- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 14, 2001

The deadly smallpox virus was considered the primary epidemic threat in 17th- and 18th-century America, according to a new free exhibit at the Lyceum in Old Town Alexandria.
"To Your Health; A History of Medicine and Disease in Alexandria," which runs through March 25, explains that smallpox fortunately could be kept at bay with an inoculation. However, Jim Crow practices restricted that inoculation to white people.
A wave of the virus crashed on the East Coast in 1871. That year, the disease spread from the District across the river to Alexandria, where almost all of its victims were black, the exhibit shows.
Alexandria is one of Virginia's oldest cities, the town-house-lined streets of Old Town are rich with culture and history. The exhibit at the Lyceum, which is Alexandria's history museum, chronicles issues of public health that the city and the nation have faced during the past three centuries.
The link between past and present is especially evident in the exhibit's section on epidemics, says Lyceum Director James C. Mackay III.
"What strikes me is that we think of big public-health issues as something from the past," he says. "However, they're still very much a part of our lives today with diseases such as West Nile [virus] and AIDS."
Formal tracking of AIDS patients began in 1982, the same year the first cases of infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, were diagnosed in Alexandria. The numbers are sobering. More than 700 people were diagnosed with HIV in the city through March 2000, a display tells visitors. This rate reflects the highest percentage per 100,000 people of any Northern Virginia community.
Another display examines sanitation and its role in illness. Many people don't realize that in days gone by, most drinking water came from a hole in the ground that frequently was located near a privy or other contaminated underground source.
Dysentery, a disease caused by infection and characterized by severe diarrhea, was an unhappy consequence of poor sanitation. The disease reached epidemic proportions in many areas. One display reads: "Many children would not make it through their first summer, as dysentery would make its annual sweep through the community, taking as many as 100 children every season."
Improvements in sanitary conditions, including development of a central water system in Alexandria during the 1850s, drastically curtailed dysentery.
Along with its facts and figures, the 100-foot-square exhibit space houses an impressive collection of medical artifacts. These include an 1860 surgical kit, courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md., complete with amputation knives and picks. A 1900 intubation kit contains tools used to assist patients with breathing difficulties; help was administered by sliding a tube down a patient's throat usually in the privacy of their own homes.
A list of patients' rules from the Alexandria infirmary includes admonitions against swearing or abusive language, spitting and card playing. A small leather doctor's bag and stethoscope, circa 1960, are a reminder of the days when house calls were the norm.
For many of Alexandria's residents, however, the norm was no care.
"A large part of the population African Americans was underserved for a long time," Mr. Mackay says. "Alexandria didn't get a community hospital until the 1870s. It was a long time after that until blacks got any care."
The exhibit includes a portrait of Dr. Albert Johnson (1866-1949), the first black physician to practice in Alexandria.
Alexandria resident Pat Sowers, quietly reading the displays, calls the exhibit "just fascinating." She says: "I've always been interested in 18th-century medicine, so I wanted to come in and see."
Mrs. Sowers is co-owner of a local business called the Little Maids of History, for which she writes, directs and produces living-history programs. She says she visits the Lyceum several times a month. The "To Your Health" exhibit "answers a lot of questions of the how and why in health care."

When you go:

• LOCATION: The Lyceum is in Old Town Alexandria. The address is 201 S. Washington St. To get there, take the George Washington Parkway south into Old Town, where it will become Washington Street. Cross King Street. The museum is on the right-hand side, at the corner of Washington and Prince streets. A free parking lot containing 16 spaces is located out front. Plenty of on-street parking is available as well.

• HOURS: Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.


• INFORMATION: 703/838-4554

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