December 4, 2013
In 1981, an unknown epidemic was spreading across America. In June of that year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s newsletter mentioned five cases of a strange pneumonia in Los Angeles. By July, 40 cases of a rare skin cancer were reported by doctors working in the gay communities of New York and San Francisco. By August, the Associated Press reported that two rare diseases, the skin cancer Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumocystis, a form of pneumonia caused by a parasitic organism, had infected over 100 gay men in America, killing over half of them. At the end of 1981, 121 men had died from the strange disease; in 1982, the disease was given a name; by 1984, two different scientists had isolated the virus causing it; in 1986, that virus was named HIV. By the end of the decade, in 1989, 27,408 people died from AIDS.
In the years following the AIDS epidemic, medical research has given us a better understanding of HIV and AIDS, as well as made some remarkable breakthroughs unimagined in the 1980s: today, people living with HIV aren’t condemned to a death sentence, but rather have treatment options available. Still, to think of the AIDS epidemic in medical terms misses half of the story–the social aspect, which affected America’s perception of HIV and AIDS just as much, if not more than medical research.
The two sides of the story are told through a collection of articles, pictures, posters and pamphlets in Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics and Culture, a traveling exhibit and online adaptation curated by the National Library of Medicine that explores the rise of AIDS in the early 1980s, as well as the medical and social responses to the disease since. The human reaction to the AIDS epidemic often takes a back seat to the medical narrative, but the curators of Surviving and Thriving were careful to make sure that this did not happen–through a series of digital panels, as well as a digital gallery, readers can explore how the government and other community groups talked about the disease.
At the beginning of the epidemic, response was largely limited to the communities which were most affected, especially the gay male community. “People with AIDS are really a driving force in responding to the epidemic and seeing how change is made,” says Jennifer Brier, a historian of politics and sexuality who curated the exhibit.
In 1982, Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz, two gay men living with AIDS in New York City, published How to Have Sex in an Epidemic, which helped spread the idea that safe sex could be used as protection against spreading the epidemic–an idea that hadn’t yet become prevalent in the medical community. The pamphlet was one of the first places that proposed that men should use condoms when having sex with other men as a protection against AIDS.
Condoms as protection against AIDS became a major theme for poster campaigns. The above poster, paid for by the Baltimore-based non-profit Health Education Resource Organization, shows how visuals attempted to appeal, at least at first, to the gay community. Due to widespread misinformation, however, many people believed that AIDS was a disease that affected only white gay communities. As a response to this, black gay and lesbian communities created posters like the one below, to show that AIDS didn’t discriminate based on race.
Many posters and education campaigns harnessed sexual imagery to convey the importance of safe sex in an attempt to make safety sexy (like the Safe Sex is Hot Sex campaign), but it wasn’t a campaign tactic supported by governmental bodies–in fact, in 1987, Congress explicitly banned the use of federal funds for AIDS prevention and education campaigns that “[promoted] or [encouraged], directly or indirectly, homosexual activities” (the legislation was spearheaded by conservative senator Jesse Helms and signed into law by President Reagan).
Instead, federally-funded campaigns sought to address a large number of people from all backgrounds–male, female, homosexual or heterosexual. The America Responds to AIDS campaign, created by the CDC, ran from 1987 to 1996 and became a central part of the “everyone is at risk” message of AIDS prevention.
The campaign was met with mixed feelings by AIDS workers. “The posters really do help ameliorate the fear of hatred of people with AIDS,” Brier explains. “There’s a notion that everyone is at risk, and that’s important to talk about, but there’s also the reality that not everyone is at risk to the same extent.” Some AIDS organizations, especially those providing service to communities at the highest risk for contracting HIV, saw the campaign as diverting money and attention away from the communities that needed it the most–leaving gay and minority communities to compete with one another for the little money that remained. As New York Times reporter Jayson Blair wrote in 2001 (, “Much of the government’s $600 million AIDS-prevention budget was used…to combat the disease among college students, heterosexual women and others who faced a relatively low risk of contracting the disease.”
