The US National Library of Medicine is much more than a library about medicine. Founded in 1836, the Maryland-based NLM is home to the world's largest collection of biomedical resources, including old books, videos, and scientific studies. It also houses a fascinating online collection of public service announcements and health-related propaganda — a century-spanning trove of posters, advertisements, and pamphlets from just about every corner of the globe.
"It's meant to be cultural, in the broadest sense of the word," Paul Theermin, head of the NLM's images and archives, said in an interview with The Verge. Until the 1950s, the NLM operated in tandem with the National Museum of Health and Medicine. When it split off, the clinical materials were placed with the Armed Forces Medical Library (now under the Department of Defense), leaving the NLM to manage all social and cultural documents.
The NLM, now under the domain of US Health and Human Services, launched its first website in the 1990s, before ramping up its efforts in 2009 with the launch of its Images from the History of Medicine (IHM) database. Today, its online collection encompasses more than 70,000 digitized images, 42,000 of which are in the public domain. Collection manager Ginny Roth says she aims to upload between 600 and 700 new documents each year, pulling from NLM's existing physical archive, as well as new materials received from donors or other public institutions. Thus far, the library hasn't digitized even half of its archive.
The majority of NLM's images are portraits — centuries-old drawings of renowned doctors — though there are thousands of photographs, as well — slice-of-life stills of old hospital wards and patients. But perhaps most intriguing is its collection of public health posters. Some are iconic relics from the global AIDS campaign, others are more obscure, puzzling, or implicitly racist. Each, however, is its own time capsule — a snapshot of not only the major public health issues from a given era, but the aesthetic, political, and social norms that informed their visual representation.
Below are some of the most noteworthy. To browse through the full collection, click here.
- The US Centers for Disease Control tries to raise AIDS awareness among "Mike" and his teenage peers. (1980s)
- The US Cadet Nurse Corps lures candidates with patriotism and the promise of free education. (1945)
- An aesthetically pleasing, yet terrifying alert from the US government. (Date unknown)
- A tragic PSA from tennis great Arthur Ashe. Ashe suffered a heart attack in 1979, and the resulting complications ultimately killed him; Ashe contracted HIV from a blood transfusion he received during one of his heart operations. (US Department of Health and Human Services, 1980s)
- "Stop shooting up AIDS. Get into drug treatment." (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1980s)
- One of the many non-PSA documents in the NLM. Here, a crying infant girl lays atop a gridded backdrop, designed to indicate her size. From the collection of Children's Bureau photographs related to health and human services and child welfare. (1946)
- Frank Mack’s pin-up calendar for malaria prevention and control. (1945)
- Another wartime warning about irresponsible sex. (US Government Printing Office, 1945)
- Patti LaBelle lends her face to the American Red Cross' AIDS campaign. (1980s)
- The US government appropriates wartime imagery to encourage patriotic bond buying. (US Government Printing Office, 1944)
- A Spanish language campaign from the US Department of Health and Human Services. The text loosely translates as, "Feed your baby with care. Every day, more mothers choose to breastfeed." (20th century)
- A World War II-era warning to US GI's stationed in Bremen, Germany. Bremen was captured by the British in 1945, and became part of the American occupation zone in 1947. (Bremen Port Command, 1940s)
- A Native American-inspired anti-drug ad from the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (1993)
- "Cocaine. The big lie." A message from NFL running back Mercury Morris, a two-time Super Bowl champion who was convicted on cocaine trafficking charges in 1982. (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1980s)
- It was a simpler time. (1880-1899)
- An early 20th century postcard caricature of an overzealous dentist. (E. B. & E., 1906)
- The perils of disposing dead animals. (Environmental Services Branch, 1990s)
- A poster from the US War Department warning troops about contaminated water. (1944)
- A bright reminder from the NIH Radiation Safety Section. (1990s)
- Another patriotic call to arms; this time, from the US Public Health Service. (1942)
- An advertising card touting the benefits of "lactated food." (1880-1889)
- A French ad for an "American" dentist in Paris. (Date unknown)
- A no-nonsense blood donation campaign from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (Date unknown)
- It was 1994, and everyone was doing the "Cigarette Mash." (US Department of Health and Human Services)
- A thought-provoking promotion for National Poison Prevention Week. (US Consumer Product Safety Commission, 1988)
- George Mayerle's 1907 eye chart, featuring characters in English, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian, as well as symbols for children or illiterate adults.
- A Run DMC-like relic of the government's 1980s crackdown on crack. (US Department of Education, 1989)
- A rather prescient anti-doping campaign from future Minnesota governor Jesse "The Body" Ventura. (US Food and Drug Administration, 1988)
- Dr. Miles sells candy-flavored laxatives to children. (Miles Laboratories, c. 1910)
- A wartime call for leisure and stress release. (US Public Health Service, 1942)
- A Soviet-like World War I-era poster from the Red Cross. (1917)
- She could be your sister. (US Public Health Service, 1944)
- A safe sex ad targeted toward Native Americans. (American Indian Health Care Association, c. 1989)
- A 'Star Wars'-themed appeal for child immunization. (Centers for Disease Control, c. 1977)
- A 20th century reminder to not judge a book by its cover.
- Part of the CDC's tireless campaign against AIDS misinformation. (Centers for Disease Control, 1980s)