; transformative experiences on Fire Island; the global reach of his art; different understandings of HIV/AIDS among younger generations; the showing of his work, and achieving recognition, in a context outside of HIV; the art world's market-driven mechanisms; his recent exhibitions, including internationally; torsos as a motif in his work; and the genesis and significance of his 2015 work, "The Order." Rhein also recalls: Philip Mullen, Jack Nichols, Steve Yates, Randy Wicker, Peter Cusack, Rika Burnham, Peter Lewton-Brain, Kermit Love, Abby Krey, Greer Lankton, Richard Hunt, Lincoln Kirstein, Steven Lonsdale, Billy Wonder, Bill Stelling, Ann Craig, Douglas Ferguson, David Salle, Jackie Winsor, Petah Coyne, Mats Gustafson, Ted Muehling, Huck Snyder, Antonio Lopez, Ross Bleckner, Annie Sprinkle, John Dugdale, Dr. Paul Bellman, David Hirsch, Frank Moore, Connie Butler, Robert Mapplethorpe, Edward Albee, Hugh Steers, Roland Waden, Russell Sharon, Luis Frangella, Wilfredo Vela, Arnie Zane, Carlos Rodriguez, John Sex, Joe Piazza, Ken Davis, William Weichert, Ramsey McPhillips, Hannah Wilke, David Nelson, Nancy Brooks Brody, Joy Episalla, Hunter Reynolds, Stephen Vider, Gail Thacker, Rafael Sanchez, Mark Isaacson, Ralph Cutler, Michael Von Uchtrup, Chrys Skleros, Bruce Bergman, Jim Pepper, Bill Olander, Barbara Hunt McLanahan, Andrew Zobler, Pavel Zoubok, Richard Anderson, Kris Nuzzi, Seth Joseph Weine, Walt Cessna, Spencer Cox, and others.

Sing the Body Electric

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

A hand-drawn outline of a South African woman’s body, words and symbols adorning the illustration. Written wishes and prayers undulating with a summer wind that is perfumed by carnations and lemongrass. These are but two examples of how creative expression and arts are helping people navigate grief and promote well-being in response to the devastation of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Jane Solomon is from Cape Town, South Africa, where she works as a designer, textile designer, and healing practitioner. In 2002, she developed a “body map” process as a form of memory work that brings together bodily experience and visual artistic expression for persons living with HIV/AIDS in South Africa within the township of Khayelitsha. The urgency to create art that advocated for awareness was especially acute, as the numbers of HIV/AIDS deaths were spiraling out of control, while South Africa’s president had announced that HIV doesn’t exist. Solomon continued to conduct body map workshops both in South Africa and around the world. In 2011, she located participants from the original 2002 maps and engaged them in painting a second portrait, nine years later.

“Creativity activates. Without creativity life can be quite harsh,” says Solomon, about the benefit of the actual art-making process for HIV/AIDS patients. “In order for arts to work, you first have to create a safe and supported environment that allows patients to tell their story. It allows them to re-envision how they see themselves, to work in a group that is healing, and gives them an opportunity to research and process their own lives. Many times it gives them some distance from their problems and possibly even the solutions to them.”

The life-sized banners of maps are powerful talismans. In its basic form the body map involves drawing (or having drawn) one’s body outline onto a large surface and using colors, pictures, symbols and words to represent experiences lived through the body. The painted colors are vivid, the written words sing off the surface:

I love my body.
We are all affected.

AIDS Quilt
Photo by Patricia Wakida
AIDS Quilt
Valerie Knight proffers the gift of healing at Call My Name, in the Creativity and Crisis program area.
Photo by Patricia Wakida

Valerie Knight is from New York, one of the epicenters of the epidemic in the U.S. Throughout her career, she has worked with long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS, doctors, nurses, and case managers in expressive workshops to understand the stages of grief and how to nurture the needs of the grieving. After an intensive period of studying African textiles, quilting patterns and traditions as language to help decipher the needs specifically of African American women, she began building makeshift altars to acknowledge loss or tragedy, and to create rituals with real meaning.

