A cartoon drawing of Huber, a tuberculosis germ, riding a cough droplet with his friends.

Huber the Tuber, 1943

By Steven Heller ~

Originally published in Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine, 2011.

A cartoon drawing of Huber, a tuberculosis germ, riding a cough droplet with his friends.
Huber the tuber and his associates ride cough droplets to the next human victim, in Huber the Tuber, 1944
National Library of Medicine #101598672
Courtesy American Lung Association

Tuberculosis attracted considerable attention from artists and writers. Along with syphilis and polio it was so rampant that cautionary visual messages appeared in myriad public places, from offices to restrooms. A wall in my third-grade classroom routinely displayed public health flyers, pamphlets, and posters—some benign, others nightmarishly frightening. They were specters of horror that left mental scars on an impressionable little me.

In the “Crusade Against TB,” tuberculosis was often symbolized by hooded demons or skeletons. They were not pleasant to look at but did the job of raising awareness. Yet not every anti-TB product was scary. The logo for TB, the cross with the double horizontal crossbars, was a friendly brand. Even friendlier was Huber the Tuber, a Story of Tuberculosis, which was conceived, drawn, and written for the National Tuberculosis Association in 1943 by Dr. Harry Wilmer (1917–2005), who was then recovering from his own bout with tuberculosis. This entertaining little illustrated book stars Huber, an anthropomorphic tubercle (a lung nodule caused by the Mycobacterium tuberculosis), who goes on a series of adventures in “The Promised Land ‘o’ Lung.” In the course of his escapades he gets caught up in a war that looks suspiciously like the one then raging in Europe and Asia and meets up with Nasty von Sputum, Rusty the Bloodyvitch, and Huey the Long Tuber (a reference to Senator Huey Long). And the reader gets otherwise serious lessons about the causes, diagnosis, pathology, and treatment of tuberculosis.

A few years later Wilmer created a companion volume, Corky the Killer, a Story of Syphilis, for the American Social Hygiene Association, an anti–venereal disease advocacy group. Time magazine described Corky as “a slightly bawdy blend of fact and fancy that seeks by cartoons and comic-strip dialogue to tell about the syphilis spirochete and how it works.”

Two cartoon drawings of Corky, a screw shaped syphilis germ and his friends showing them hiding, and planning an attack.
Corky the Killer and friends contemplate locating a snug place in their victim’s body where they will be secure from attack by the body’s dog-faced defenders in Corky the Killer, 1945
National Library of Medicine #101598673
Courtesy the National Social Hygiene Association

The villain is Corky, a nasty 1/3,000th of an inch tall, with a corkscrew body (characteristic of the spirochete), a nose like a golf tee, and spindly legs. He is the leader of a band of syphilitic saboteurs and the Mayor of Chancretown, whose anthem is “Down by the Old Blood Stream.” Dodging anti-syphilitic “magic bullets” (the drug Salvarsan, developed by Paul Ehrlich), Corky makes a mad dash through “Man World” and latches on to the first blood cell that floats by. Soon he rejoins his fellow saboteurs, who love to cause nasty skin eruptions (chancres). Eventually caught, he is brought to trial and, after losing his case, sentenced to the Soap and Water Chamber of Torture, where he is scrubbed to death. The moral of the story: syphilis can be prevented or cured, if caught early and treated appropriately.

Two cartoon drawings of Huber, a tuberculosis germ showing a skeletal figure in the lungs and a battle between the bodies defense and the germs.
Huber the Tuber and his associates find lodging in a victim’s lungs in Huber the Tuber, 1944
National Library of Medicine #101598674
Courtesy American Lung Association

Wilmer, a passable pen-and-ink draftsman in Huber, greatly improved his craft in Corky. But somehow the drawings in Huber, which look like doodles, are more effective. Both books have a bit of magic in them: the health message is subordinated to the sheer joy of visual storytelling. Like the best illustrated children’s books—and graphic novels and animated cartoons—each creates an imaginative universe that refers back to the real world with wit, humor, and insight.

Steven Heller, author and editor of more than 130 books on graphic design, satiric art, and popular culture, is co-founder and co-chair of the MFA Designer as Author program at the School of Visual Arts, New York. He is also co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism, MFA in Interaction Design, MFA Social Documentary Film, and MPS Branding programs. He writes the “Visuals” column for the Book Review and “Graphic Content” for the T-Style/ The Moment blog.

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