January 17, 2018

Smallpox Denaturalized, Demonized, and Eradicable

by Bob H. Reinhardt

Bob H. Reinhardt is the author of The End of a Global Pox: America and the Eradication of Smallpox in the Cold War Era, published by the University of North Carolina Press. He is the executive director of the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, Oregon.

These images from the global smallpox eradication effort in the 1960s and 1970s offer a variety of contrasts: a barnyard animal inside the rationalized space of a vaccine production laboratory; a white-coated expert working with a family in more traditional attire; humans wielding bow and arrow versus a giant demon that spews disease and death. All were part of a broader scheme to advertise and market smallpox vaccination to the millions of people in the so-called less developed world targeted by the global smallpox eradication program (1958–77). The World Health Organization coordinated this international effort in conjunction with a bilateral US program in West and Central Africa (1965–70) organized by the Communicable


Disease Center (the CDC; now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Global health authorities and national health ministries produced dozens of illustrative posters, handbills, stamps, and periodical pieces like these that constructed smallpox as a deserving target for elimination. They did so in part by denaturalizing vaccination, moving the vaccine production and application process into the safe, technologically advanced, and sanitary confines of the laboratory and physician’s office, thereby hiding the potentially dangerous nature of the vaccine. Advertisements also tried to deflect concerns about neocolonialism and doubts about the program’s viability by emphasizing a confident sense of cooperation, with everyone uniting to fight the demon of smallpox. In contrast to narratives of smallpox eradication that emphasize the creativity, determination, and luck that led to smallpox’s demise, these three images from the campaign in Nigeria suggest just how much smallpox eradication relied on…

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