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Tiny microbes get big spotlight
New exhibit at VMNH opens Saturday
Virginia Museum of Natural History Marketing and External Affairs Director Ryan Barber shows a penguin-like mask doctors in the 17th century wore while treating bubonic plague patients. The mask is on display at the museum as part of a new temporary exhibit on microbes. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
Friday, May 15, 2009
By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer
Imagine being sick and having to trust a doctor wearing a penguin mask to treat your illness.
That may be hard. But bubonic plague sufferers in the 17th century had no other choice.
Doctors treating those patients wore wooden masks with beaks much like a penguin's. Scientists thought the plague was caused by breathing harmful gases emitted from the ground, and doctors put flowers, fragrant spices and perfumes in the mask's beak to shield them from patients contaminated with those gases, a new exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Natural History shows.
"Microbes: Invisible Invaders, Amazing Allies" runs through Sept. 13. It will take museum visitors on an interactive journey to learn about how microbes both sustain life on Earth and harm our health - and perhaps even threaten our existence, according to museum Marketing and External Affairs Director Ryan Barber.
It is one of two new temporary exhibits at the museum.
Bubonic plague was characterized by painful swelling and body sores that caused the body to turn black when they burst. Doctors now know the so-called "black death" - people often died within a week or two of being infected - was caused by germs, the microbes exhibit shows.
Microbes, which are the smallest forms of life on Earth, include germs.
The exhibit includes histories of a variety of diseases caused by microbes, both past and present. It also shows how researchers and others worldwide have tried to fight diseases.
For instance, a model of an iron lung used to treat polio patients during the early 20th century is on display. The lung was a cylindrical chamber patients lay flat in, some for the rest of their lives. Air pressure variations inside the chamber forced air in and out of the lungs of paralyzed polio victims.
The exhibit details how the flu helped bring an end to World War I. During an outbreak in the United States, soldiers who happened to be infected traveled overseas, got sick and transmitted the flu to Europeans, many of whom died. So did more than 500,000 Americans and Canadians, the exhibit notes.
A videotape relates the history of penicillin, regarded in medical history as the first wonder drug. Although it was developed in 1928, penicillin was not mass produced to treat bacterial illnesses until 1944, the exhibit shows.
While some microbes can cause illness, others sustain life or are nutritious, it mentions. For example, microbes include bacteria in soil that turn nitrogen into nutrients for plants, which emit oxygen that animals and plants need.
Microbes also include bacteria that turn milk into yogurt, the exhibit points out, as well as help yeast make bread and turn fruit juice into wine.
The other new exhibit, "Rediscovering the Forgotten Garden," runs through Jan. 10. It focuses on the natural history of Lee Memorial Park in Petersburg and contains 80 original botanical watercolor paintings of flowers and plants in the park, painted by artist Bessie Niemeyer Marshall during the 1930s.
Forty of the paintings will be displayed through September, and then the other 40 will be shown, said Barber. Paintings of plants now on exhibit range from roses and violets to lilies and even skunk cabbage.
The paintings were discovered in a paper portfolio found in the 1990s in a nonfunctioning rest room at the Petersburg Public Library that was used for storage, according to Barber.
Lee Memorial Park opened in 1921, but scientists have found prehistoric fossils there dating as far back as 330 million years. Posters in the exhibit discuss fossilized remains found of algae, mollusks, whales and sharks - which reveal that the land where Petersburg is now used to be under the ocean - and discuss aspects of the park and Marshall's life.
Pfizer Inc., a drug manufacturer, is sponsoring the microbe exhibit, which was produced in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health.
The garden exhibit is on loan from the Wilcox Watershed Conservancy and the Petersburg Garden Club.
Both exhibits will open to the public on Saturday and can be viewed during regular operating hours at the museum on Starling Avenue in Martinsville. Regular admission prices will apply.
Several exhibits related to Virginia's natural history are permanently on display. Barber said the museum currently has more on display than ever before in its 25-year history.
"With the exhibits we have, I think we're going to attract a diverse crowd" in the months ahead because there is something for everyone to enjoy, he said.