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Cautionary tales for WWII GIs

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2009 - Spring


The Medical Historical Library’s art collection includes graphic posters that warned soldiers and sailors of the dangers of venereal diseases.

She’s no idealized oil painting. The lines around the mouth tell you she’s been around the block. She might have stepped out of a dime detective novel, a wrong number who conned some farm boy into giving up his heart and his wallet. She is literally falling out of her too-tight dress. One hand rests on a cocked hip while a cigarette smolders in the other. Her hennaed hair is tightly curled. She arches a plucked brow and forms her rouged lips into a bitter pout.

“Danger Disease Ahead!” the poster warns. Just in case the message is too subtle, a large orange banner at the bottom spells it out: “Gonorrhea Syphilis.” This unnamed woman was created to warn World War II servicemen about venereal disease (VD).

The Medical Historical Library’s holdings include etchings by Rembrandt, portraits of the world’s most eminent physicians stretching back to Hippocrates and reverent depictions of kings healing scrofula with the “royal touch.” It may seem incongruous that a graphic—in both senses of the word—and cautionary portrayal of a loose woman would find a home here. For several years, however, the library has been adding to its collection of public health posters.

“What is represented in art, or fine art … is limited,” explained Susan Wheeler, curator of prints and drawings. “Moving into public health posters allowed us to represent more medical subjects in the collection.”

In 2004, just as the library had made a strategic decision to acquire more posters, it received a large gift of turn-of-the-century French advertising and public health posters from collector William H. Helfand, who has since made additional gifts. Posters were often produced in large numbers, explained Wheeler, and so copies reside in many attics and garages. As websites catering to collectors begin to spring up, owners realize that they are storing a saleable commodity, and more posters become available. The library is adding its posters to the Medical Digital Library so that they will be widely accessible.

An exhibit in the Cushing Rotunda through the winter featured a trio of posters produced by the U.S. Navy during World War II to warn sailors about sexually transmitted diseases. Some other subjects addressed in the collection include hygiene, nutrition, AIDS, tuberculosis, cancer, polio and children’s health. All the posters have a common purpose: to change human behavior. So their images and language are strong and direct.

The library’s selection of World War II anti-VD posters is a prime example. A sailor leans against the ship’s rail with “VD” painted in huge orange letters on the back of his T-shirt. The caption reads, “Nothing to be proud of.” In another poster, a sailor paints “VD” in the same bright orange across the deck of a battleship. “Don’t smear your ship,” the poster implores. The caution against letting down one’s comrades is a recurrent theme, explained Wheeler.

The wartime military gave every serviceman training about preventing venereal disease and access to prophylactics. When men were infected, they were urged to see military doctors as soon as possible. A number of posters warned against “quacks” and home remedies. “Rapid treatment centers” gave prostitutes access to drugs to halt transmission. The anti-VD campaign was effective. By the end of the war, the infection rate among servicemen was no higher than that of the civilian population.

In April and May, the library will feature early Soviet posters, again on the theme of venereal disease. The library has acquired a complete set of posters from the Soviet campaign of 1928, so viewers can get a full picture of the messages that Russian public health officials were sending.

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