According to Knight, in American society, the practice is that people die, which is followed by a ritual, and then you’re supposed to forget about it in a week. “In the first decade of the epidemic, we were witness to people dying young, very young. AIDS was insidious— one day you can feel fine, and the next you’re close to dying. Children were dying before parents, partners who expected to be together a long time experienced sudden loss. We needed to express our grief, to show our outrage, our pain. We also needed to show the beauty of the people who have passed. We need to make possibilities for those expressions, that they will not be forgotten.”

She also acknowledges that one of the benefits to what HIV/AIDS activists have done in the United States has been the refreshing of ancient traditions that had been buried. These are the traditions of gathering community together, of sharing, of testifying, and pointed out that these methods are now being used to heal and support in other cases such as breast cancer and heart disease. HIV/AIDS activism has brought out old practices of mourning and for storytelling, helping us as a grieving nation to move away from shame and humiliation and into acceptance.

After wandering the Festival and visiting the multiple components of the Creativity and Crisis program, she praised the collective work and the power of creativity to change, noting that “The word is powerful, and that through everyone’s efforts, color, image, metaphor are all mixed together now. Everyone is working towards the same purpose, to end this epidemic. I’ve been to something like 150 AIDS memorials, and every time, I want it to be the last one I ever go to.”

Patricia Wakida is a writer and historian based in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

This Slo-Mo Sneeze Video Shows Just How Far Spray Clouds Can Spread

Smithsonian Magazine

A lot of things can cause a sneeze—from sickness to sex. But sneezing can be pretty gross. Sneezes eject particles of mucus and saliva, some contaminated with viruses and bacteria, at ten miles per hour, creating a giant cloud of potentially infectious mist. There's still much left to learn about how exactly that disgusting cloud moves. Most advice for avoiding sneeze clouds are largely educated guesses. 

Mathematical physicist Lydia Bourouiba, head of the Fluid Dynamics of Disease Transmission Laboratory at MIT, has spent her academic career sussing out the secrets of the sneeze, reports Rae Ellen Bichell at NPR. Her most recent contribution to schnoz science is a slow motion video of sneezing, which she published at the New England Journal of Medicine.

The high contrast black and white video shows just how large a sneeze cloud can be. Understanding exactly where and how far vaporized mucus travels is important. “Respiratory infectious diseases still remain the leading infectious diseases in the world,” Bourouiba tells Bichell. “It's actually quite amazing that we can produce such a high-speed flow that contains all these ranges of sizes of droplets.”

Bourouiba’s analysis shows that just standing a few feet away from a sick patient doesn't remove them from the firing zone. Tiny droplets can hover in a room for several minutes and zip across an entire room in mere seconds.

In an earlier study, and a different set of sneeze videos, Bourouiba found that the droplets are are not uniform, contradicting previous guesses about sneeze spew. Instead, as the droplets exit the mouth and nose, complicated physics take hold. A combination of the sneeze force and turbulence causes the production of a range of particle sizes, from fine lingering mists to larger spray drops. And even tiny drops, Bourouiba found, can harbor disease causing agents.

Bourouiba says mapping the sneeze cloud could help hospitals and places facing epidemics figure out how to squelch the spread of diseases. Air temperature, humidity, room layout and ventilation could all be tweaked to reduce person-to-person transmissions. For example, when someone sneezes on a plane, the airflow patterns actually facilitate the spread of spray to nearby passengers. But not everyone is just sitting by with a cringe. Raymond Wang won the 2015 Intel Science and Engineering Fair for his innovative airflow foils for the plane interior which actually prevent the spread of germs in the enclosed space.

“This is a major blind spot when designing public health control and prevention policies, particularly when urgent measures are needed during epidemics or pandemics,” Bourouiba says in a press release. “Our long term goal is to change that.”

