19th-century etching depicting a crowd of "poor people" waiting to receive the smallpox vaccination. A doctor in a frock coat stands right, giving an injection to a man with his sleeve rolled up.
“Vaccinating the poor” Harpers Weekly, March 16, 1872. Etching drawn by Sol Eytinge Jr. (1833-1905) This image depicts a diverse group of Americans getting free smallpox vaccinations at a police station house in New York City. Free smallpox vaccinations were available throughout the city at police station houses at the time. Credit: Courtesy IMSS and James R. Wilke

Last Sunday, stuffed with antibiotics, numbed by painkillers, and facing a date with an oral surgeon the next morning, I made my way to the International Museum of Surgical Science for an artist’s talk by James R. Wilke.

It’s not the best way to visit this unique repository for the medical devices of yesteryear, but it did result in heightened attention to the skulls of folks who had their headaches cured by drilling holes in them, braces straight out of medieval torture chambers, and mural-sized artworks commemorating antique C-sections and amputations, blood and all. This very interesting place, housed in a 1917 landmark mansion on DuSable Lake Shore Drive, is not for the faint of heart.

“Pox Americana”
Through 8/28 at the International Museum of Surgical Science, 1524 N. DuSable Lake Shore Dr., Mon-Fri 9:30 AM-5 PM, Sat-Sun 10 AM-5 PM, imss.org, $18 ($14 seniors, students, educators, and military with ID, $10 children 4-13, children under 3 free)

Wilke, a multifaceted artist—actor, singer, composer, lyricist, puppeteer, director (with a regional Emmy on his résumé), producer, miniaturist—but primarily a writer, was the museum’s spring artist-in-residence this year. Sunday’s lecture (served up with wine and a demonstration of his mellifluous baritenor) was the capstone event of his residency projects, which included the completion of a play, a novel, and the creation of an exhibit, with smallpox as a common focus. The exhibit, “Pox Americana,” up through August 28, occupies two rooms of the museum. On the main floor, it consists of a series of handsome text panels laying out the long, global history of the disease. The second room, up three flights of stairs and through a warren of galleries on the fourth floor, has more text panels, fleshed out with art and artifacts like 19th-century etchings making it clear that anti-vaxxers are nothing new.  

The parallels to COVID were top of mind from the beginning, Wilke says, though he aimed for viewers to come to that conclusion themselves: “I didn‘t want to hit them over the head with it.” But he had no way of knowing, when he started work on the residency projects in February, that another virus would soon make the subject of smallpox directly relevant.

That’s because there’s no vaccine exclusively developed for MPV, which both the World Health Organization and the Biden administration have declared a public health emergency. The two used for it are smallpox vaccines. And of those two, ACAM2000, which the U.S. had stockpiled in mass quantity, turned out to not be the safest for the population with the most monkeypox cases so far—men who have sex with men, a significant number of them dealing with HIV.

The other vaccine, Jynneos—which requires a two-shot regimen, 28 days apart—is suddenly in such high demand and short supply that, earlier this month, the U.S. government authorized cutting the dose to one-fifth of what it had been. The reduced dosage is said to be effective if injected in the skin instead of the layer of fat beneath it—a procedure also said to be more difficult to execute.

In his talk last weekend, Wilke said smallpox, which we know has been around since roughly 10,000 BC, “may have been the most deadly disease in human history,” decimating America’s Indigenous population and killing a half billion people in just the final 100 years of its long reign. Thanks to vaccination, WHO declared the world free of it in 1980, making it, Wilke says, “the first-ever globally eradicated human disease.”  

Wilke’s other residency projects include a young adult novel, Spiritania, intended to be the first in a series (it’ll have a launch at the museum November 17), and a play he wrote that’s an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s 2008 novel, A Mercy. Wilke, who once gave up a life in art for a career as a CPA, noted that Morrison’s story, set in the 17th century, tells of Africans in America who brought with them the knowledge of inoculation—the introduction of a small amount of matter from a smallpox pustule into the bloodstream—the technique that eventually led to the invention of vaccines.

But with the eradication of smallpox in the 20th century, routine vaccination for it was abandoned. The result: several generations of humanity more vulnerable than their grandparents to monkeypox.

In June, when Wilke had to finalize his text for this exhibit, he had a question: “Are we on the cusp of yet another serious pandemic from monkeypox?” He didn’t foresee, he says now, how quickly whatever he wrote then would be out of date.