Boston subway car interiors are not known for their artistic content. Dr. Edward Atwater most likely never even thought of the idea until the early 1990s, when he lazily scanned the inside of the car he was driving.
His gaze fell on one of the posters advertising some sort of recreational product or public service warning; those you forget immediately after reaching your destination.
Yet one poster caught Atwater’s eye: a disembodied pair of hands opening a condom wrapper.
Subtle imagery aside, that ride on the Boston subway planted the seeds of a passion he would pursue throughout his retirement, until two weeks before his death in 2019 at the age of 93. . Collect AIDS education posters.
An exhibit built on Atwater’s collection — as much as can fit on the walls — opens Sunday at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester. “Up Against the Wall: Art, Activism, and the AIDS Poster” until June 19. Images that can be both amusing, thanks to the clever use of fruit, and heartbreaking.
The show is in conjunction with a book of the same name that was published last summer by Rochester Institute of Technology’s RIT Press. The book presents nearly 200 posters taken from the UR collection.
Atwater’s collection has grown to over 8,000 images. And it continues to grow to this day, part of a University of Rochester collection that may be the largest of its kind in the world.
Mary Anne Mavrinac says she certainly hasn’t heard of any other collection that comes close.
Mavrinac was Vice Provost and Andrew H. and Janet Dayton Neilly Dean of Libraries at the University of Rochester, until his retirement late last year. And she knew Atwater. Mavrinac remembers Atwater describing that moment of revelation in the subway to him years later. How those hands made him think back to when he was a student at Harvard Medical School, when the lecture that day would be about using condoms as birth control or to prevent disease transmission .
“The instructors actually closed the doors so no one could really hear they were talking about it,” Mavrinac said last year of that conversation with Atwater, while helping prepare Atwater’s collection for the show. “And he thought, Oh my God, the world has totally changed. There are posters advertising safer sex.
Atwater grew up in Batavia, served as an infantryman in Europe during World War II, and spent most of his professional career at Strong Memorial Hospital and medical school, practicing internal medicine and specializing in rheumatology.
And he was a Renaissance man. Prior to Harvard Medical School, he majored in history with a minor in comparative literature at UR. He published a book, “Women Medical Doctors in the United States Before the Civil War: A Biographical Dictionary”. Atwater has served on the boards of groups such as The Landmark Society and The Friends of the University of Rochester Libraries. He gardened and travelled; he and his wife, Ruth, who died in 2017, have visited Europe more than 20 times. They spent summers in Vermont and winters in St. John in the Virgin Islands. He collected books, drank fine Bordeaux wines and enjoyed classical music, especially the pipe organ.
He collected stamps as a child, and in his later years moved on to rare books and ephemera of American folk medicine and health reform: postcards, pamphlets, condoms, and clothing.
But it’s the collection of posters that stands out, if only for its volume. Posters from 131 countries, in 76 languages, according to Mavrinac. During his trip, Atwater would stop at a city’s public health department office, pick up posters, and take them home on the plane. He wrote to health offices around the world asking for AIDS posters. Even Muslim countries, societies that Mavrinac described as less open to the epidemic.
The acquisition of duplicate posters for his collection was inevitable; Atwater had about 6,000 extras. They were the fuel of commerce. As Mavrinac noted, “It was a bit like baseball cards at one point.”
The opening of the exhibition on Sunday will be accompanied by a 2 p.m. conference by Donald Albrecht, guest curator of the exhibition and co-editor of the catalogue. It will be offered in person, as well as virtually.