Smithsonian Stories

Six Smithsonian stories on vaccines, disease, and public health

April 15, 2021
Hannah S. Ostroff

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Small glass vial with label for Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

This glass vial once contained some of the first doses of Pfizer Inc.’s Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. These first doses were administered Dec. 14, 2020, by Northwell Health, a New York-based health provider. It’s now in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

On March 9, just short of a year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History acquired materials connected with the first-known doses of FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine administered in the U.S. These included vials that held doses of the vaccine, vaccination record cards, and the scrubs and ID badge worn by Sandra Lindsay, an intensive care nurse with Northwell Health who was the first person known to receive the vaccine in the country.

How else can the Smithsonian help us understand our current moment? Through our collections, we explore connections to vaccines, disease and public health.

Bats and pathogens

Flying fox species of bat hanging from a branch.
This large flying fox, from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, is a migratory bat native to southeast Asia and host of Nipah virus, which can be deadly to humans.

The majority of new infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic, meaning they originate in other animals. Some species—especially bats, rodents and non-human primates—carry pathogens that can also infect humans.

Why are bats effective at spreading pathogens? Because they live together in large groups where they share viruses, and they seem to carry them without getting very sick. Bats live everywhere people do, and they also fly long distances, taking viruses to new populations.

It's important to remember that we need bats. They are vitally important for maintaining healthy forests and crops by eating insect pests and dispersing pollen and seeds. Bats are not to blame—we get exposed to bat pathogens when our own activities, such as deforestation, bring us closer to them.

Researchers from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute have been studying bats in Myanmar. Last year they discovered six new coronaviruses, which are not closely related to those known to cause disease in humans. Identifying diseases early in animals helps us investigate potential threats.

Fumigating mail for viruses

Wooden paddle with nails sticking out of its face.
This paddle used by the Board of Health in Montgomery, Alabama, is in the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum.

This wooden paddle with a nail-studded face from 1899 was used to perforate mail for fumigation against yellow fever. It didn't work.

Mail in the U.S. has been treated in the attempt to halt the spread of several deadly diseases, including yellow fever, smallpox, plague, typhus, cholera, diphtheria and measles. Health agencies were suspicious that letters and newspapers could carry a disease from infected areas into healthy ones.

To contain the yellow fever epidemic in Florida at the end of the 19th century, all mail leaving the state was fumigated with sulfur.

But yellow fever, as scientists later verified, is transmitted through mosquito bites.

Spit flasks and disease spread

Blue glass flack with caps at the top and bottom.
A glass sputum flask with dual caps from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Squeamish? Don’t read what this object was used for.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, people suspected of having pulmonary tuberculosis might be ostracized, ridiculed and denied certain civil rights. One of the signs of the disease was the production of large amounts of viscous, sometimes bloody, matter from the lungs.

As a result, TB patients used objects like this glass pocket flask to dispose of the coughed-up mass without drawing attention to themselves or spitting possibly infected saliva on the street.

Henrietta Lacks’ immortal HeLa cells

Painting of Henrietta Lacks. She is wearing a red dress, a yellow hat, and holding a bible.
“Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine,” 2017, by Kadir Nelson. Collection of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of African American History and Culture; gift from Kadir Nelson and the JKBN Group LLC.

Henrietta Lacks—an African American woman, a tobacco farmer, a mother of five—died of cervical cancer Oct. 4, 1951, at the age of 31.

During her treatment, doctors took cells from Lacks’ body without her knowledge or consent. They discovered the cells lived long lives and reproduced indefinitely in test tubes. These “immortal” cells, called HeLa cells after her, have contributed to thousands of medical advances, including the polio vaccine.

Their legacy is situated in a history of medical testing on African Americans without their permission, raising issues of ethics, privacy and racial injustice in medicine.

Kadir Nelson painted Lacks holding a bible, representing her strong faith. The wallpaper behind her features the “Flower of Life,” a symbol of immortality, while the flowers on her dress recall images of cell structures. She's missing two buttons from her dress—they represent the cells taken from her body.

Designing an AIDS-awareness symbol

Jeweled pin in the shape of a looped red ribbon.
AIDS-awareness pin from around 1992, designed by James Arpad, from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

The red ribbon got its start in 1991, created by a group from the arts organization Visual AIDS. It has become an internationally recognized symbol for support for people living with HIV and AIDS, disease awareness and remembrance for those who have died.

Around the height of the epidemic and a period of heavy stigma, the artists chose a bold red associated with blood and passion—not pink or a rainbow that might be associated with the LGBTQ+ community, to show that HIV was relevant to everyone.

The ribbon format was easy for others to recreate, and the group made and distributed ribbons to New York art galleries and theaters. It rose to prominence when guests and presenters wore red ribbons at the 1991 Tony Awards.

The creators chose not to copyright the design, and the red ribbon inspired other causes to create similar symbols in other colors.