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Brooklyn Historical Society exhibit explores the meaning of sickness and health

The Red Hook Health Center in Brooklyn in 1920.
The Red Hook Health Center in Brooklyn in 1920. (Library of Congress)
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From the smallpox that wiped out Brooklyn’s indigenous residents to more modern battles over sanitation and public health, disease has played an important role in the borough.

For centuries, Brooklynites have searched for — and sometimes found — health care. And along the way, they’ve explored different meanings of both sickness and health.

Taking Care of Brooklyn: Stories of Sickness and Health,” a new exhibition at the Brooklyn Historical Society, looks at both sides of that coin. The exhibition, at the BHS through June 2022, looks at all facets of health in Brooklyn, from early battles over vaccination to modern calls for better access to birth control. It draws on real stories and documents to outline that history — one that has been fraught with questions of how to stem disease, promote health and distribute resources.

Brooklyn had long been home to a group called the Lenape, and an early Dutch visitor, Jasper Danckaerts, observed that the area’s native people were “melting away rapidly,” often because of smallpox, in the 1680s. The exhibition uses Danckaerts’s writing as a launchpad for a segment on how the disease displaced the Lenape.

From there, it shows how Brooklyn’s fortunes — and history — developed alongside such diseases as yellow fever and tuberculosis and public health issues, including sanitation and lead poisoning. The exhibition also delves into the people who tried to help Brooklynites’ health, including pioneering African American female doctors as well as nurses and activists who agitated for reform.

A healthy lineup of events will keep the exhibition alive long after its debut. The society’s calendar includes talks on HIV/AIDS and food deserts, among other topics.

Can’t make it to Brooklyn? Tune into “Flatbush + Main,” the BHS podcast. Several recent episodes of the podcast have examined historical health issues and covered topics such as nursing in Vietnam, female doctors and cholera.

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