Under the Microscope

An "Outbreak" at the Health Museum

The Smithsonian exhibit is spreading knowledge about epidemics amid coronavirus fears

By Brittanie Shey February 24, 2020

A member of Houston's newly-christened Colt 45s baseball team stands by while children are given a polio vaccine during the "Victory Over Polio" campaign in 1962.

The Bubonic plague, also known as The Black Death, killed 30% of the population of Europe in the 14th Century by some estimates. At the time, medical knowledge was limited to miasma theory, or the belief that diseases were caused by an invisible foul-smelling vapor in the air. It wasn’t until 400 years later that germ theory was developed, along with the first vaccine.

But as quickly as human knowledge has evolved since then, so have the organisms that cause and spread disease. That delicate dance is the subject of an exhibit currently on display at the Health Museum. "Outbreak: Epidemics in A Connected World" looks at the role technology, international travel, and global trade play in the spread, and treatment, of viruses.

The exhibit, which opened in October, is especially timely of late due to the outbreak of Coronavirus Covid-2019. But the exhibit also commemorates two local milestones: the Health Museum's 50th anniversary (which it celebrated last year), and a small but deadly resurgence of Black Plague that occurred in Galveston 100 years ago.

The main "Outbreak" exhibit was created by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., but Becky Seabrook, senior director of guest engagement at the Health Museum, sought to localize the exhibit to better reflect Houston’s role as a large, international port city. The exhibit looks at three major outbreaks in Houston’s history, along with a number of Houstonians who played vital roles in fighting them.

“The main exhibit is about how interconnected we are, and about the importance of working globally to fight these outbreaks,” Seabrook says. “But we also really wanted to talk about how outbreaks affect communities.”

In order to do that, the museum created an entire gallery to explore Houston’s three biggest historical outbreaks, plus smaller epidemics like Zika, West Nile, and Ebola.

Plague eradication efforts along the Galveston Seawall in 1920.

Houston’s climate, port status, and international population make it a good place for viruses to spread and flourish, Seabrook says. Proximity to the sea was one of the things that lead to an outbreak of Bubonic plague in Galveston in the summer of 1920. Rats from ships carried plague-infected fleas to the island, eventually infecting 18 people, 12 of whom died. Thanks to knowledge gleaned following the massive outbreak in the Middle Ages, the city of Galveston declared a “War on Rats,” bombing the seawall with poison and scouring ships, dilapidated buildings, and alleys to eventually capture more than 46,000 rats over a six-month period.

The next major outbreak to hit the Houston area in modern times was polio. That virus caused panic through the United States in the middle of the 20th century, and Harris County was second only to Las Angeles in the number of cases, Seabrook says. As part of the “Victory Over Polio” campaign, advocates solicited donations to study and treat the disease. This research work led to the creation of Houston’s TIRR Memorial Hermann rehabilitation hospital and the founding of the Health Museum in 1969 as a tool for outreach and education.

Alongside an iron lung and historical images of Houston’s “Victory Over Polio” campaign, the exhibit examines some of the ethical challenges involved when it comes to developing vaccines and other treatments. For example, Dr. Jonas Salk, who eventually created the vaccine that would eradicate polio, experimented on himself instead of testing the vaccine on others.

The exhibit also profiles Dr. Justin Dart, a polio survivor who attended the University of Houston. In 1954, after his graduation, the university refused to grant him a teaching certificate because of his disability. Dart eventually became an activist and is now known as The Godfather of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

As part of looking at how outbreaks affect communities, Seabrook says she also wanted to look at the stigma of different diseases. The third portion of the exhibit, which deals with Houston’s HIV/AIDS outbreak of the 1980s, delves into that stigma. In the early part of the outbreak, gay Houstonians were largely left to fend for themselves. Items in this part of the exhibit reflect that, from the bar top at Mary’s, which served as a makeshift memorial, to numerous fliers for fundraisers, protests, and funerals.

Seabrook worked with local leaders, including members of the Galveston National Laboratory at UTMB, to create displays that show what the first response to an outbreak might look like, from basic field skills to vaccination efforts. The exhibit also looks at the animal-human connection in the spread of epidemics—in particular, the role bats play in zoonotic outbreaks, which make up two-thirds of emerging diseases. Overall, the exhibit is a fascinating, if cautionary, look at how the more the world changes, the more we need to look to the past to treat the potential outbreaks of the future.

“We are much more connected than ever, which also means the health risks and challenges we face are also more interconnected,” Seabrook says. “This exhibition is all about examining our role as global citizens in the delicate ecosystems that we inhabit.”