Epidemics are highly relevant to us right now in 2020, so it's easy to forget how rare they are. We chose Epidemics as a theme to highlight some of the ways health and pandemics are addressed (or not addressed) in the popular culture. One of the most prevalent examples of epidemics people think of is the 1918 H1N1 virus pandemic (most commonly referred to today as the flu, but also known as "la grippe" in the early 1900s), but we see little to no evidence of it in our collection. Common topics addressed are compulsory health insurance, aiding a war-torn Europe, and prohibition.

Cartoons in the Clubb and Messner collections cover approximately 1900-1965; cartoons in this epidemics selection cover 1919-1960.

Polio Epidemic and Vaccine

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Elmer Messner, "A New Hope", April 28, 1954

Your Help Is Needed!

Elmer Messner, "Your Help is Needed!", January 23, 1947

Voice From The Background: Thanks!

Elmer Messner, "Voice from the Background: Thanks!", January 28, 1953

Polio is a highly infectious disease that attacks nerve cells and the central nervous system. It can cause muscle deterioration, paralysis, and death. In the mid-twentieth century, polio paralyzed thousands of children in the United States: an average of 35,000 a year in the 1940s and 15,000 a year in the 1950s. Parents were afraid to let their children go outside during summer's peak transmission months, and there were travel restrictions and quarantines for cities and communities that had high numbers of cases. 

We see a number of cartoons related to polio in this exhibit. Three selections here, from 1947-1954, illustrate the ongoing concern about polio and its years of societal prevalence. The March of Dimes, founded as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938, sought a cure for polio and supported their mission by raising money and awarding money to researchers. 

In the late 1940s the March of Dimes recruited Dr. Jonas Salk, the head of the Virus Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh, to develop a polio vaccine. Dr. Salk successfully created a vaccine and began clinical trials in February 1954. On April 12, 1955, the clinical trial was published citing 400,000 vaccines with 60-90% success rates for the three strains of polio. The vaccine was authorized two hours after the trial was published and had an immediate effect on polio cases in the United States. The March of Dimes supported critical infrastructure for the vaccine by ensuring production facilities were built and ready to operate

The country saw an immediate drop from 14,647 cases in 1955 to 5,894 in 1956, with nearly no cases in the 1970s. The United states has been free of polio since 1979.

In 1961, Albert Sabin released another polio vaccine, which gradually overtook Salk's vaccine in the United States and other countries.

Different Kind of Epidemic: Prison Conditions

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John Scott Clubb, "The Real Leader", 1929

Published in 1929, this cartoon likely references prison riots that occurred in July 1929 at two New York state prisons: Auburn Prison in Auburn, NY, and Clinton Prison in Dannemora, NY. 

The July 22, 1929 revolt at Clinton Prison in Dannemora, New York, involved 1,300 prisoners rioting and storming the walls. The riot itself lasted about five hours, in what the New York Times called the "wildest disorder the institution has known since it was opened in 1845". Three inmates were killed in the course of the riot, and more than 20 were injured. Shortly before the riot, the Prison Association of New York found insanitary conditions in the cells, overcrowding, and low pay for prison labor

On July 28, 1929 – just six days after the Clinton Prison riot – another prisoner riot broke out at Auburn Prison. Inmates seized guns and ammunition from the arsenal, shot four guards, and set fire to several buildings. Four prisoners escaped, two of whom were later killed. The prison was overcrowded, with 1,768 inmates, compared to a capacity of 1,285

Some contributing factors to the riots are indicated in Clubb's cartoon: overcrowding, insanitary conditions, and the severity of sentencing through Baumes Law. Both prisons were overcrowded at the time of their riots in July 1929. Baumes Law, named after the Senator chairperson of the New York State Crime Commission, was passed in 1926. The law called for automatic life imprisonment of any criminal convicted of more than three separate felonies, permitted longer sentences of first-time offenders, and tightened parole stipulations.

Prison riots in 1929 in state institutions in New York, Kansas, and California, and a federal institution in Kansas led to calls for overhauling prison buildings and conditions. The 1930s saw a surge in prison building projects, partially fueled by the change in workforce availability due to the Great Depression

Clubb Editorial Cartoons Responding to 1929 Prison Uprisings

While the exact day Clubb's "The Real Leader" cartoon appeared in the newspaper is not known, he did do several editorial cartoons in response to the 1929 prison uprisings published in the Rochester Times-Union. It could be that "The Real Leader" was never published, or published after July and August of 1929.

Other Epidemics Cartoons from the Collections