Too Much Tech Could Be Causing Nearsightedness…But Not in the Way You Might Think

Smithsonian Magazine

Myopia, the blurry vision we know as nearsightedness, is reaching epidemic proportions—it could overtake a third of the world’s population by decade’s end. But is the condition caused by the rise of computers and mobile devices that strain the world’s eyes? It turns out that tech can cause nearsightedness...but not in the way you might think.

Scientists are increasingly linking myopia with time spent indoors, reports Ellie Dolgin for Nature. She notes that scientists have long been on the hunt for the cause of myopia, which has been linked to higher education levels, genetics and book work over the years. But though researchers have been unable to find a link between specific computing or reading behaviors and myopia, says Dolpin, they did find a connection between eyesight and the amount of time spent indoors.

As we spend more time indoors consuming technology, it appears that our susceptibility to myopia rises. But Dolgin reports that there’s a way to protect your eyes from the condition:

Based on epidemiological studies, Ian Morgan, a myopia researcher at the Australian National University in Canberra, estimates that children need to spend around three hours per day under light levels of at least 10,000 lux to be protected against myopia. This is about the level experienced by someone under a shady tree, wearing sunglasses, on a bright summer day. (An overcast day can provide less than 10,000 lux and a well-lit office or classroom is usually no more than 500 lux.) Three or more hours of daily outdoor time is already the norm for children in Morgan's native Australia, where only around 30% of 17-year-olds are myopic. But in many parts of the world — including the United States, Europe and East Asia — children are often outside for only one or two hours.

That insight could help put a stop to the growing tendency towards myopia. In the United States, it grew 66 percent between 1971 and 2004. But though the National Eye Institute estimates that 33 percent of Americans have myopia, the number is much higher in children—and in countries like China, nearsightedness rates are as high as 86 percent in some cities. And Dolgin notes that it’s even worse in Seoul, where more than 96 percent of 19-year-old men have myopia.

Research on how light affects myopia is still ongoing, and there’s fierce debate about not just how to get kids outside, but how to supervise them once they’re there. And though it’s not clear how long it will take for science to focus the world’s vision, a new pair of glasses might help you focus on your work—these experimental eyeglasses use neurofeedback to get you back on task.

Human Bones Found Near Pennsylvania Highway Could Be From the 1918 Flu

Smithsonian Magazine

Almost a century after the Spanish flu ravaged the planet, a Pennsylvania construction worker may have uncovered a mass grave of the pandemic’s victims.

Last week, forensic archaeologists began uncovering a previously unknown burial site that experts believe could be holding the remains of victims of the 1918 flu pandemic. Construction workers employed by the Pennsylvania highway department had been excavating the hillside in order to widen a road in Schuylkill County, about 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia, when heavy rains exposed the human remains, David Dekok reports for Reuters.

“There are bones in there, you can see a tibia, femur, a jaw bone and stuff like that,” Schuylkill County deputy coroner Joseph Pothering tells Jackie De Tore for WNEP News.

Also known as “The Great Pandemic,” the 1918 Spanish flu was one of the most devastating diseases in human history, killing about 675,000 Americans and up to 50 million people worldwide, according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services. The virus hit Pennsylvania particularly hard, killing 350,000 across the state by October of 1918. Almost 1,600 people died from the flu in a single month in Schuylkill County alone, De Tore reports.

“There was a genuine panic; everything closed, schools, hospitals, the only thing left open were drug stores,” Tom Drogalis of the Schuylkill County Historical Society tells De Tore.

The Spanish flu struck fast, sometimes killing people the same day they started having symptoms. As a result, victims who died from the illness were often buried without coffins in mass graves and sprinkled with lye to disinfect their corpses before being covered with earth. Once the bones exposed by the construction have been dug up, a team of forensic archaeologists from Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania will conduct DNA tests to try and determine who the bones belonged to, Dekok writes.

