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BE SURE! BE SAFE! GET VACCINATED! Smallpox, Vaccination and Civil Liberties in New York

May 15, 2012
September 02, 2012

The eradication of smallpox, variola major, from the world is one of the great triumphs of modern medicine. For centuries, this highly contagious, disfiguring lethal disease swept through communities, often killing nearly a quarter of its victims and leaving many of the rest blind and deeply scarred. There is still not any known cure for the disease, but the last naturally occurring case of smallpox in the world appeared in 1977.

"Get Vaccinated!"—part of a slogan from an incredibly successful 1947 campaign requesting voluntary vaccination (when five million New Yorkers were vaccinated in two weeks)—traces the history of smallpox and efforts to manage it in the crowded environs of the nation’s largest city. The exhibition begins with the use of inoculation (the introduction of matter from a pustule on the body of smallpox sufferer), in the eighteenth century, and George Washington’s dramatic decision to inoculate his troops during the Revolutionary War, amid rumors that the British were intentionally infecting rebel populations.

Themes emphasized in Get Vaccinated! include the history of vaccination itself, the painful conflict between the need to manage disease in an urban environment and the rights of individuals to resist government interference in their private lives, the growing effectiveness of public relations campaigns in promoting public health initiatives, bioterrorism and the political and economic impact of all epidemics in the city, including cholera, typhus, yellow fever, and AIDS.


In 1947, Eugene Le Bar and his wife took a bus from Mexico to New York City. After visiting hotels and shops, Le Bar felt ill and checked into Bellevue Hospital with what turned out to be a fatal case of smallpox. Over the radio, Commissioner Weinstein announced the presence of smallpox in the city and urged the population to be vaccinated.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Dr. Israel Weinstein Smallpox Message, 1947
Courtesy of NYC Municipal Archives and WNYC Archives
MUNI-MISC-1947-04-16-37273.4 LT430 R337 Weinstein Smallpox Messages

Creative: Tronvig Group