Nordfjord Museum of Cultural History Nordfjord Folkemuseum

Diseases that Changed History

1. February - 22. December
Nordfjord Folkemuseum

The world changed in the spring of 2020, when an invisible organism brought society to its knees. The pandemic was – and remains – a completely new experience for many of us, but historically speaking this is far from the first time a disease has impacted society in such a profound way.

Plague, cholera and corona

The theme of this year’s exhibition at Nordfjord Museum of Cultural History is the diseases that changed history. Here you can learn about diseases such as plague, smallpox, leprosy, cholera, Spanish flu and tuberculosis.

The exhibition highlights some of the diseases and epidemics of the past, and how these changed the world we live in.

Although these diseases have been eradicated in Norway, many are still found elsewhere. Worldwide, there are about 1000 annual cases of plague, and smallpox was only eradicated as late as 1980. The last person to be infected with leprosy in Norway died in 2002, but tens of thousands of cases are reported globally each year.

Old measures revisited

Some of the historical diseases led to measures that have been revisited during this most recent pandemic.

Quarantine as a way of limiting the spread of disease can be traced back to the Black Death. The idea of quarantine originated in Venice in the 1300s. From there, the idea spread to other European port cities. By keeping ships, crews and goods in isolation, they hoped to prevent further infections. The duration was set to 40 days – “quaraintaine”.

The first vaccine was for smallpox and was developed in 1796, after a British village doctor observed that milkmaids often caught cowpox, but not the smallpox disease. In Norway, the first smallpox shot was administered in 1801, and the vaccine became mandatory in 1810. Without a vaccination certificate, you could neither attend confirmation nor get married.

The use of face masks outside of hospitals started during the Spanish flu around 1920. Newspapers printed guides on correct usage and women volunteers were engaged in the production of masks.

Historical objects

In the exhibition you can see the smallpox certificates of Rasmus Andreas Torsheim from Breim and Ivar Pedersen from Tisthammer, both 1 years of age.

For a long time, religious symbols were considered the most effective means of protection from diseases. The exhibition has several objects decorated with crosses.

Bloodletting – the draining of blood – was used to treat a number of different diseases, both in the Middle Ages and well into modern times. The method was based on medical teachings from the classical antiquity which emphasised the importance of body fluid equilibrium.

When scientists discovered bacteria in the 1800s, it fundamentally changed the understanding and treatment of diseases. The exhibition has a series of historical photographs of patients and forms of treatment from the early 1900s. We also have medical equipment used by chief physician Hans Christian Wennevold in Eid and tuberculosis specialist Olaf M. Andenæs in Sandane and Stryn. From the Gloppen municipal health services, the museum has received a selection of modern disease protection and testing equipment.