As devastating as the 1918 pandemic was, it might have helped prevent recent flu epidemics from being nearly as bad. It turns out that the Spanish flu was an early variation of the H1N1 virus that caused several recent epidemics, including the swine flu outbreaks in 1976 and 2009. Because these recent strains evolved from the 1918 virus, some people’s immune systems were already primed to fight back when H1N1 reared its head again, Christine Soares wrote for Scientific American in 2009.

As for the newly-discovered victims of Schuylkill County, once the forensic teams finish their tests the remains will be returned to local officials for cremation and a proper burial at last.

The Nuer 1970

Human Studies Film Archives
Cataloging supported by Smithsonian Institution Women's Committee Edited film made among the eastern Nuer of Ethiopia, a Nilotic cattle-herding people. The cinematic construction of the film seeks to convey a holistic feel for Nuer lifeways, particularly the intimacy between the Nuer and their cattle. Narration provides anthropological accounts of such events as a dispute over bridewealth, a ghost marriage, and a (male initiation) ceremony in which two boys receive forehead incisions. Also included is a subtitled interview in which an old man offers his own comments on Nuer life and customs.

How Shaving Brushes Gave World War I Soldiers Anthrax

Smithsonian Magazine

During World War I, a clean shave required a brush, a bar of soap and a substantial razor.  But some unlucky souls got an unwelcome extra with that fresh face, reports Rachel Becker for The Verge: anthrax.

A historical review just published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells the tale of how animal hair shaving brushes spread the disease and suggests that modern users of old-school brushes might want to double-check their tools.

The review is focused on over 200 cases of anthrax among British and American soldiers and civilians during World War I. Before the war, shaving brushes that used boar, horse and badger hair were popular—with badger the most desirable of the lot for their water-holding capacity. But during the war, the review notes, badger hair became harder to obtain. Imitation brushes were instead made from imported horsehair.

That put shaving men—especially soldiers—at risk of anthrax. The infectious disease is caused by Bacillus anthracis, a bacterium that can survive and even reproduce for long periods of time in the soil. Livestock then consume the bacteria and humans who come into contact with them can catch the disease.

During World War I, soldiers and other men who got anthrax-infected brushes didn’t come into contact with the horses themselves, but the bacteria hid out in the non-disinfected hair and made its way into cuts and nicks in some shavers. The result is what the authors call a “mini epidemic.”

At the time, military officials thought that gas masks would work better on clean-shaven troops, and chemical warfare was common during the war. So the United States distributed “khaki kits”—shaving sets designed to make it easier for men to shave in the field. It seems that the brushes in some of these sets were made of horsehair and not properly disinfected, leading to the spread of anthrax.

Anthrax itself was used as a weapon during World War I when Germany tried to infect animals slated for shipment to the Allies with the disease. The animal infections even took place on U.S. soil during a German-led sabotage campaign.

Could anthrax still lurk in the old-school shaving brushes that have come back into vogue? Yes—though as Becker notes, due to disinfection laws, brushes made after 1930 present “really, really low” risks. For pre-1930 brushes, it’s a bit sketchier, and the CDC notes that disinfecting vintage brushes at home has risks that “are likely to outweigh possible benefits.”

All in all, the paper notes that using untreated hair brushes poses a “potential, and perhaps hypothetical risk” to modern-day shavers who use vintage brushes. But it’s worth considering—and the forgotten anthrax epidemic of World War I is definitely worth remembering.

Heroin Use in the United States Increased 150 Percent Between 2007 and 2013

Smithsonian Magazine

Heroin abuse has become a huge problem in the United States, Arielle Duhaime-Ross writes for The Verge. According to a recent study, more people than ever are using the illegal drug, and thus, more are dying from overdoses and catching needle-sharing infections like HIV and Hepatitis.  

