Comics and Tuberculosis!

The Wolf interns and I will be featuring a series of postings that relate to the broad use of comics and the versatility of the medium in transmitting various types of messages. Check out Jonathan and Jorie’s last post on comics and social activism!

Today’s post relates to the use of comics in public health campaigns -specifically on the way comics were used in the fight against tuberculosis and syphilis during the 1900’s.

This post was not written by us, but by Steve Heller who publishes his blog on Imprint magazine.  (If you would like to subscribe to his blog you can do so at the Imprint magazine site).


by Steven Heller

During the mid-twentieth century tuberculosis (TB) was a scourge that attracted considerable attention from commercial artists. Cautionary missives and graphics appeared in myriad public places – from offices to restrooms. A wall in my third-grade classroom routinely displayed public health fliers, pamphlets and posters – some benign, others nightmarish.

The “Crusade Against TB” was often symbolized by hooded demons or skeletons. Yet not all images were so gothic. The logo for TB, the cross with the double horizontal crossbars was a friendly brand. An even more palatable illustrative TB representation was Huber the Tuber: Story of Tuberculosis conceived, drawn and written in 1942 by Dr. Harry Wilmer for the National Tuberculosis Association, who also created Corky the Killer, a Story of Syphilis (American Social Hygiene Association). The former engages Huber, a tuber who comically guides the reader through otherwise serious information. The latter is, what Time magazine described, as “a slightly bawdy blend of fact & fancy that seeks by cartoons and comic-strip dialogue to tell about the syphilis spirochete and how it works.”

Visually expressing complex information in reductive ways forms not invented by Dr. Wilmer. In the twenties, the German scientist Fritz Kahn introduced a diagram titled Man as Industrial Palace, a cross-section of a human head and torso with insides that look similar to a factory controlled by various homunculi, or little people. He made biology and pathology accessible to the layperson, as did the Viennese sociologist, economist and statistician, Otto Neurath, who developed the visual sign/symbol system called International System of Typographic Picture Education (ISOTYPE), using representational glyphs to pictorial show all manner of human activity.

Dr. Wilmer’s approach, however, was unique in his medical context. Creating comic avatars that stand in for disease, like Nasty von Sputum, Rusty the Bloodyvitch and Huey the Long Tuber (any relation to Senator Huey Long is definitely not coincidence), could have had a negative outcome. But these characterizations and accompanying text helps concretize the means of transmitting the tubercle bacilli. The endpapers of Huber, revealing “The Promised Land O’ Lung” further explains how TB prevention works. And the illustration showing a celebration of TB activists at the end of the book actually gives a modicum of hope.

In Corky the Killer , the villain is Corky, a nasty spirochete 1/3000th of an inch tall, with a corkscrew body, a nose like a golf tee and spindly legs. The leader of the syphilitic saboteurs, he is Mayor of Chancretown, whose anthem is “Down by the Old Blood Stream.” When antisyphilitic “magic bullets” aimed at Corky, he makes a mad dash through the body, and latches on to the first blood cell that floats by. Soon he finds his fellow saboteurs creating skin eruptions or chancres. Corky is ultimately sent court for trial against the body. Loosing his case, he his banished to the Soap and Water Chamber of Torture, where he is scrubbed to death. Dr. Wilmer shows that syphilis can be cured if caught early and treated.

Dr. Wilmer’s draftsmanship is a passable in Huber, but greatly improves his craft in Corky. Ironically, since Huber is more artless, the visuals are actually more illuminating than the more artful ones in Corky. In the former the images are read more as doodles than the latter, which are more articulated yet stiff. In the former the flaws are subservient to the message. Nonetheless, Dr. Wilmer created visual worlds that prefigure edu-comics and graphic novels published today.

[Author’s note: This essay was adapted from a forthcoming Hidden Treasure (Blast Books) celebrating the 175th anniversary of the National Library of Medicine. It features about 80 eccentric, wonderful, charming and/or grotesque items in the NLM’s historical collection, each paired with a short essay, and will be available in September 2011.]

is the co-founder and the co-chair of the MFA Designer as Author program at the School of Visual Arts. He writes the Visuals column for the New York Times Book Review and the Graphic Content blog for T-Style. He is the author, coauthor, and/or editor of more than 120 books on design and popular culture, including the recent book Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig (Chronicle).

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