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Postage & Pestilence

  • Cyril Gryfe

Postage Stamps and Public Health

Postage stamps, with their mass reproduction and global dissemination, provide a means to promote awareness for a wide range of public health issues — nationally and internationally. As a consequence, reference to contagious diseases such as influenza, measles, whooping cough, HIV/AIDS, SARS etc. can be found in the design of many postage stamps.

Among these diseases, the most frequently addressed previously, has been AIDS, presently represented in more than 300 issues from at least 146 different postal-service authorities.

This presentation of illustrative stamps addresses three major, present-generation epidemic events — the campaign against HIV/AIDS, the eradication of smallpox, and the advent of COVID-19.


In September 1988, San Marino was the first postal authority to recognize the problem of AIDS, by promoting the fourth International AIDS Conference that would be held in Stockholm in October of that year. In a set of four stamps, one displays a stylized human AIDS virus particle overlain by a knotted rope, symbolizing the difficulties faced by researchers; and another depicts the disease being destroyed by an intense white light.

During the conference it was decided that the first day in December would henceforth be designated World AIDS Day, which was immediately commemorated by three stamps from the Republic of the Congo (also known as Congo-Brazzaville).

In the following year, on April 7 — observed by WHO since 1950 as World Health Day — AIDS was the subject of stamps from Mexico and Burkino Faso.

And on December 1, 1989, the second World AIDS Day was marked by stamps issued by two African states — Senegal and Zaire. Since then, more than 500 stamps relating to AIDS have been issued by at least 150 postal authorities.

World AIDS Day continued to be marked annually, until 2014, by a variable number of nations issuing postage stamps on that day, some with a surcharge above that for the postal-carriage service, to fund the continuing battle against the disease. The red ribbon became the symbol of addressing AIDS in the USA in 1991, and was quickly adopted internationally, as evident in its appearance on these World AIDS Day issues, where its design has been imaginatively modified.


Of the many other contagious diseases alluded to by the subject or graphic design of postage stamps, the history of smallpox provides the next greatest number of such allusions, — direct and indirect. An example of the latter dates from the earliest days of postage stamps.

One of the first two stamps issued by the USA in 1847 portrays Benjamin Franklin, whose fame as a statesman has overshadowed his many other accomplishments. As a true polymath, he had an intense interest in physiology and medical practice, probably triggered by the death from smallpox of his young son, and his deep and persistent regret for not having had him inoculated. The incident so haunted Franklin that he later co-authored with the London physician, William Heberden in 1759, a guide on smallpox management.

It came to European attention around 1717, when the wife of the British consul in Constantinople observed Turkish women inserting scab matter into the skin of healthy people. The 250th anniversary of the event was marked with a Turkish stamp depicting such a procedure.

Despite its definite but much smaller risk of a fatal outcome from inducing an actual smallpox infection, variolation became very popular by the end of the eighteenth century. Its popularity was conspicuously promoted by the example of Catherine the Great of Russia.

She invited the English physician, Thomas Dimsdale, to St. Petersburg to variolate her and her 14-year-old son, Grand Duke Paul, as well as more than 140 prominent members of the Court.

She invited the English physician, Thomas Dimsdale, to St. Petersburg to variolate her and her 14-year-old son, Grand Duke Paul, as well as more than 140 prominent members of the Court.

The observation that cattle farmers and milkmaids were often spared during a smallpox outbreak was not an original discovery by Edward Jenner from his introduction to milkmaid Sarah Nelmes. However, the British post office may have been implying that in this stamp depicting Jenner vaccinating James Phipps with cowpox vaccine.

In the early 1950s, the production of a heat-stable, freeze-dried vaccine that could be easily produced, stored, delivered and administered, ultimately made the concept of mass immunization realizable, and the global eradication of smallpox a possibility to pursue.

Its global eradication was envisaged at the very first assembly of the World Health Organization in 1948, with the formation of a special group to study smallpox. Eradication efforts were initiated in 1959, and intensified in 1965.

The theme of World Health Day that year was “Smallpox — Constant Alert”, which was marked by Egyptian and Iraqi postage stamps.

In the following years, this intensified program was promoted by a series of francophone African postal authorities.

By 1977, the effectiveness of the campaign was obvious, and the expectation of imminent eradication was being proclaimed almost universally.

On December 9, 1979, it was announced that smallpox had become the first — and still the only — human infectious disease to be eliminated from the planet. Five months later, the 33rd World Health Assembly officially declared the world free of the disease.


At present, pandemic COVID-19 is the dominant public health issue.

Perhaps surprisingly, the first stamp with a COVID-19 theme was issued by Iran, appearing on March 17, 2020, one day before closure of the Canada-USA border! It honoured their frontline medical workers, as did a pair of stamps from Vietnam, two weeks later, and subsequent issues from Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and China.

Presently, at least 78 postal authorities have issued similarly themed stamps, or with designs promoting vaccination and other prophylactic practices, symptom awareness and community solidarity; and thanking medical professionals and all other frontline workers.

About the Author

Cyril Gryfe is a retired geriatrician, former Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Toronto, and lifelong philatelist:

My interest in the history of medicine evolved from my hobby of stamp collecting. At about age ten, like most novice philatelists, my naïve expectation was to collect all stamps of all countries, with no real understanding of their purpose beyond prepaying the cost of carrying letters. The design of the commonest Canadian stamps was of little or no significance to me beyond familiarity with the portrait of the monarch, with total ignorance of their propaganda function. Thus I remained unaware of the commemorative or promotional purpose of many items that I accumulated. 

The demands of school and university eventually allowed the albums to gather dust. Moving into our tiny, first matrimonial household demanded reappraisal of retaining many personal possessions, and leafing through the albums provoked the question of whether to dispose of the hoard or to resurrect it. The observation of a Greek stamp honouring Hippocrates prompted the decision to retain only stamps of medical pertinence, perhaps thereby strengthening my identification with the profession for which I was still being educated. From this grew a collection which includes items marking not only anniversaries of people, but also of events of medical significance.