(This linked column by Blair was later found to be plagiarized from reporting by the Wall Street Journal, but the point still holds.)
Beyond campaigns that tried to generalize the AIDS epidemic, a different side used the fear of AIDS to try and affect change. These posters, contained under the section “Fear Mongering” in the exhibit’s digital gallery, show ominous images of graves or caskets behind proclamations of danger.
“It was like this sort of scared straight model, like if you get scared enough, you really will do what is right,” Brier says of the posters. “There were posters that focused on pleasure, or health, or positive things to get people to affect change in their behavior, but there were consistently posters that used the idea that fear could produce behavior change.”
The above poster exemplifies the tactic of fear mongering: a large, visible slogan to affect fear (and shame sexual behavior), while information on how to prevent the spread of AIDS is buried in small print at the bottom of the poster. A lack of information was typical of fear-mongering posters, which relied on catchy, scary headlines rather than information about safe sex, clean needles or the disease itself.
“The posters fed on people’s inability to understand how AIDS actually spread. It didn’t really ever mention ways to prevent the spread of HIV,” Brier says. “Fear-mongering posters don’t talk about condoms, they don’t talk about clean needles, they don’t talk about ways to be healthy. They don’t have the solutions in them, they just have the fear.”
Through exploring the exhibit, users get a sense of the different approaches public organizations took to spread information about AIDS. “It’s a fundamental question of public health,” says Brier. “Do you spread information by scaring people, do you do it by trying to tap into pleasure or do you do it by recognizing that people’s behavior isn’t just about their individual will but a whole different set of circumstances?”
September 18, 2013
In 1881, Edward Charles Pickering, director of the Harvard Observatory, had a problem: the volume of data coming into his observatory was exceeding his staff’s ability to analyze it. He also had doubts about his staff’s competence–especially that of his assistant, who Pickering dubbed inefficient at cataloging. So he did what any scientist of the latter 19th century would have done: he fired his male assistant and replaced him with his maid, Williamina Fleming. Fleming proved so adept at computing and copying that she would work at Harvard for 34 years–eventually managing a large staff of assistants.
So began an era in Harvard Observatory history where women—more than 80 during Pickering’s tenure, from 1877 to his death in 1919— worked for the director, computing and cataloging data. Some of these women would produce significant work on their own; some would even earn a certain level of fame among followers of female scientists. But the majority are remembered not individually but collectively, by the moniker Pickering’s Harem.
The less-than-enlightened nickname reflects the status of women at a time when they were–with rare exception–expected to devote their energies to breeding and homemaking or to bettering their odds of attracting a husband. Education for its own sake was uncommon and work outside the home almost unheard of. Contemporary science actually warned against women and education, in the belief that women were too frail to handle the stress. As doctor and Harvard professor Edward Clarke wrote in his 1873 book Sex in Education, “A woman’s body could only handle a limited number of developmental tasks at one time—that girls who spent to much energy developing their minds during puberty would end up with undeveloped or diseased reproductive systems.”
Traditional expectations of women slowly changed; six of the “Seven Sisters” colleges began admitting students between 1865 and 1889 (Mount Holyoke opened its doors in 1837). Upper-class families encouraged their daughters to participate in the sciences, but even though women’s colleges invested more in scientific instruction, they still lagged far behind men’s colleges in access to equipment and funding for research. In a feeble attempt to remedy this inequality, progressive male educators sometimes partnered with women’s institutions.
Edward Pickering was one such progressive thinker–at least when it came to opening up educational opportunities. A native New Englander, he graduated from Harvard in 1865 and taught physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he revolutionized the method of scientific pedagogy by encouraging students to participate in experiments. He also invited Sarah Frances Whiting, an aspiring young female scientist, to attend his lectures and to observe his experiments. Whiting used these experiences as the basis for her own teaching at Wellesley College, just 13 miles from Pickering’s classroom at MIT.
