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Former Batavia resident’s collections provide decades of AIDS posters for exhibit, education and reflection

By Joanne Beck


Take 8,000 posters from 130 countries and in 76 languages ranging from shockingly graphic, instructional and scary to tender and compassionate, and select a sampling for an exhibit. The late Edward C. Atwater, a former Batavia resident, physician and medical historian, donated the massive 30-year collection to the University of Rochester in 2007.

Donated to the University by Dr. Atwater in 2007 and housed in the Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation, River Campus Libraries, the collection is one of the largest of its kind in the world, said Jessica Lacher-Feldman, whose related roles are co-editor of the book and curator of AIDS Education Posters Collection.

“I actually had a different role when I came, but I have literally been working on this project since I arrived. One of the first things that I did after coming here was going with our then dean to Ruth and Edward Atwater's home to meet them,” she said. “It’s actually very interesting, he was not an immunologist, he was not anybody who focused on HIV AIDS as a medical doctor. And what he discovered, in being a very curious-minded human being, led him in a lot of different directions.”

The collection became a six-plus years project as staff from the University of Rochester and Memorial Art Gallery chronicled it in a book and orchestrated an exhibit, Up Against the Wall: Art, Activism, and the AIDS Poster. Promising 165 of “the most visually arresting and thought-provoking posters,” it runs through June 19 at Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester and is the first major exhibition devoted to the University of Rochester’s vast collection of HIV/AIDS-related posters.

“The oldest poster is from 1982, which is really at the dawn of the crisis before, really before AIDS was really widely understood or named before the 1986 Surgeon General's report that actually spelled things out,” Lacher-Feldman said during an interview with The Batavian. “I work with the collection all the time, and I'm continuously amazed by the messages that are used in the posters and the different tactics that have been deployed in order to get that information out there. It really feels like a by-any-means-necessary thing.”

How it all began ...
Ever since she began at U of R in 2016, Lacher-Feldman, who holds many titles including rare books editor, and exhibits and special projects manager, has immersed herself into the posters, the project and the man who amassed a special history of the who, what and where of HIV and AIDS. Dr. Edward C. Atwater was a physician and medical historian as well as an avid collector of medical artifacts.

Those in the Atwater circle know the tale well of how he spotted the first collection piece while on a subway car; it was a poster promoting AIDS prevention. At a time when sex and conception weren’t even widely discussed in public, he was awestruck by how the topic was depicted on a wall hanging in such a public venue. 

His interest grew from there, and Atwater scoured various sources, wrote to or visited health departments and related officials, and requested copies of their AIDS awareness materials. From 1991 to 2019, the year he died, Atwater’s collection went from one to 8,000 pieces. One of them is from Canada, done in several different languages, and others are from Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Lachman-Feldman had just been editing a poster translated into Moroccan, she said. 
”And we've done a ton of really interesting projects with the classes, that you can actually talk with them in so many other different disciplines, including working with medical students or medical humanities classes, but also linguistics and foreign language, translation, anthropology … and graphic design,” she said. “It's amazing how incredibly multifaceted they are.” 


Show organizers said that the posters inspire people to protect themselves, protect others, and change their own behaviors through a broad range of creative expression.  The posters widely range in content, she said, from those geared toward night clubs and bars to others for prisons by instructing corrections officers how to search a prison cell and avoid contact with possible sharps. Spanning from 1982 to present day, the materials show how social, religious, civic, activist, and medical organizations have addressed this controversial subject in all ways, from mild to aggressive. 

“Sometimes there is a need for shock value. But there's an intentionality in every single poster. They're demonstrating how to do something or not do something, or, you know, trying to evoke something emotional or sentimental or instructive, or whatever it happens to be,” Lacher-Feldman said. “And I think the biggest takeaway for me also is that hammering home the notion that it affects everyone, and it's often seen in the United States as a, quote, gay disease.” 

“We've lost a lot of people, and a lot of incredibly talented people very, very young. There's a lot that's very treatable in the United States, and we're seeing a lot of progress in other parts of the world,” Lacher-Feldman said. “So it's important to know that and remember it, and that this is recent history.”