Based on U.S. Centers for Disease Control report released July 7, the statistics on heroin use are pretty grim. Over the last decade, use of the drug has increased by 62.5 percent. And that increase is even more marked in recent years — between 2007 and 2013, the number of people using heroin increased 150 percent. From 2000 to 2013, deaths involving heroin poisoning have quadrupled and deaths tripled between 2010 and 2013 alone

What’s driving this plague of heroin use? The CDC points to “the increased availability and lower price of heroin in the United States.” From 2000 to 2013, the amount of heroin entering the country quadrupled, they note, and with that comes a drop in price and an increase in purity. "Heroin costs roughly five times less than prescription opiates on the street," CDC director Tom Frieden said in a press conference.

Another huge factor is painkiller addiction, writes Lisa Girion of the LA Times. People who abuse painkillers are 40 times more likely to use heroin as well, largely because the drugs are extremely similar. “More people [are] primed for heroin addiction because they're addicted to opiates, essentially the same chemical with the same impact on the brain as heroin,” Frieden said. The U.S. is also experiencing an increase in opiate abuse, writes Duhaime-Ross. And some public health researchers suggest that efforts to further regulate addictive painkillers have caused some addicts to turn to heroin.

Why Kinshasa in the 1920s Was the Perfect Place for HIV to Go Global

Smithsonian Magazine

Some time around 1920, a person carried a virus down the Sangha River, from Cameroon toward the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The virus was a strain of HIV, and the city—then called Léopoldville and, now, Kinshasa—gave it the perfect soup of conditions to ignite the AIDS epidemic. Since then, HIV has infected nearly 75 million people worldwide.

A new study, published in Science, looks at how HIV, an infection that had previously affected people only in the immediate region of its origins could bloom into one that crossed international boarders. 

Researchers already knew that chimpanzees in southern Cameroon harbor viruses most closely resembling HIV-1, group M, the strain that went global. By comparing the genetic changes between different strains, researchers had figured out that HIV-1’s lineage made the leap from chimp to human some time in the early 1900s. In fact, HIV likely jumped several times to people handling bushmeat, but only one strain created the pandemic we grapple with today.

The researchers combed through the genetics of hundreds of tissue samples from people infected with HIV from the last 50 years. By creating a kind of virus family tree, they traced back and discovered a common ancestor from about 1920 in Kinshasa.

Contrary to some theories, the new study suggests that there wasn’t any thing special about that group M strain. “Perhaps the [new study’s] most contentious suggestion is that the spread of the M-group viruses had more to do with the conditions being right than it had to do with these viruses being better adapted for transmission and growth in humans,” scientist Jonathan Ball of the University of Nottingham told the BBC.

At that time, Kinshasa’s population was booming. The Congo river connected the growing city to Kisangani, and rail lines carried hundreds of thousands of passengers to major mining locations Lubumbashi and Katanga. With the influx of largely male laborers came many sex workers. Contaminated needles may have also played a role. 

“There were lots of different factors,” lead author Oliver Pybus, an infectious disease researchers from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, told Science Magazine. “Basically this one was at the right time and the right place—and it hit the jackpot.”

This Eyelash of a Moment

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Sonya Renee on the Red Hot stage. Photo by Patricia Wakida
Sonya Renee on the Red Hot stage.
Photo by Patricia Wakida

Standing tall in gold stacked sandals at the mic is Sonya Renee, formerly from the Black AIDS Institute, the nation’s only HIV/AIDS think-tank focused exclusively on the HIV epidemic in Black communities. Even in 100-degree heat, she has the ability to fill a circus-sized open tent with an enormous presence, and to electrify the audience with her self-awareness—she is bald and her beauty is fierce.

Renee is one of five District of Columbia spoken word poets who do triple duty as HIV/AIDS educators, activists, and artists in the community, and they are on heavy rotation at the Creativity and Crisis Red Hot stage. The company she keeps at the Festival is equally inspiring: Mary Bowman, JT Bullock, Regie Cabico, Dwayne Lawson-Brown, artists who stand up for what they believe in and write from the breath.