Pickering’s approach toward astronomic techniques was also progressive; instead of relying solely on notes from observations made by telescope, he emphasized examining photographs–a type of observation known today as astrophotography, which uses a camera attached to a telescope to take photos. The human eye, he reasoned, tires with prolonged observation through a telescope, and a photograph can provide a clearer view of the night sky. Moreover, photographs last much longer than bare-eye observations and notes.
Early astrophotography used the technology of the daguerreotype to transfer images from a telescope to a photographic plate. The process was involved and required long exposure time for celestial objects to appear, which frustrated astronomers. Looking for a more efficient method, Richard Maddox revolutionized photography by creating a dry plate method, which unlike the wet plates of earlier techniques, did not have to be used immediately–saving astronomers time by allowing them to use dry plates that had been prepared before the night of observing. Dry plates also allowed for longer exposure times than wet plates (which ran the risk of drying out), providing for greater light accumulation in the photographs. Though the dry plates made the prep work more efficient, their sensitivity to light still lagged behind what astronomers desired. Then, in 1878, Charles Bennett discovered a way to increase the sensitivity to light, by developing them at 32 degrees Celsius. Bennet’s discovery revolutionized astrophotography, making the photographs taken by the telescopes nearly as clear and useful as observations seen with the naked eye.
When Pickering became director of the Harvard Observatory in 1877, he lobbied for the expansion of the observatory’s astrophotography technology, but it wasn’t until the 1880s, when the technology greatly improved, that these changes were truly implemented. The prevalence of photography at the observatory rose markedly, creating a new problem: there was more data than anyone had time to interpret. The work was tedious, duties thought to lend themselves to a cheaper and less-educated workforce thought to be capable of classifying stars rather than observing them: women. By employing his female staff to engage in this work, Pickering certainly made waves in the historically patriarchal realm of academia.
But it’s hard to tout Pickering as a wholly progressive man: by limiting the assistants’ work to largely clerical duties, he reinforced the era’s common assumption that women were cut out for little more than secretarial tasks. These women, referred to as “computers,” were the only way that Pickering could achieve his goal of photographing and cataloging the entire night sky.
All told, more than 80 women worked for Pickering during his tenure at the Harvard Observatory (which extended to 1918), putting in six-day weeks poring over photographs, and earning 25 to 50 cents an hour (half what a man would have been paid). The daily work was largely clerical: some women would reduce the photographs, taking into account things like atmospheric refraction, in order to render the image as clear and unadulterated as possible. Others would classify the stars through comparing the photographs to known catalogs. Others cataloged the photographs themselves, making careful notes of each image’s date of exposure and the region of the sky. The notes were then meticulously copied into tables, which included the star’s location in the sky and its magnitude. It was a grind. As Fleming noted in her diary:
In the Astrophotographic building of the Observatory, 12 women, including myself, are engaged in the care of the photographs…. From day to day my duties at the Observatory are so nearly alike that there will be little to describe outside ordinary routine work of measurement, examination of photographs, and of work involved in the reduction of these observations.
But regardless of the unequal pay and distribution of duties, this work was incredibly important; the data provided the empirical foundations for larger astronomical theory. Pickering allowed some women to make telescopic observations, but this was the exception rather than the rule. Mostly, women were barred from producing real theoretical work and were instead relegated to analyzing and reducing the photographs. These reductions, however, served as the statistical basis for the theoretical work done by others. Chances for great advancement were extremely limited. Often the most a woman could hope for within the Harvard Observatory would be a chance to oversee less-experienced computers. That’s what Williamina Fleming was doing when, after almost 20 years at the observatory, she was appointed Curator of Astronomical Photos.
One of Pickering’s computers, however, would stand out for her contribution to astronomy: Annie Jump Cannon, who devised a system for classifying stars that is still used today. But as an article written in The Woman Citizen‘s June 1924 issue reported: “The traffic policeman on Harvard Square does not recognize her name. The brass and parades are missing. She steps into no polished limousine at the end of the day’s session to be driven by a liveried chauffeur to a marble mansion.”
