Entering the central rotunda of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, formerly known as the Museum of Man according to the plaque outside the door, I was struck by the din. The din of Man. More accurately, the din of women, men, and tons of children. It’s early summer, and tourists from around the world swarm in looking for a break from the heat, and maybe something new to ponder on the way.
My grandparents used to bring me here when I was a child, and it strikes me that the sound in that great hall is the same, decades later. All our voices bouncing off each other, echoing around the marble, domed chamber. Babies crying, toddlers laughing, tweens complaining, elders explaining. And the big-eared elephant in the middle has heard it all.
Upstairs, visitors stream into the new “Outbreak” exhibit on epidemiology and the increasingly interconnected health of our planet. Environment, animals, and people move and intermix and impact each other, sharing good and bad— including deadly disease. How do pathogens jump from animals to people and quickly cause global pandemics and pandemonium?
A 1918 Spanish flu victim’s skull offers tooth plaque for scientists to better study the biology of this particular strain. A tray of 100 tiny yellow fever-infected mosquitos are pinned down and labeled in an orderly ten-by-ten grid. The message is plain: Don’t worry! We can identify this, categorize it, control it.
Photos and quotes from frontline Ebola workers during the 2014 epidemic offer a glimpse into the modern, human toll of disease outbreak. Another display chronicles the emergence of HIV/AIDS and how it changed the fabric of our society.
Both in the Smithsonian exhibit and in the pages that follow, we see the efforts to comfort the afflicted and to understand disease, from the microscopic to whole-planet views. The new Global Health Initiative at Georgetown serves as a wheel hub for interconnecting research and education, covering areas of concern such as migration, pandemic preparedness, and road safety in developing countries. Georgetown’s global health work is local, too, including asylum seeker medical evaluations and primary care for refugees. After graduating, our intrepid alumni journey to Central Africa, Central America, and Central Asia, partnering to build health equity around the world for those living at the margins.
As we move forward in global health, hope springs from these rising efforts to work together internationally, crossing borders to share data and resources, blurring the boundaries of division. Human ingenuity and care for the greater good—so we can all enjoy the din.
Jane Varner Malhotra,