Freer Sackler Reopened

How Vaccines, a Collective Triumph of Modern Medicine, Conquered the World’s Diseases

Smithsonian curators present a virtual tour of several objects from the collections that revolutionized public health care

Bottle of Diphtheria Anti-Toxin in Case, 1900s (Brendan McCabe)

Tucked away in a cabinet on the fifth floor of the National Museum of American History are rows of tiny bottles, boxes and needles. Acrid whiffs of evaporating medicine hint at their purpose.

These are the instruments that brought down polio, smallpox and diphtheria—diseases that in the past two centuries have killed thousands annually. By the end of the 20th century, however, mass vaccination programs completely eradicated or brought these diseases under control both in the United States and abroad.

In the late 19th century, when James Flint (1838-1919), the Smithsonian’s first curator of Materia Medica (medical substances), began the collection, vaccines and serums were at the cutting edge of modern medicine. Flint collected some of the first vaccine products manufactured in America.

In the 1920s, Flint’s successor, Charles Whitebread, curated the Smithsonian’s first exhibition on vaccines to showcase the recent medical advances at the time and to help educate Americans about the power of vaccines and serums in arresting epidemics in their communities. And today, the American History Museum continues that effort, helping to explain the role and importance of vaccines in the nation's history.

Whitebread worked closely with pharmaceutical companies to acquire their latest products. Under his direction, the collection grew to about 100 specimens including the influenza and typhus vaccines developed during World War II. Following in his footsteps, curators today collect vaccines, syringes and serums from pharmaceutical companies, druggists, physicians and public health organizations, making the collection one of the largest and most complete in the country.

Some of the oldest objects in the collection include a patent model for a vaccinator that dates to the mid-1860s and a mid-19th-century scab carrier. (Yes, a scab!)

This small gold-plated case—not much bigger than a quarter—was used by a doctor to carry a fresh scab (or two) “picked” from a recent smallpox vaccination. The scab was still virulent and could cause a mild infection when a small piece was inserted under the skin—enough to confer immunity—to another individual. The rudimentary method helped to protect against smallpox. Alongside these crude relics from the early years of vaccination are some of the latest flu vaccines developed during the swine flu pandemic of 2009.

Most of the objects are from the United States, but because diseases do not respect national borders, curators have also collected objects associated with global campaigns to control or eradicate disease. The collection includes, for example, artifacts from the successful 1966 to 1980 campaign to eradicate smallpox. These objects range from posters recommending vaccination to postage stamps and samples of the vaccines and needles used by health care workers in the field. A sampling of the museum's medical collections were recently photographed by Smithsonian magazine's Brendan McCabe.

Ivory Points

Physicians used different techniques to transfer vaccine to their patients. In the early 19th century, Edward Jenner (1749-1823), who had first demonstrated the effectiveness of cowpox in providing immunity from smallpox, collected a vaccine made of the lymph material from the pustule of an individual infected with cowpox and then infected another patient with it. Jenner loaded ivory points such as these with vaccine and then used the point to scrape or scratch the skin, inserting the vaccine under the skin. Throughout the 19th century, doctors in places ranging from India to the United States followed Jenner’s lead and used ivory points on their patients.

About Alexandra Lord and Diane Wendt

Alexandra Lord and Diane Wendt are curators in the division of medicine and science at the National Museum of American History

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