Office Artifacts: David Barnes

We visited the associate professor of history and sociology of science to discover the stories behind his favorite office items.

Friday, August 19, 2016

By Brooke Sietinsons


Photo credit: Brooke Sietinsons



1. Germ Farm: I have been studying disease-causing microbes and the Bacteriological Revolution from a historical perspective for about thirty years. My wife discovered the Giant Microbes line of plush toys a while back, and built a display shelf for them. My collection has grown over the years, most recently when one of my students wrote a thesis on the beginnings of water filtration in Philadelphia and realized that typhoid fever was inexplicably missing from the lineup!

2. Carbolic Acid Spray Device (and Listerine): Beginning in the late 1860s, English surgeon Joseph Lister began to experiment with “antisepsis” in his Glasgow hospital wards, using a carbolic acid solution to kill what he thought were infection-causing germs on surgical instruments and around the surgical wound. This is a circa 1890s French version of the device Lister and his team invented to spray the solution throughout the surgical field during operations. I always keep a bottle of Listerine next to it to remind me and my students of the many cultural resonances that Lister and antisepsis have acquired over the years.

3. Pandemic board game: Pandemic is a cooperative board game in which players take on various roles and team up to limit the spread of several diseases around the world. I especially appreciate this game because of its cooperative rather than competitive nature and because it was a gift from two of our department’s fabulous doctoral students, who worked with me as teaching assistants for two years in my history of medicine survey.

4. Yellow fever odor bottles: For a Philadelphia Science Festival event about yellow fever and the city’s historic Lazaretto quarantine station a few years ago, I wanted visitors to gain a visceral appreciation for the experience of an epidemic—but only if they chose to. I gave nineteenth-century descriptions of the odor of yellow fever patients’ bodies and the odor of the disease’s most distinctive symptom (“black vomit”) to the scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. They mixed up chemical cocktails that approximated these descriptions, and conveniently confined them in these squeeze bottles, so that only willing volunteers were subject to this unique historical experience!

5. Smallpox and Its Eradication: In its 31 chapters and 1,500 pages, this limited edition World Health Organization publication catalogues every aspect of smallpox, from history and epidemiology to pathology and virology. The heart of the book is the remarkable story of the WHO’s Smallpox Eradication Program (1967-1977), which depended for its success not only on technical advances but also on geopolitical cooperation. Although the eradication of individual diseases is in my view generally not an effective way of improving overall population health, the long war against smallpox still has much to teach us.