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and a new group of professionals participated in it: commercial artists, graphic designers, marketers, consultants. By the early 20th century, a riot of images festooned the walls, kiosks, and streets of Europe and North America.

The spread of the health poster

Syphilis: A million new victims each year. U.S. Public Health Service, United States, mid-1940s. A dark hand opens a calendar to reveal a photograph of a swarming crowd. Underneath, the outline of an amoebalike blob overlays a shadowy field of red.As health departments, philanthropies and political health advocacy groups organized and professionalized, they took on the mission of changing public behavior, gaining funding and mustering political support. To educate and alert the public, they adopted the tactic of wallpostering in conjunction with lectures, pamphlets, exhibition displays, health mobiles, slide shows, films, and other media.

A contagion of icons

The result was a proliferation of health posters, and a proliferation of visually compelling images of disease and disease agents — which became a distinctive practice of the modern health campaign. Health posters spoke in the idiom of the larger visual culture of graphic design, using artists and designers who worked for magazines, newspapers, and advertising agencies. Outside Europe and North America, public health authorities and advocacy groups also commissioned posters, which combined imported cultural elements with indigenous elements, shaped by local political and economic conditions.

Michael Sappol, PhD
National Library of Medicine