By Erika Mills ~
In 1970, the National Library of Medicine featured an exhibition about pollution called The Darkening Day. The modern environmental movement had gotten underway in the years prior, as the public learned more about the harms of pollution through popular media and scientists and government agencies worked to address the detrimental health effects of pollutants. The exhibition showcased a selection of historical collection items, as well as contemporary publications and photographs of pollution, to reflect scientists’ and thinkers’ concerns about environmental health in the past and present. NLM is revisiting that 1970 display with a new online exhibition: Fifty Years Ago: The Darkening Day.
Fifty Years Ago highlights examples of the environmental health research, programs and policies, public messaging, and action taken by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare and federal scientists from the Public Health Service leading up to 1970. The exhibition includes some NLM collection items featured in the 1970 display and complements the history explored in Darkening Day: Air Pollution Films and Environmental Awareness, 1960–1972, a critical examination of six public health films from NLM’s historical audiovisuals collection that is part of Medicine on Screen: Films and Essays from NLM.
Here are some highlights from the exhibition:
Uranium mining on Navajo lands in the Four Corners region of the Southwestern United States has had devastating and long-lasting health impacts. From the 1940s to the 1980s, companies mined millions of tons of uranium ore that the federal government purchased primarily to make nuclear weapons, then abandoned the mines once demand for uranium waned, leaving behind dangerous radioactive waste. Many people in the area have suffered and continue to suffer from cancers, kidney failure, respiratory disease, and other illnesses connected to radiation and mining work. Even today, nearly 40 years after the mining stopped, the CDC reports uranium in area babies.
The Public Health Service (PHS) produced, reprinted, and distributed pollution-related educational films and publications to raise awareness of environmental dangers. These materials were made available to schools and other academic institutions and through government repositories that offered free access to the general public.
PHS pamphlets like this one encouraged citizens to organize and mobilize in their communities to promote a healthier environment.
To explore the history presented in FIfty Years Ago: The Darkening Day, visit the exhibition online.
Erika Mills is part of the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.