30 Years of AIDS: 6,200 Iconic Posters, 100 Countries, 1 Collector

Meet the 85-year-old doctor responsible for the largest collection of AIDS posters and view 30 historic images from all over the world

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Dr. Edward Atwater didn't realize it then but he wasn't just amassing ephemera when he began assembling the world's largest collection of AIDS posters decades ago. He was documenting 30 years of medical, social, and visual history.

More than 6,200 posters in 60 languages from 100-plus countries later, the retired 85-year-old physician is now sharing these artifacts through an online catalog produced by the University of Rochester, where he worked most of his life as a professor of medicine. Though some of these prints had been exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and other sites, this is the first time the collection is available to the public in its entirety -- or at least that's the end goal as fewer than 2,000 have been uploaded thus far.

In the gallery below, witness the evolution of AIDS rhetoric in the 30 years since the discovery of HIV. Then, in the very candid Q&A with Atwater that follows, read about the challenges he faced as a doctor and collector, and how figures like former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and President Reagan shaped the messages of these iconic posters, whether they liked it or not.


What prompted you to collect AIDS posters?

I saw an orange poster that showed two disembodied hands opening a condom wrapper when I was riding the red line, the one that runs from true Boston to Harvard. I thought that was remarkable. It was about 1990, and, when I was in medical school 35 years earlier, it was illegal to teach anything about contraception. The one lecture we had, I recall vividly, they made a lot of hoop-de-doo. We closed the doors and acted as if the police were about to raid the place. In those days, that was illegal and forbidden, and so I thought that poster was really striking. I went home, called the public health department, and said, "Could you send me some of these posters?" And they did. That's how I started.

I thought it was a very interesting, important type of ephemera. I very soon learned that they weren't important as a history of medicine. They were far more important as social history. If you look at a whole lot of the posters, you will see how different countries approached the subject. Here you're dealing with a new disease, dealing with the closeted subject of sex, and it was really amazing to see the variation from country to country and even from groups within a country. To me, that's by far the most striking thing about the collection.

Fighting a global scourge. A special report

Generally speaking, in the United States, the posters were less interesting because they had to be neutral. They had to be careful not to offend some group or some sensibility so the best American posters were usually put up by private organizations. Abroad, that wasn't quite as true. There were some good ones that the CDC put out. One shows a young woman sitting on a chair dressed from the waist down, her legs are crossed, and it says, "A sure way not to get AIDS." Another one, my children's favorite, shows a young man and woman necking through the back window of a car. It says, "Vanessa was in a fatal car accident last night. Only she doesn't know it yet."

But in Iceland, they had a couple posters with dozens of prominent entertainers and political figures doing something silly with a condom. Can you imagine Barbara Bush doing something silly with a condom on a poster? It shows what people in Iceland were willing to do [for the cause] that people here I don't think were willing to do. I don't think Barbara Bush would feel comfortable doing something silly with a condom. I'm sure Mrs. Reagan wouldn't. The point is, generally, in Europe they're more open.

About what?

About sex and condoms. And about what people actually do in life as opposed to keeping it all under wraps as we used to.

1iceland i-MTtPCS9-X3.jpg Why is this collection important for people to see now?

Well, I'm not sure it's necessary for people to see it. I think the reason they're promoting it right now is because it's the 30th anniversary. It's just something that the University [of Rochester] acquired and probably wants to get some notice for. I don't know.

There's still a lot of AIDS around but I don't think posters are being used so much [to inform people]. Most people know about AIDS nowadays. Back when the posters were being made, it was a way to get information out to a broad number of people.

How did the message of the posters evolve through the years?

Originally, they were trying to reach everybody because nobody knew anything. You had a very diverse audience. The very initial message, which was before I started to collect posters, was to raise funds for research. Then, of course, it was about prevention, which at first meant abstinence because that was all they knew. There were also posters to make people not scared that said you won't get it from shaking hands, working with people who have AIDS, drinking from a public water fountain, or kissing -- specific posters about how you will not catch AIDS. They were trying to reassure people.

