The Art of Saving a Life

Perhaps you saw the recent New York Times Arts Section review of the vaccination promotion campaign sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The campaign, as part of an international effort to raise funds to inoculate millions, has commissioned artists to interpret the "Vaccines Work" tag line.

The article was accompanied by the reproduction of three of the remarkable commissioned pieces, but it was Alexia Sinclair's tableau of a 18th century vaccination that caught my eye. A young boy is clearly receiving the innoculation from a bewigged doctor while the mother — detached and yet attached — sits apart and looking away from the tableau while also reaching out to reinforce the doctor's acts with an almost yearning reach of her hand. All of them sit in a fine 18th century sitting room, yet the carpet of grass and blossoms — we are told of the artist's vision — was meant to symbolize the virulence of smallpox. "It brings a fashion-y aesthetic to a virulent disease" the New York Times notes.

Smallpox is not pretty. But the asethetic of the Sinclair tableau is not exactly beautiful, more profoundly eerie. I wonder if it doesn't also tap into our modern anxieties about vaccination. It is, after all, an act of faith to vaccinate, then as now. If you visit "The Art of Saving a Life" website you find Alexia Sinclair's tableau titled "Edward Jenner's Smallpox Discovery."

Edward Jenner, sometimes known as the father of immunization, did not discover the smallpox vaccination, however. He was, rather, the first person to confer scientific status on the procedure and to pursue its scientific validation. Vaccinated against smallpox himself as a young boy, he spent some of his prodigious talents attempting to validate the mikmaids' truism that exposure to cowpox meant immunity to smallpox. Seem from this perspective, eight year old James Phipps (Edward Jenner's first human subject) and Sarah Nelms (the milkmaid donor of cow pox for transfer to James Phipps) ought be in the Alexia Sinclair of Edward Jenner's smallpox discovery.    

x-posted at ProfsBlawg

 

 

 

 

 

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