Cannon was born in Dover, Delaware, on December 11, 1863. Her father, a shipbuilder, had some knowledge of the stars, but it was her mother who passed on her own childhood interest in astronomy. Both parents nourished her love of learning, and in 1880, when she enrolled at Wellesley College, she became one of the first young women from Delaware to go away to college. At Wellesley, she took classes under Whiting, and while doing graduate work there she helped Whiting conduct experiments on x-rays. But when the Harvard Observatory began to gain fame for its photographic research, Cannon transferred to Radcliffe College in order to work with Pickering, beginning in 1896. Pickering and Fleming had been working on a system for classifying stars based on their temperatures; Cannon, adding to work done by fellow computer Antonia Maury, greatly simplified that system, and in 1922, the International Astronomical Union adopted it as the official classification system for stars.
In 1938, two years before Cannon retired and three years before she died, Harvard finally acknowledged her by appointing her the William C. Bond Astronomer. During Pickering’s 42-year tenure at the Harvard Observatory, which ended only a year before he died, in 1919, he received many awards, including the Bruce Medal, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s highest honor. Craters on the moon and on Mars are named after him.
And Annie Jump Cannon’s enduring achievement was dubbed the Harvard—not the Cannon—system of spectral classification.
Sources: “Annals of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College, Volume XXIV,” on Take Note, An Exploration of Note-Taking in Harvard University Collections, 2012. Accessed September 3, 2013; “Annie Cannon (1863-1914)” on She Is An Astronomer, 2013. Accessed September 9, 2013; “Annie Jump Cannon” on Notable Name Database, 2013. Accessed September 9, 2013; “Brief History of Astrophotography” on McCormick Museum, 2009. Accessed September 18, 213; “The ‘Harvard Computers’” on WAMC, 2013. Accessed September 3, 2013; “The History of Women and Education” on the National Women’s History Museum, 207. Accessed August 19, 2013; Kate M. Tucker. “Friend to the Stars” in The Woman Citizen, June 14, 1924; Keith Lafortune. “Women at the Harvard College Observatory, 1877-1919: ‘Women’s Work,’ The ‘New’ Sociality of Astronomy, and Scientific Labor,” University of Notre Dame, December 2001. Accessed August 19, 2013; Margaret Walton Mayhall. “The Candelabrum” in The Sky. January, 1941; Moira Davison Reynolds. American Women Scientists: 23 Inspiring Biographies, 1900-2000. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1999; “Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming (1857–1911)” on the Harvard University Library Open Collections Program, 2013. Accessed September 3, 2013.
August 8, 2013
The USS Indianapolis had delivered the crucial components of first operational atomic bomb to a naval base on the Pacific island of Tinian. On August 6, 1945, the weapon would level Hiroshima. But now, on July 28, the Indianapolis sailed from Guam, without an escort, to meet the battleship USS Idaho in the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines and prepare for an invasion of Japan.
The next day was quiet, with the Indianapolis making about 17 knots through swells of five or six feet in the seemingly endless Pacific. As the sun set over the ship, the sailors played cards and read books; some spoke with the ship’s priest, Father Thomas Conway.
But shortly after midnight, a Japanese torpedo hit the Indianapolis in the starboard bow, blowing almost 65 feet of the ship’s bow out of the water and igniting a tank containing 3,500 gallons of aviation fuel into a pillar of fire shooting several hundred feet into the sky. Then another torpedo from the same submarine hit closer to midship, hitting fuel tanks and powder magazines and setting off a chain reaction of explosions that effectively ripped the Indianapolis in two. Still traveling at 17 knots, the Indianapolis began taking on massive amounts of water; the ship sank in just 12 minutes. Of the 1,196 men aboard, 900 made it into the water alive. Their ordeal—what is considered the worst shark attack in history—was just beginning.
As the sun rose on July 30, the survivors bobbed in the water. Life rafts were scarce. The living searched for the dead floating in the water and appropriated their lifejackets for survivors who had none. Hoping to keep some semblance of order, survivors began forming groups—some small, some over 300—in the open water. Soon enough they would be staving off exposure, thirst—and sharks.