And then after they discovered the virus, a test for infection, and that condoms gave some protection -- that was really the sea change. There were still posters promoting abstinence and other things, but the vast majority of posters after 1984 or 1985 were promoting the use of condoms.

The watershed was October 1986 when Surgeon General [C. Everett] Koop published his AIDS report. That totally changed the picture. That was the beginning of a huge outpouring of posters all over the world, not just the United States. He really made [it acceptable] to talk about using condoms. If you look at The New York Times, the word "condom" I don't think appeared until the mid 1980s. I may be mistaken but it certainly didn't appear very early.

Could you talk more about Dr. Koop and his impact?

He was a very fine man, and he left a great legacy. I went to a conference in Washington several years ago now, 15 probably, about AIDS at the National Library of Medicine. Surgeon General Koop was one of the speakers. He said that, in cabinet meetings, there were two circles of people. There's the first team that sits around the table and the second team that sits behind, around the edge of the room. Mr. Reagan was sitting at the head of the table, and he never mentioned AIDS publicly for quite a while. This would have been around the spring of 1986, five years after the epidemic started. [In one meeting,] Mr. Reagan announced that he had instructed the surgeon general to issue a report on AIDS. Dr. Koop was sitting in the back row and he said, "It was lucky that I was awake and listening because that was the first I heard about it." In all the years he was surgeon general, Mr. Reagan never spoke directly to him, which I found just unbelievable.

So he listened, and he issued a report in October 1986 that was very different from what Mr. Reagan had hoped for. As I said, it blew the lid off the thing and it made a sea change in the approach to AIDS worldwide. He said it's best to be abstinent but the only protection you have right now is using condoms. That was the essence of the message. That would rank along with discovering the virus and discovering a test for the virus, I think.

And it's still a valid message today.

Oh, absolutely. But, of course, Mr. Reagan wasn't too pleased with that.

What do you think did he have in mind when he asked for that report?

I think the Reagans' approach about most things was "just say no." If you remember Mrs. Reagan speaking of drugs, her advice to people taking drugs was "just say no." That's a fine idea but it just doesn't work. It's like telling people who smoke not to smoke. If you're hooked, you're hooked.

The government was really dragging its feet because it started out as a gay disease. When we have a flu epidemic, there's no waiting.

So he wanted an abstinence approach as opposed to a harm-reduction or prevention approach?

That would be my guess, yes. I'm not sure, but that was certainly their general attitude.

Some of the posters are really heated. Could you talk more about the climate back then?

They needed to be that way because the government was really dragging its feet, especially Mr. Reagan, and there was this major epidemic growing in the United States. I'm sure it probably had something to do with the fact that it started out as a gay disease, and that was not a topic that was generally spoken about in public. When we have a flu epidemic, there's no waiting. They're right on top of it the minute the first case appears. But now our attitude has changed considerably so I don't think that would be true today. Stuff we see on TV now is totally different from stuff we saw 50 years ago or even 30 years ago. It reminds me of a story a few years ago about the young man who went into the drugstore and said, "[shouts] Give me a pack of condoms [whispers] and a pack of cigarettes."

And before it was the other way around.

Yes, I guess you can say that.

Who were these posters intended for?

To be perfectly honest, I have never figured out exactly whom they were addressing. I know whom they think they were addressing just from looking at the posters, but I saw very few posters posted. I'm sure that the gay posters were probably put up in gay bars and bathhouses and places like that, but there were an awful lot of posters that weren't gay posters. In fact, the majority were not, and I rarely saw them anywhere. And this is true not only in this country but in other countries as well. Either they didn't get posters or I didn't go to places where there were posters.

Do you have a favorite poster?

My favorites were the ones that used humor and double entendres. There was a pair of posters I came by two to three years ago that I thought were wonderfully subtle and catchy. They're about the size of a typewriter page. One of them shows a blue rooster and the other one shows a cat on it. Underneath the first poster, it says, "COVER YOUR" and nothing else. For the cat, it says, "PROTECT YOUR" and nothing else.

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Images displayed were shared by the University of Rochester's Rare Books and Special Collections Library.


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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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