Color of Contagion

Color has the profound ability to address and decipher information quickly, without text. In medicine the color of a tissue culture can indicate illness and distinguish diseases. Our cells, however, are generally colorless and transparent, only made visible through the staining process.

The medical slides researched for this project are deeply layered in color, content, and history. In 1920, European cargo ships infested with rats reached the shores of Galveston, Texas. Those rats were hosts to fleas infected with bacterium, Yersinia pestis, or bubonic plague —also referred to as the “Black Death”. The 18 cases of the plague documented in Galveston affected patients who ranged in age, gender, ethnicity, and profession. One case was unique. 

During the final stages of performing an autopsy on a plague victim, UTMB Pathologist, Dr. Anna Bowie accidentally pricked her gloved, left, index finger and contracted the bubonic plague. As the illness took hold of her body, Dr. Bowie finished preparing the microscopic slides for the patient whom had just infected her.

Actual tissue from the slides created by Dr. Bowie were the source material for the series titled The Color of Contagion. The slides’ cellular data taken from the deceased contain microscopic rises and falls. The glass sculptures abstractly reference the topography of these layers and mimic the physical manifestation of the buboes and pustules caused by the plague. Two primary dyes were used in the preparation of the slides –Haematoxylin and Eosin. The stain and counterstain add hues of pink, purple and red--a stark contrast to the disease’s murky moniker--to cell components within the tissue. Within the stains, the darker or more saturated the color, the higher the physical peak of the glass objects. The translucent installation, overlays patterns found in the stains with a map of Galveston, circa 1920, indicating the site of contamination.

Using Format