The animals were drawn by the sound of the explosions, the sinking of the ship and the thrashing and blood in the water. Though many species of shark live in the open water, none is considered as aggressive as the oceanic whitetip. Reports from the Indianapolis survivors indicate that the sharks tended to attack live victims close to the surface, leading historians to believe that most of the shark-related causalities came from oceanic whitetips.
The first night, the sharks focused on the floating dead. But the survivors’ struggles in the water only attracted more and more sharks, which could feel their motions through a biological feature known as a lateral line: receptors along their bodies that pick up changes in pressure and movement from hundreds of yards away. As the sharks turned their attentions toward the living, especially the injured and the bleeding, sailors tried to quarantine themselves away from anyone with an open wound, and when someone died, they would push the body away, hoping to sacrifice the corpse in return for a reprieve from a shark’s jaw. Many survivors were paralyzed with fear, unable even to eat or drink from the meager rations they had salvaged from their ship. One group of survivors made the mistake of opening a can of Spam—but before they could taste it, the scent of the meat drew a swarm of sharks around them. They got rid of their meat rations rather than risk a second swarming.
The sharks fed for days, with no sign of rescue for the men. Navy intelligence had intercepted a message from the Japanese submarine that had torpedoed the Indianapolis describing how it had sunk an American battleship along the Indianapolis’ route, but the message was disregarded as a trick to lure American rescue boats into an ambush. In the meantime, the Indianapolis survivors learned that they had the best odds in a group, and ideally in the center of the group. The men on the margins or, worse, alone, were the most susceptible to the sharks.
As the days passed, many survivors succumbed to heat and thirst, or suffered hallucinations that compelled them to drink the seawater around them—a sentence of death by salt poisoning. Those who so slaked their thirst would slip into madness, foaming at the mouth as their tongues and lips swelled. They often became as great a threat to the survivors as the sharks circling below—many dragged their comrades underwater with them as they died.
After 11:00 a.m. on their fourth day in the water, a Navy plane flying overhead spotted the Indianapolis survivors and radioed for help. Within hours, another seaplane, manned by Lieutenant Adrian Marks, returned to the scene and dropped rafts and survival supplies. When Marks saw men being attacked by sharks, he disobeyed orders and landed in the infested waters, and then began taxiing his plane to help the wounded and stragglers, who were at the greatest risk. A little after midnight, the USS Doyle arrived on the scene and helped to pull the last survivors from the water. Of the Indianapolis’ original 1,196-man crew, only 317 remained. Estimates of the number who died from shark attacks range from a few dozen to almost 150. It’s impossible to be sure. But either way, the ordeal of the Indianapolis survivors remains the worst maritime disaster in U.S. naval history.
Sources: Richard Bedser. Ocean of Fear: Worst Shark Attack Ever [Documentary]. Discovery Channel: United States, 2007; Cathleen Bester. “Oceanic Whitetip Shark,” On the Florida Museum of Natural History. Accessed August 7, 2013; Nick Collins. “Oceanic whitetip shark: ten facts,” On Telegraph UK, December 6, 2010. Accessed August 6, 2013; Tom Harris. “How Sharks Work,” On How Stuff Works, March 30, 2001. Accessed August 6, 2013; Alex Last. “USS Indianapolis sinking: ‘You could see sharks circling’” on BBC News Magazine, July 28, 2013. Accessed August 6, 2013; Raymond B. Leach. The Tragic Fate of the USS Indianapolis. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000; Marc Nobleman. The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis. North Mankato, MN: Capstone Publishers, 2006; “Oral History -The Sinking of USS Indianapolis,” On Naval Historical Center, September 1, 1999. Accessed August 7, 2013; “The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis, 1945.” On Eyewitness to History, 2006. Accessed August 6, 2013; Doug Stanton. In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors. New York, NY: Macmillan, 2003; “The Story.” On the USS Indianapolis CA-35, March 1998. Accessed August 6, 2013; Jennifer Viegas. “Worst Shark Attack,” On Discovery Channel. Accessed August 6, 2013.