Some of the celebrities who died from AIDS and demonstrated that it attacks all social circles include Rock Hudson, Freddy Mercury, Arthur Ashe, Liberace, Gia Carangi, Perry Ellis, Halston and Eazy-E. 


The doctor ...
Edward Congdon Atwater grew up in Batavia, attended Batavia Public Schools, followed by boarding school at Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ontario. During World War II, he served in Europe as a combat infantryman in the Third Army, 101st Infantry. In 1950, the history major graduated from the University of Rochester. During his fifth year, he fulfilled the requirements for medical school, and in 1955, he received a medical doctorate from Harvard Medical School. He served as an intern, assistant resident, and chief resident in medicine at Strong Memorial Hospital. He eventually became an associate professor of medicine and of the history of medicine, teaching medical students and residents and practicing internal medicine, specializing in rheumatology. In the early 1970s, he had a sabbatical year at the Institute for the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins.

Atwater was author of a number of papers, both in clinical medicine and in the history of medicine, and belonged to several professional medical, historical, and community organizations. Locally, he served on the board of the Landmark Society, plus several other boards including the Friends of the University of Rochester Libraries, the Rochester Academy of Medicine, the Harvard Medical Alumni Association and the American Association of the History of Medicine.

The historian and collector ...
Lacher-Feldman met the Atwater couple and continued working with Dr. Atwater after Ruth died in 2017. Over time she grew to know him as so very “curious, smart and engaged."

“The last time I saw him, I went to palliative care at Strong, and he died within the next day, later that day, so I was very close to him and worked with him really closely. He would say that what he witnessed there was social history and a show of a major shift in the way that information about sexually transmitted diseases, and protection in a very intimate way, was being shared with the world. That crisis, that's what drew him to begin collecting these posters.”

She saw in him a deep commitment to document the issue, and how its prominence shifted, for posterity.  And that's what he did, she said. Far from over, the collection will continue to grow and be used for educational purposes, she said. There are QR codes in the gallery for posters with “deep captions” from others sharing their own thoughts and stories. Once the exhibit reaches its deadline in June, the plan is to take it on the road to share with other locales. 

“And the fact that we've actually digitized every single poster and made them available, searchable online, has made it really accessible. And that was something that Dr. Atwater wanted to make sure that we did. And we committed to doing that, as part of the agreement for accepting the gift,” she said. “So now, people all over the world can view them, compare them, think about and reflect on how the AIDS crisis has been addressed in different cultures and in different means, and how different messages resonate with different populations.”

Organized by New York-based curator and historian Donald Albrecht, Up Against the Wall will fill Memorial Art Gallery's 5,000- square-foot Docent Gallery and explore the messages and methods used to educate, inform, and provoke audiences worldwide, organizers said.

Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays and select Fridays. Admission is $20; $17 for senior citizens, $11 college students with ID and children 6 to 18; free to members, University of Rochester faculty/staff and students, children 5 and under. 

For more information, call (585) 276-8900 or visit

Photos/images from the University of Rochester

A collector, medical historian, and humble guy: Atwater siblings recall their dad

By Joanne Beck


Dr. Edward C. and Ruth Atwater. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Briccetti

Edward C. Atwater’s home — initially in Batavia and later in Rochester — was a dead giveaway of his passions.

The late doctor and medical historian kept collections, from thousands of books and print materials to thousands of architectural slides and posters, throughout his and wife Ruth’s home from top to bottom.

Ned Atwater knows the posters well. Collected by his dad on the topic of AIDS for decades, Ned at one point counted out 6,500 duplicates while the artifacts were being organized.

“He never boasted about it at all … it’s the largest collection in the world, and he could have cared less. It was about the messages and content, and he was the messenger,” Ned said from his home in Canandaigua during an interview with The Batavian. “It was important that he collected it and got it out to the public.”

Attending the debut of a six-years-long project that, at last, puts the senior Atwater’s efforts on proper display at Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery, was “super emotional,” Ned said.

