The past year has felt like an eternity, so maybe it is fitting that history museums are beginning to enshrine artifacts from the battle against the novel coronavirus.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History acquired the vial that contained the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine administered in the U.S. as part of its plans to document the global pandemic and “this extraordinary period we were going through.”
The acquisition, along with other materials related to that first vaccine dose, was announced by the museum last week to mark the one-year anniversary of the pandemic. Associated Press journalists were given an exclusive backstage look at the newly obtained materials, which include vials, special shipping equipment and the medical scrubs and ID badge of the New York City nurse who was America’s first coronavirus vaccine recipient.
“We wanted objects that would tell the full story,” said Anthea M. Hartig, the museum’s director. “Everything from the scrubs to the freezer unit that shipped the vaccines.”
The first dose of vaccine in the U.S. was given on Dec. 14, 2020, by New York-based Northwell Health to Sandra Lindsay, an intensive-care nurse. The donation from Northwell includes the original Pfizer vials as well as the specialized shipping container, about the size of a hotel room fridge, that would deliver the super-cold Pfizer doses packed in dry ice.
“Our curators were particularly interested in the process and the packaging,” museum spokeswoman Melinda Machado said. “The story of the vaccine is not just what goes in your arm.”
The COVID-19 materials will join the museum’s extensive medical collection, which includes one of the first batches of the polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1955 and specialized syringes and vaccination cards from that era. The collection also includes the personal blue and pink plastic COVID-19 model donated last week by Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Museum officials say they aren’t sure if the coronavirus-related materials will be on display immediately when the museum reopens later this year. For now, they are planning to use them as part of a larger display on the history of medicine expected to debut next year.
And if you’re planning a visit to Knoxville, Tenn., sometime during the next six months you’ll be able to see the first vial and syringe used in that city’s vaccination efforts. They’ll be on display at the East Tennessee Historical Society and were donated by the University of Tennessee Medical Center. The vial held the first five doses of the Pfizer vaccine that were given to front-line UT Medical Center workers on Dec. 17, 2020.
The historical society will keep the vial on display in a COVID-related exhibit for six months before it moves to a permanent exhibition called “Voices of the Land.”