We live in a time of New York Triumphalism—it is hard to avoid the celebratory tone and the accompanying music that rehearses New York’s being the World City that dazzles and amazes. It was not always thus. Cities like New York in the 18th and 19th century were places where people died with alarming regularity as outbreaks of cholera, influenza, small pox, yellow fever and diphtheria killed thousands in seemingly unstoppable waves. Doctors, scientists, reformers and of course the clergy struggled to understand such devastation.
Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis at the Museum of The City of New York walks the viewer into an ever-widening glade of understanding and an appreciation of the eventual success which came as scientists began to grapple with the fact that the microscopic could be deadly. Practitioners and city public health offices were forced to abandon their inherited theory of disease—bodily humors balanced by bleeding and emetics—as the appropriate approach. Instead they began to learn how to deal with the specifics of various afflictions. Disease was no longer a matter of puckish humor; it was a specific ailment that happened in specific ways.