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Healthy Skepticism Library item: 19478

Warning: This library includes all items relevant to health product marketing that we are aware of regardless of quality. Often we do not agree with all or part of the contents.


Publication type: Magazine

Zielinska E
Medical posters as art
The Scientist 2011 Apr 1


A new exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art celebrates the slick design of old public health messages and pharmaceutical ads

Full text:

The museum that houses one of the most iconic medicine-themed paintings of all time, “The Gross Clinic” by Thomas Eakins, is opening a new exhibition of posters called Health for Sale.

Compagnie de Fermiere’s mineral water
Philadelphia Museum of ArtThe collection includes works depicting the “social plague” of syphilis, the benefits of aspirin, and the dangers of marijuana — the “Weed with Roots in Hell.”

The posters in the exhibit were collected by William H. Helfand, a chemical engineer who worked for more than 30 years as an executive in pharmaceutical giant Merck’s international operations division. His job with Merck took him to Paris, where he collected numerous medical posters.

Helfand is a great collector of emphemera, says the exhibit’s co-curator John Ittman. Aside from medical posters, he has collected thousands of items, such as labels from pharmaceutical bottles, postcards, and medical pamphlets.

The posters — ranging from those commissioned by wealthy pharmacists of the 1840s to ones with a more modern message, such as the poster from an 1985 concert to raise money for AIDS research — each aim to capture the public’s attention with visually arresting colors and design.

Many of the historical posters make dubious claims as to a medical product’s health effects, targeting what Ittman calls “that sort of gullible side of human nature.” Some of the cures “promise to do everything for you, but they very well may have helped relieve a scratchy throat,” Ittman adds.

The prints add to the museum’s Ars Medica collection, which includes Rembrandt etchings of well known doctors of the 17th century. It is “the only collection of its kind in a major art museum,” notes Ittman. Scroll down to see a few of the posters appearing in Health for Sale, which will be on display from April 2nd through July 31st at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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At over 5 feet tall, this poster is one of the largest in the collection. According to John Ittman, a co-curator of the exhibit, “Botot” refers to Dr. Julien Botot, an 19th century physician who cared for the French King Louis XV, developing for him oral hygiene products such as a toothpaste and mouthwash. The figure depicted is one that is easily recognizable to the French as the doctor from Moliere’s play The Imaginary Invalid.

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Franz von Stuck, the creator of this poster for an international hygiene fair, was as well known for his graphic design as he was for his painting and sculpture. Many artist of the late 19th century were trained in graphic design and illustration in addition to the fine arts, so that they could earn a living as they began their careers, says Ittman. Philadelphia, in particular, was a magnet for graphic designers who then went on to become major artists, he notes.

INFOGRAPHIC: View full size
This 1910 poster depicts an old man jumping for joy because the drug he’s taken has cured him of rheumatism, arthritis, gout and kidney stones. Although the product is French, it is written for and promoted to the Spanish market.

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James Ayer owned an apothecary in Lowell, Massachusetts in the mid 19th century, selling cures such as the Cherry Pectoral cough syrup pictured here, as well as Sarsaparilla extract for a variety of maladies, from syphilis to psoriasis to cancer.

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This poster was part of the tuberculosis education campaign started by the American Red Cross. Every year, the Red Cross would commission stamps to benefit the study and prevention of tuberculosis. The stamp, pictured in the lower left corner of the poster, depicts a Santa Claus holding a sack marked with a red cross.

Correction (April 1): The original version of this story incorrectly stated the date of Rembrandt’s etchings. The text has been corrected. The Scientist regrets the error.


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