The exhibit, Up Against the Wall: Art, Activism, and the AIDS Poster, is a collaboration between Memorial Art Gallery (MAG) and the River Campus Libraries at the University of Rochester. It runs through June 19 at the Gallery. (See related article, "Former Batavia resident's collections ..." )

Exhibit curators and editors chose 165 samples out of the 8,000-poster collection. Ned had seen “all of those,” he said, and remembers Christopher Hoolihan’s frequent visits to their home. Hoolihan was rare books and manuscripts librarian at the Edward G. Miner Library at the University of Rochester School of Medicine & Dentistry.

“And he'd come over every Monday night for 20 years to my parents house, and my mom would cook them dinner, and then they’d go down to the basement, which is where the book collection was, and they'd work on the books,” Ned said. “And the AIDS poster collection was in the attic, and so Jessica (Lachman, co-editor of the collection’s book) would come over. Jessica was there every Tuesday, so I got to know her quite well. Those were a couple of important people in the same collecting sphere that he was in.”

Collections, Donations ...
Atwater’s collections have gradually made their way to the University of Rochester as prized relics of medical history. AIDS took hold in the 1980s, and Ned clearly remembers how little the government was doing to prevent or raise awareness about it. Organizations across the globe, including municipal health departments, began to create posters as visual reminders of the life-threatening AIDS epidemic.

Dr. Atwater didn't start collecting posters until 1991, and was in his mid-60s by then, Ned said. Three decades later he was still collecting, shortly before he died in 2019 at 93. Posters are from many countries in multiple languages, and they stray from one another by colors, images, wording, message and target audience. Ned attended the debut with his sister, Rebecca Briccetti, of New Hampshire. 

“Rebecca and I went into the show, we were, I think, both astounded at the show itself, the professionalism in which the Memorial Art Gallery had done it. And, you know, just the messages that it all conveyed. It was really a very good overview of the AIDS posters over history. I thought it was just so well done,” he said. “And the people at the Memorial Art Gallery even told us that in a visual sense, they think it's the best show they've ever had. ‘Wow,’ we thought, and we were pretty surprised and humbled by that. My father would be absolutely thrilled.”

The collection of posters fills in the story, from graphic pictures of men and condoms to more generalized messages that no one is immune to the disease. It was such a heavy and insidious topic and disease that took hold in a public that was ignorant of its causes, symptoms, and life-threatening nature of it. 

“The AIDS epidemic really hit hard. My father was in touch with Dr. Fauci about it,” Ned said. “I had a lot of friends in the gay community in Oregon. One of the biggest turning points was that it wasn’t just in the gay community.”

While Edward C. Atwater was a renowned medical historian and collector, he was also “such a humble guy,” Ned said, someone who took the time to listen during a conversation, take an interest and ask thoughtful questions. Those traits fed his desire for knowledge and details, and he often acquired them in the forms of various rare books, patented medicine bottles, organ pipes, architecture slides and AIDS posters.

“It was important that he collected it and got it out to the public,” Ned said, addressing the poster varieties. “It was a visual thing; some are really funny, and scary, compassionate. Some of the most graphic ones are from Germany and France.”

Those displays may have been more explicit, he said, but the messaging was effective.

Recalling Batavia and the farm ...
Although Ned’s father and mother moved from Batavia before Ned’s childhood, he recalls the fun times he and his sister Rebecca had visiting the small city and Genesee County. The siblings also visited their mother’s homestead farm in Stafford. There were horses, sheep and “the smell of the barn,” Ned fondly recalled. He and his sister would take the bus from Rochester to Batavia and visit both sides of the family.

“I used to love to go there, we’d go on a whim on the weekend … hanging out in that big old house, and we’d sneak over to the RCA factory to see the color TVs,” he said. “You really can't mention my father without mentioning my mother; they were married 67 years, and she was really my father's wing woman.”

One thing his father didn’t do was to push Ned into a similar career path. There was no cajoling or needling on the topic, and Ned’s career took him down a more artistic path as a furniture maker. He and his sister fondly remember taking the bus from Rochester to visit their grandparents, Edward P. and Rowena Atwater, who lived in the well-known Atwater House on East Main Street, a rambling structure that accommodated extended family and the constant presence of dogs, Rebecca said. 

