Capturing epidemics

Photographs by Nicolai Howalt

13.11.20 – 16.05.21

Grams farvemetode

Nicolai Howalt / Courtesy Martin Asbæk Gallery

About the exhibition

When epidemics break out we experience a fundamental loss of control. From Pandora’s box to the contemporary corona crisis, we have viewed epidemics as unruly, dangerous forces breaking free.

For centuries, science has worked to control and curb these forces. By pinpointing causes of diseases, it has tried to attack the epidemic loss of bodily and societal control at the root. In the case of the plague, cholera and tuberculosis, disease was caused by bacteria.

In the second half of the 19th century, these and many  other bacteria were successfully isolated as causes of particular diseases. On microscope slides, microbes became visible, manageable and real. They were captured in tubes and flasks. The methods we use, however, when epidemics strike are still the simple actions from before the microbes were made visible: Isolating and quarantining diseased bodies, cleaning and airing out.

In a series of photographs of historical objects from the collections of Medical Museion, Nicolai Howalt captures encounters between science and epidemics. The works fix – in the same manner as the blobs of bacteria substrate on the slides – surfaces of contact between disease and science. They unite microbes, history and the scientific attempt to capture epidemics in a set of single images.

On this page, you can see some of the objects from the exhibition. Click the pictures to see them in a large format.

Photographies from the exhibition

Vaccine against fowl cholera
The first vaccine produced in a laboratory was against fowl cholera. In the second half of the 19th century, it was discovered that bacteria were the cause of a number of diseases. In the microscopes, the bacteria became visible, manageable and real. In this picture, you can see a microscope slide with fowl cholera. Outbreaks of fowl cholera usually arose in cold, wet weather in fowl runs, where rats and mice could be found. The microbiologist Louis Pasteur studied the disease in the 1880s and did experiements, where he swabbed chickens with the disease. By giving the chickens attenuated virus, they became immune. He developed the vaccine against fowl cholera in 1880, anthrax in 1881 and rabies in 1885. Today, Pasteur is probably most wellknown for giving name to pasteurized eggs.

Grams mikroskop
Gram’s microscope
This microscope was used by the bacteriologisk Hans Christian Gram in his researc in the 19th century. Gram discovered a colouring technique for microscopy, which separated all bacteria into two groups: the gram-postive and the gram-negative. The same type of microscope was used by other researchers at the end of the 19th century to make pathogenic bacteria visible.

Vaccine against smallpox
Here is an early form of smallpox vaccine. Secretion from infected cows was transported in thin glass tubes and transferred to healthy human beings through a small incision in the arm. This was the first systematic vaccine and was introduced in Denmark in 1810, after farmers and researchers discovered, that infection with the harmless disease cowpox protected against the feared epidemic disease smallpox. The word vaccination originates in the latin vacca, meaning ‘cow’. In 1980, smallpox – as one of very few epidemic diseases in world history – was declared eradicated.

Cholera bottle

The cholera bottle is one of the most important objects in the museum. The glass bottle contains so-called ‘rice water’ – the watery, white diarrhea which characterizes a cholera infection. On the label is written “Intestinal secretion from patient with advanced cholera, October 1853” – with the pleasant addition “got well”. Despite the rather unsentimental text, the bottle captures the suffering of the patient as well as the scientific attempt to encapsulate and understand the disease.

Microscope Slide
Methyl violet, carbol fuchsin, aniline blue and Sudan red. Here, a microscope slide can be seen. Through different dyeing techniques, different properties and functions of the microbes and infected tissue are highlighted.
Epidemic stretcher from the 19th century.
Isolation is a important tool in the battle against epidemics. We have the word isolation from the Italian word isola (an island). In the picture, you can see an epidemic stretcher from the 19th century. Here, infected persons could be transported without infecting healthy people and, at the same time, they could be protected from the prying eyes of the public. One of the techniques by which medical science has attempted to limit epidemics is by isolating the ill from the healthy. 
Microscope slides in box
Epidemics – from plague to cholera and from smallpox to Covid-19 – are complex. They attack individuals as well as whole societies. Bacteria and viruses are always evolving and finding new ways to start an outbreak. To control the epidemics, medical science attempts different ways to capture, contain and get smarter.  To enclose the infected matter in bottles and tubes. To reveal bacteria and render them visible under the light of the microscope. Here is a box of microscope slides with bacteria. The box was used for education and contains tissue and samples of bacteria, that infect people and animals. Here, disease is under control.

Behind the exhibition

Photographs: Nicolai Howalt / Courtesy Martin Asbæk Gallery
Curating and concept: Karin Tybjerg, Helene Scott-Fordsmand & Kristine Frøsig Moseholm
Object handling: Nanna Gerdes, Line Camilla Forsberg & Maiken Ploug Riisom
Object selection: Ion Meyer
Exhibition production: Niels Christian Bech Vilstrup, Malthe Kouassi Bjerregaard, Nanna Gerdes & Nicolai Howalt
Graphic design: Bente Stensen Christensen & Anne-Sofie Stampe
Producer: Karin Tybjerg
Supported by Povl M. Assens Fond, Plethora Magazine, CBMR Novo Nordisk