By Sara Wilmshurst
I was lucky; no one asked me to glue lentils to my face, so I got to stand by and watch while a medical student was transformed into a smallpox sufferer before my very eyes. The makeup artist found that lentils and Rice Krispies made the most convincing pustules, when coated in makeup and vividly shaded.
We weren’t in a play. This was the Quarantine Tent, an exhibit created by science writer Pippa Wysong. Dismayed by increasing ignorance about vaccines, Wysong designed a display to show people what life was like before vaccination. The Tent featured people dressed- and made-up as disease sufferers, who could describe their condition, the disease’s history, and the vaccine’s invention. At the Quarantine Tent where I helped out I portrayed a polio victim, and adult paralyzed in childhood, while others depicted victims of diphtheria, smallpox, HPV-related cancer, influenza, and whooping cough. We were at Sanofi-Pasteur’s 100th anniversary celebration, an employee picnic, and plenty of people took a break from enjoying their ice cream to ask what we were up to. I think the gentleman with fictional smallpox drew their attention. It was, as I mentioned above, vivid.
Of course, the Sanofi-Pasteur staff and their families were a receptive audience for the Tent’s message. Several people we talked to worked producing vaccines, and were happy to bring their children over to learn about historical sicknesses that vaccines are helping to conquer. I met a number of Rotary Club members, who chatted with me about the club’s polio eradication campaign. We also saw plenty of shoulders that day, as people proudly showed off their smallpox vaccination scars.
I’ll admit that I appreciate history that doesn’t trim off the nasty bits. Indeed, I admire Wysong’s ability to design a display that was entertaining and informative but also conveyed the destruction that these diseases effected. Furthermore, the Tent emphasizes the danger of anti-vaccination thinking; one of the diseases featured in the Tent I attended, whooping cough, is making a comeback because people are avoiding the vaccine.
I actually met Wysong through my research. I did my undergraduate honours project and Master’s thesis at the University of Guelph about a voluntary health association called the Health League of Canada. One of their major projects was National Immunization Week, which they organized yearly from 1943 to 1970. Dr. Gordon Bates was the Health League’s founder and General Director, and for his entire career he urged parents to prevent disease by having their children vaccinated. Bates was also Pippa Wysong’s grandfather. My thesis supervisor, Dr. Catherine Carstairs, and a fellow student, Bethany Philpott, interviewed Wysong for an ongoing project about the Health League. Later, she invited us to perform at the Quarantine Tent, and I was able to attend.
I took a binder of Health League posters and pamphlets about immunization, gathered from my, Catherine, and Bethany’s archival photos. They illustrate some of the problems and advantages of the Health League’s approach. One pamphlet about smallpox vaccination was positive and informative. Written like a question-and-answer dialogue, it explained how vaccination worked and the protection it provided when administered in infancy. Much like the Quarantine Tent, the pamphlet provided historical context, explaining how damaging smallpox had been before vaccination, became widespread. Furthermore, it detailed how a rash of vaccination-resistance in Montreal facilitated a resurgence of the disease in the 1870s.
Other Health League material was less informative and verged on fear-mongering. One Immunization Week poster had a picture of a baby wrapped in a blanket, but the text was pointed. “Safe and Snug? Well, snug maybe…BUT NOT SAFE. A warm blanket in a cozy home will keep out the cold and the wet…BUT DISEASE CAN ENTER THE COSIEST HOME AND PASS THROUGH THE WARMEST BLANKET…If your child has not been immunized, he is an easy mark for diseases that lurk just around every corner…” It went on to list vaccine-preventable “diseases that can kill or maim your child.” Though I understand why fear seems motivating, I think that information is more important. In that sense, I think that Wysong’s work exceeds her grandfather’s, since the Quarantine Tent acknowledges the problems of preventable diseases in a relentlessly informative fashion.
Dressing up was fun, and explaining polio to small children without scaring them was challenging, but the most rewarding aspect of participating in the Quarantine Tent was seeing my research come to life. I had a fairly significant episode of nerd joy when I got the chance to promote vaccine education with Gordon Bates’ granddaughter. I’d been reading Bates’ mail at the archives and felt like I knew him. He was a moralistic, opinionated, and vocal individual. If he were still around, I imagine that he would jump at the chance to chew out Jenny McCarthy. I actually don’t agree with Bates about everything, but I can appreciate his dedication to vaccine promotion.
My thanks to Pippa Wysong for permitting me to discuss her project in this post and sending me information about its creation.
Sara Wilmshurst recently completed her MA in history at the University of Guelph, and is currently doing more work on the Health League of Canada as Dr. Catherine Carstairs’ research assistant.
Cynthia Comacchio, “Nations are Built of Babies”: Saving Ontario’s Mothers and Children 1900-1940 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993).
Heather MacDougall, Activists and Advocates: Toronto’s Health Department, 1883-1983 (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1990).
Bethany Philpott, “‘The First Wealth is Health’: The Health League of Canada, 1935-1980”, Master’s thesis, University of Guelph, 2014.
Pippa Wysong’s own blog post about the Tent: http://sciencewriters.ca/2014/05/05/event-in-a-tent-communicates-disease-risk-and-vaccines/