W. Eugene Smith’s Germ-Free Animals

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W. Eugene Smith, [Man in protective helmet and rubber gloves holding mouse, Laboratories of Bacteriology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana], 1949 (1519.2005)

The American photojournalist William Eugene Smith (1918-1978) is, amid other things, known for his major photo-essays for Life magazine that he photographed between 1947 and 1957. Among these are some of Smith’s most influential and important works. Besides the famous photo-essays “Country Doctor,” “Spanish Village,” and “Nurse Midwife” he made a series of an experimental program in bacteriology at the University of Notre Dame’s Germ-Free Laboratory in Indiana in 1949.

With my background in culture, art history, and film and photographic studies, I have absolutely no knowledge of laboratory practices, bacteriology experiments, or even germ-free animals for that matter. Perhaps because I’m not a proponent of animal experiments, W. Eugene Smith’s photographs of the animals in his photo-essay “Life Without Germs”  immediately stoked my attention. After doing a little research I found out that germ-free animals are animals without any microorganisms because they are raised within germ-free isolators. By doing so, the scientists can control the animals’ exposure to viral, bacterial, or parasitic agents. In fact, germ-free life was a prominent topic of discussion in post-World War II medical, scientific, and popular discourses, but eventually played a significant role in bone-marrow treatment for leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease, the prevention of colon cancer, and the use of nutrition in preventing prostate cancer.

The photo-essay, “Life Without Germs,” was published in the September 26, 1949 issue of  Life. John Kinsella’s poem, “Beyond W. Eugene Smith’s Photographic Essay Life Without Germs,” is another way of describing the lab Smith photographed.

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W. Eugene Smith, [Technician removing germless monkey from sterile chamber to study how it will react to harmless microbes and adapt to normal life, Laboratories of Bacteriology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana], 1949 (1518.2005)

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W. Eugene Smith, [Baby chick in jar being fed deficient diet to determine which vitamins essential to its survival, Laboratories of Bacteriology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana], 1949 (1517.2005)

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W. Eugene Smith, [Attendant weighing week-old kitten who is sealed for life in chamber to show how animals age without disease, Laboratories of Bacteriology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana], 1949 (1514.2005)

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W. Eugene Smith, [Blood sample being taken from a monkey raised in germ free environment to find out how it differs in immunity from other animals, Laboratories of Bacteriology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana], 1949 (1520.2005)

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About Renske van Leeuwen

Intern Collections at the International Center of Photography, New York and MA student Film & Photographic Studies at Leiden University, the Netherlands.
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