The stories they channel teach us about grief and gratitude, and the remorse and relief that comes directly from personal experiences. Stories of mothers who crash too early, or a former sexworker client whose redemption after his death comes in the form of a brag: for handing out free condoms and perhaps preventing just one more HIV/AIDS test from reading positive. “Art is a universal medium, and any shared language is a phenomenal tool to helping us live unapologetically,” said Renee. Like many of the poets performing, she reminded the audience of the fragility and value of each waking day, and the power of poetry for people to gather, for spoken word to be heard and passed on, even if only in this “eyelash of a moment.”

Mary Bowman, Dwayne Lawson-Brown, and Regie Cabico perform from the Red Hot stage of the Creativity and Crisis program. Photo by Patricia Wakida
Mary Bowman, Dwayne Lawson-Brown, and Regie Cabico perform from the Red Hot stage of the Creativity and Crisis program.
Photo by Patricia Wakida

Pilipino artist Regie Cabico feels that spoken word is an unprecedented America art form, much like jazz. “Its also political theater, where the poet performs three minute scenes, but without music, without scenery, without props.” Reflecting on the presence of poets and creativity in response to HIV/AIDS, he said “I was twelve during the crisis/epidemic, and as a result growing up, I didn't have any mentors—they had all died. I am just realizing what I've been robbed of twenty-five years later as a forty-two year old.”

According to poet Dwayne Lawson-Brown, “We are the ‘folk’ in folklife. We document life, which becomes a community thing we are all sharing together. Spoken word is storytelling into the new generation.”

Catch the Spoken Word poets everyday in Week 2 on the Red Hot stage, Creativity and Crisis program area.

For those who can’t get enough spoken word, check out the poetry slam at the Good Hope and Naylor Corner stage in the Citified program on July 6, 3:30 to 7:00 p.m.

Patricia Wakida is a writer and historian based in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

AIDS 2012 Conference in Washington, D.C.

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Logo courtesy of the International AIDS Society
Logo courtesy of the International AIDS Society

The NAMES Project Foundation is co-producing the Creativity and Crisis: Unfolding the AIDS Memorial Quilt Folklife Festival program as a prelude to their participation in the XIX International AIDS Conference. This conference, or AIDS 2012, will take place in Washington, D.C., from July 22nd to July 27th, 2012. This is the first time that the conference has been held in the United States since 1990, when it was held in San Francisco, California. The International AIDS Conference is "the premier gathering for those working in the field of HIV, as well as policy makers, persons living with HIV, and other individuals committed to ending the pandemic. It is a chance to assess where we are, evaluate recent scientific developments and lessons learnt, and collectively chart a course forward."

The conference typically attracts up to 25,000 delegates, including scientists, activists, and government leaders, representing nearly 200 countries around the world. This year’s theme, "Turning the Tide Together," reflects this unique moment in the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Thanks to recent scientific advances in both treatment and prevention, the world is at a defining point in time where people around the globe are finally able to envision an end to the epidemic. "Turning the Tide Together" is both an expression of renewed optimism and a call to action as the world moves forward in the fight against HIV and AIDS.

In honor of AIDS 2012, The NAMES Project Foundation will display The AIDS Memorial Quilt across Washington, D.C., from July 21st to July 24th. The Quilt will fill the available sections of the National Mall (from 8th Street to 14th Street) and will be on display in over forty locations throughout the metropolitan D.C. area.

The AIDS 2012 conference is organized by the International AIDS Society in partnership with a number of international bodies and local partners. It will be held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center (WCC), a state-of-the-art facility in downtown Washington, D.C. For more information, click here

Lindsay Tauscher is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, assisting in the production of the 2012 Creativity and Crisis Folklife Festival program. She is assistant executive director of Capturing Fire, a national queer spoken word and poetry festival, and works for La-Ti-Do Cabaret, the District’s only weekly spoken word and musical theatre cabaret series. Lindsay is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she double majored in History of Art and French and minored in Museums and Society.

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