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“Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror,” the poet Rainer Maria Rilke famously wrote.

His focus was the human condition, but he could have been describing medical science. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Jim Gathany’s photographs, now on exhibit at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

They show the stuff of nightmares: tiny creatures that feast on human blood and transmit organ-destroying diseases. Common mushrooms that some people find delicious and others find lodged in their sinuses or lungs or brains.


But just like the scientists studying these scourges, who can’t help admiring the deadly organisms they are trying to kill, Gathany captures the strange beauty of living things most people would rather not think about. Disease vectors become jewels; mold looks like a shimmering canvas by Mark Rothko.

Here’s a bit of science made accessible — and enjoyable — to even the most squeamish of humanities majors.

CDC Photo exhibit
Schizophyllum commune, a common mold found on trees and rotting wood worldwide. Infections from this fungus are rare in humans, but sinus, lung, and brain infections have been reported. Jim Gathany/CDC
CDC Photo exhibit
This hickory horned devil caterpillar looks formidable but is harmless; this is actually a developmental stage on its way to becoming an adult regal moth, Citheronia regalis. Its habitat ranges from the deep South to the Northeast of the United States.  Jim Gathany/CDC
CDC Photo exhibit
A mosquito mounted on a microscope slide photographed for CDC biologist Paul Howell, who wanted an unusual view for a journal article. This image depicts an enlarged view of the head region of a female Anopheles gambiae mosquito, highlighting the insect’s mouthparts and antennae. A. gambiae transmits the parasitic disease malaria. Jim Gathany/CDC
CDC Photo exhibit
A female black widow spider, Latrodectus mactans, in the process of spinning her web on a tree branch. Gathany found the spider under his house. While the male is harmless, female black widows are poisonous. They inject a neurotoxic venom, more potent than that of the rattlesnake. The quantity of spider venom is so tiny that death is rare, though the bite is painful. Jim Gathany/CDC
CDC Photo exhibit
Penicillium is a group of molds found everywhere worldwide. Jim Gathany/CDC
CDC Photo exhibit
A kissing bug, or Panstrongylus megistus, is an important vector for Chagas disease in South America. Chagas disease is named after the Brazilian physician Carlos Chagas, who discovered it in 1909. It is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which is transmitted to animals and people by insects. This specimen is now part of the catalogue of the CDC insectary. Jim Gathany/CDC
CDC Photo exhibit
This image depicts a number of what were “suspected” smallpox scab fragments, from the archives of the Virginia Historical Society. These fragments came to light when the museum was in the process of putting together an exhibit titled “Bizarre Bits,” chronicling its collection dating back as far as 1831. CDC tests determined that the scabs did contain virus from the smallpox vaccine, but did not contain the virus. Jim Gathany/CDC
CDC Photo exhibit
This flamboyantly colored mosquito, Sabethes cyaneus, is a natural inhabitant of the Panamanian forest canopy and can transmit yellow fever. This specimen was an offspring of a colony of mosquitoes raised in captivity at Ohio State University, and sent to CDC in its larval form. After it hatched, Gathany photographed it. Like many other forest mosquito species, these undergo early development as eggs, larvae, and pupae in water that has collected in tree holes. Jim Gathany/CDC
  • Great photos; a fun field guide through our amazing natural world.
    Note: The caption under smallpox probably meant to say smallpox DNA but no smallpox virus?

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