Venereal Disease Visual History Archive

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Germs

"Menaces to America's Health"

Parran, Shadow on the Land (1937)

One way the campaign tried to minimize moral issues related to syphilis and gonorrhea was to frame them as simply contagious disease like smallpox, scarlet fever, or tuberculosis. Focusing on the germs that caused these illnesses—spirochetes and gonococci—helped reinforce this idea. Images of the microbes in particular appeared in many materials and became symbols for the illnesses.

Using images of germs was not only a consistent way to represent the disease to audiences, but also shifted focus onto the microbe itself and away from stigmatized groups. A particular type of person was not the symbol of syphilis in these images, simply the spirochete. This helped challenge ideas that particular groups were prone to contracting venereal diseases. Instead, the campaign emphasized, “germs don’t discriminate” and “know no color line,” they infected any person the same as another.

While a few visuals of earlier eras had used images that reproduced or imitated microscopic views of microbes, the focus shifted to germs as the vector of illness in the 1930s in a way that was unprecedented. Images of spirochetes and gonococci appeared more than ever in educational materials and in new ways. 

"Syphilis, Its Cause, Its Spread..Its Cure!" (Detail--Spirochetes) "Syphilis, Its Cause, Its Spread..Its Cure!" (Detail--Darkfield Exam)

Details from PHS pamphlet,

"Syphilis, Its Cause, Its Spread..Its Cure!" (1938)

Additionally, the fact that specific microbes caused these illnesses seems to be one of the more clear ideas they public took away from campaign efforts. A survey in 1938 that showed mostly mediocre results in terms of respondents knowledge and opinions about VD did demonstrate that most people knew understood this fact. This reflects a broader cultural interest in stories about scientific discoveries seen in popular films and books.

Germs were depicted in three different ways in VD materials throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The first showed microscopic views of spirochetes and gonococci. This often appeared with descriptions and images of technicians looking into microscopes, visually explaining how VD testing worked to lay audiences.

Instead of using photographic or faithful reproductions of microscopic views, the spirochete also singularly became a symbol for the illness, established by the infographics created for some of Parran’s most popular publications. In these images, the germ sometimes appears as a pictogram, signaling the topic of the images. Other times, a syphilis microbe was used to signify the syphilis status of individuals within a visual. The final way germs appeared in popular materials about VD control was anthropomorphized. As seen here, enemy microbes try to infect a serviceman and encourage him to make bad choices (bottom far right).