A shirtless Mexican worker closes his eyes as a cloud of DDT encircles his head — sprayed by a US Department of Agriculture official wearing a surgical mask.
Rows of neatly uniformed Native American students line up outside the Sherman Institute to be assimilated into the mainstream, only to be beset by epidemics of chickenpox, measles, influenza and tuberculosis at the government school.
Determined Chicana women with clenched fists stare out from a poster bearing the slogan (in English and Spanish) “Stop Forced Sterilization!”
Compelling images such as these in Health Is a Human Right: Race and Place in America at the David J. Sencer CDC Museum reveal a grim history of institutionalized inequality and government oppression of minority populations. The exhibition, which illuminates that history’s impact on disadvantaged populations’ health and well being, will be on view through April 25.
Louise Shaw, CDC museum curator and curator of this exhibition, aimed to bring to life the numbers and statistics that come out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To that end, she has interspersed not just historical photographs but posters, objects and videos among the graphs, documents and wall texts.
Shaw makes dramatic juxtapositions. A wall bears a 1906 statement by the optimistic W.E.B. Du Bois, “With improved sanitary conditions, improved education, and better economic opportunities, the mortality of the race may and probably will steadily decrease until it becomes normal.”
An adjacent display contains photographs and documents pertaining to the infamous “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service in 1932. The study originally recruited 700 men to participate in 1932; 399 were infected with syphilis. It continued for 40 years, and the infected men were untreated even when penicillin became available in the 1940s. CDC took over the study in 1957 when the U.S. Public Health Service transferred its VD program to CDC, and was in charge when it came to light in 1972. Ultimately, President Clinton apologized to the survivors in 1996, and the episode led to guidelines on the use of human subjects.
A display including the 1977 “Stop Forced Sterilization” poster documents that government agencies involuntarily sterilized not only Chicana women but also thousands of Native American women — conducted, ironically, by the Indian Health Service, part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Unequal access to gainful employment is presented as a historically significant obstacle to health parity. Next to photos of Hawaiian girls packing pineapple into cans and African American Rosie the Riveters from the early 1940s, one finds a 1945 poster produced by the National Urban League that urges “Wake Up! Your job is in Danger! You can hold your job now and after the war. Help prove false the customary excuses for not giving Negroes certain Job Opportunities.” Among these excuses listed on the poster are “Negroes have a peculiar body odor” and “Negroes are unreliable and generally less satisfactory than white workers.”
The exhibition shows that unequal access to resources in rural areas contributes significantly to health disparities. A 2012 New York Times article by Patricia Leigh Brown, “The Problem is Clear: The Water is Filthy,” identified dozens of unincorporated Latino communities in the San Joachim Valley of central California that have been plagued for decades by contamination from pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals in their drinking water.
A Plexiglas display case features a rusted and corroded section of water pipe, plastic bottles of water labeled with contaminants — Arsenic, Nitrates and DBCP (a soil fumigant known to cause serious health hazards).
Health Is a Human Right engagingly and intelligently documents how displacement and institutionalized racism curtail minority peoples’ ability to lead healthy lives. Today, when access to affordable health care is one of the most bitterly divisive issues facing our nation, this message is vitally important.
Editor’s note: An earlier version stated that the Public Health Service is the parent agency of CDC. This is not true. Health and Human Services is the parent, and CDC had nothing to do with sterilization policies and their implementation discussed above.