Ned often preferred the country life in Stafford, where his mom Ruth grew up. She and Edward C. married in 1951 and lived in Batavia, where Edward grew up and attended school. The couple later moved to Rochester closer to his workplace, the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Briccetti was looking at a screenshot she had taken of her father’s childhood diary, with notations about current events and the $5 his grandmother gifted him. He noted when the Hindenburg crashed in New Jersey while carrying 99 passengers. 

“What a thing for a little boy to write,” she said. “I’m just completely going down memory lane here.” 

The Renaissance man, The Godfather ...
A part of that memory bank includes how much his parents embraced people, from children to adults, with their generosity and care for humanity. So much care, in fact, that Dr. and Mrs. Atwater were asked to be godparents to at least a dozen children, including Kathleen Harleman, Director Emerita of Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois. Her parents became good friends with the Atwaters and thought there would be no couple better for the symbolic guardian role than Edward and Ruth. 

“I always thought of Edward as a Renaissance man or polymath, a person with wide-ranging knowledge and interests in many fields and deep expertise in several areas,” she said. “He epitomized the characterization, being highly educated, a gentleman, cultivated in the arts, and immensely charismatic. Edward’s professional and personal practice, teachings, writings, and collections extended beyond internal medicine (specifically rheumatology), to embrace the history of medicine, as well as major health reforms and global activism.”

Later in life, Edward wrote Women Medical Doctors in the United States Before the Civil War: a Biographical Dictionary. Harleman loved that his efforts “highlighted these female pioneers,” she said. She came from Illinois to see the exhibit, and rated it as “superbly conceived and presented.”

“They explore multiple aspects of the subject with a truly impressive range and depth of voices and expertise. The individual contributions of writers in the publication and for the QR codes in the exhibition are very powerful, as is the exhibition design of the installation and the book's graphic design,” she said. “Edward would have been happy and impressed with the levels of thought, care, and execution that have gone into the exhibition, publication, and programming. My hope, shared by many others, is that this exhibition will travel globally.”

Given his proclivity for research and detail, it may come as no surprise that dinners at the Atwater home included open conversation “about pretty much everything,” Rebecca said. However, she learned more about HIV and AIDS by reading about it for herself.

“The crisis became apparent for what it was … so I didn't have to hear about the AIDS epidemic and HIV from my father, I was reading about it myself. I was living in New York City, a horticultural and culinary editor at the time. And I was reading about it. Rolling Stone Magazine did a very important job in communicating the urgency of this emerging crisis and a lack of national attention, and political attention,” she said. "I know there are a lot of people still out there that really associate this as being a gay disease. And there's still an enormous amount of people there that just don't understand it. And my hope is, this is going to provide good information and change those misconceptions if it's possible. Still, the poster has as much power as anything, you know, to change people's minds, or just to make them realize basic things about AIDS.”

Her father loved to play piano and organ, and sang as a youngster in choir, she said. His collection began then, with organ pipes, and later one of his first collections was of patent medicine bottles, which he researched, and then wrote papers on the patented medicine purveyors, she said. 

“He just loved that. And then finally he and mother realized, you know, this is just too many bottles, this is too big a collection to keep. And they gave it to the university,” she said. “And from there, he moved on to a different kind of collection. And that was medical trade cards. I mean, my goodness, I remember coming home from school and, instead of picking up a comic book, or you know, a favorite young adult fiction book, or maybe working on your math homework, I would eat an afternoon snack while leafing through these enormous bound books of plastic pages into which father was keeping his medical trade card collections. And he was constantly adding to them for years until my mother realized this is just too much to keep at home … and they gave those to the University of Rochester. I think during all of this time, as an historian, he was interested in collecting ephemera in the realm of popular medicine. And that became a thread through his entire historical collecting life.”

It was a passion he was devoted to until he died at age 93. Shortly before that, Rebecca’s husband Fred took him out on a snowy day in New York City and Greenwich to scour collector’s shops. Atwater talked to fellow antiquarians, and they would step out from behind their display tables to say “Dr. Atwater, it’s so good to see you.”

“Obviously surprised that this ancient gentleman would be still out looking for more material," she said. "It was very moving.” 

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