Exhibit Review: Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis at the Museum of the City of New York

By Robert B. Carey, Ph.D.

Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis.
Museum of the City of New York until April 28th
https://www.mcny.org/exhibition/germ-city

Review of Germ City and Related Podcasts
Radio Station WYNC
https://www.wnyc.org/story/germ-city/

We live in a time of New York Triumphalism—it is hard to avoid the celebratory tone and the accompanying music that rehearses New York’s being the World City that dazzles and amazes. It was not always thus. Cities like New York in the 18th and 19th century were places where people died with alarming regularity as outbreaks of cholera, influenza, small pox, yellow fever and diphtheria killed thousands in seemingly unstoppable waves. Doctors, scientists, reformers and of course the clergy struggled to understand such devastation.

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Jacob A. Riis, An Italian Home under a Dump, c. 1890. Museum of the City of New York, Jacob A. Riis Collection, 90.13.1.208

Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis at the Museum of The City of New York walks the viewer into an ever-widening glade of understanding and an appreciation of the eventual success which came as scientists began to grapple with the fact that the microscopic could be deadly. Practitioners and city public health offices were forced to abandon their inherited theory of disease—bodily humors balanced by bleeding and emetics—as the appropriate approach. Instead they began to learn how to deal with the specifics of various afflictions. Disease was no longer a matter of puckish humor; it was a specific ailment that happened in specific ways.

Early notions of public health, such as quarantining infected patients, gave way to more informed treatments. Some of the great breakthroughs introduced even before Pasteur’s germ theory of disease resulted from improved sanitation—a clean water supply and a dedicated system for the removal of waste meant that cholera would no longer ravage poor communities where water was drawn from shallow contaminated wells. Germ City does particularly well in giving the viewer a lively sense of the degree to which the city’s growth ultimately depended on the development of an improved water/sewer infrastructure along with health-related research and educational activities.

What the exhibit does not do, except tangentially, is to invite the viewer to come to grips with the moralization of disease—the blame-the-victim attitude in which the affliction was seen as rooted in the patient’s sinfulness. Why were the poor more likely to succumb to tuberculosis or cholera or yellow fever? They were dirty, drunk and lascivious. The film by Mariam Ghani which uses Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor raises some of those questions on the way into the exhibit, as does the AIDS material in one of the displays.

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D. Appleton and Company, Sanitary and Social Chart of the Fourth Ward of the City of New York …, c. 1865. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of the University of Western Ontario, 37.152.8

More detail about early forms of hospitalization would have provided a fuller reading of how the city responded to epidemics. It is however the display of the artifacts that practitioners developed for treatments that gives this show a very useful tactile quality. This material approach to depicting medical history calls to mind the work of the writer/physician Sherwin Nuland. Though Dr. Nuland is not directly referenced here, we see his influence as he underscored in his work on medicine, doctors and how we live and die, the centrality of “seeing.” Nuland argued that we have to see what is happening and why. We do not need an “idea” only of what ails us; we need granular specificity. That essential insight informs Germ City. Through this deeply informative exhibition you begin to understand the uncertainty, confusion and insights regarding the effects of what van Leeuwenhook called “the cavorting wee beasties” that both sustain and end your life.

Robert B. Carey, Ph.D. is Professor of History at Empire State College/SUNY Emeritus

Featured Image (at top): Dr, John C. Peters, “Routes of Asiatic Cholera” map from Harper’s Weekly, April 25, 1885. Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library

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