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November 13, 2018

Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis
By Tukisa Smith, M.D., M.S.

The Rockefeller community does not have to search far for a glimpse into New York City’s rich history of epidemic disease. From the historic Rockefeller Hospital, which reminds us of treatment breakthroughs, to our East River views of Roosevelt Island, which once housed the Goldwater Hospital established for those with long-term effects of epidemic outbreaks including post-polio syndrome, Rockefeller scientists cannot escape the awareness of microbial pathogenesis and its impact on population health. But for the average New Yorker, the city’s longstanding battle against epidemics, which dates back to the 1700s with the Yellow Fever outbreak, is not so palpable, until now.

The Rockefeller Clinical Scholars visited the exhibition entitled “Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis,” which is organized by the Museum of the City of New York in collaboration with The New York Academy of Medicine and part of Wellcome’s international project Contagious Cities. It explores the interplay between urban populations and pathogens from a historical perspective. Germ City blends digital interactives with archived publications, curated artifacts, and contemporary artwork to capture the societal and cultural impacts that New York City epidemics have had on infectious disease treatments, hygiene, activism and public health and policy. The exhibit’s highlights on disease containment include accounts of the forced isolation of Mary “Typhoid Mary” Mallon on North Brother Island in the East River from 1915-1938 and artist Jordan Eagles’s sculpture entitled “Blood Mirror,” a provocative piece created to commemorate the ethical considerations surrounding the AIDS crisis and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s 1983 ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men. Despite identifying historical blunders relating to disease containment, the exhibit successfully depicts the impact of medical advances, changes in infrastructure, and public policy aimed toward the prevention and minimization of disease transmission.

To promote epidemic preparedness, Walgreens and Duane Reade partnered with The Academy and the Museum of the City of New York to offer a courtesy pop-up flu shot clinic prior to the anticipated panel discussion to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the global influenza pandemic of 1918. Historian of Science Alan Kraut moderated a discussion between infectious disease specialist and researcher Dr. Nicole Bouvier and the New York Times best-selling author John Barry who wrote “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.” Discussions included the impact of the Influenza pandemic and its legacy on the present day. The sobering reality of how pathogens undetected by the human eye can devastate a metropolis such as New York City continues to fuel research for better strategies for prevention, treatments, and policy implementation. As we continue to fight newly emerging and reemerging diseases, public awareness and education will continue to remain cornerstones of disease prevention. Exhibits like Germ City provoke contemplation regarding both the resilience and the fragility of the human condition. The Germ City exhibit remains open to the public through April 28, 2019 at the Museum of the City of New York.