LSU Health New Orleans Libraries

The Conquest of Yellow Fever (1931)

by Enrique Alferez (1901-1999)


Photo of Art Deco frieze

The Conquest of Yellow Fever (1931) is an art deco bas-relief sculpture originally housed in the LSU School of Medicine. It was commissioned from artist Enrique Alferez. It depicts the United States Army Yellow Fever expedition to Cuba in 1899, led by Dr. Walter Reed, and the ultimate conquering of Yellow Fever. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, New Orleans and other cities suffered from horrific epidemics of the disease. The germ theory of the spread of disease had not yet been fully elucidated, and cannons were fired throughout the night to ward off the disease. The Reed team illustrated in the sculpture, Drs. Walter Reed, Aristides Agramonte, Jesse Lazear, and James Carrona, put forth the first scientific theory regarding Yellow Fever, the source being discovered as the mosquito.

The sculpture's original coating was of ground aluminum and banana oil over the plaster body. It is twelve feet in length, and weighs 600 pounds. It originally hung in the lobby of the first location of the LSU School of Medicine, 1542 Tulane Avenue. At some point prior to 1961, the sculpture was accidentally painted over with industrial green paint. In the 1980s when the building was undergoing renovations, the sculpture was chiseled out of its original location. It was re-hung on the second floor of the building opposite the old Library, and a proposed dropped ceiling would have covered it. Recognizing the sculpture's significance, LSU Medical Center librarian Judith Caruthers, later Director of the Library, and Dean of the School of Medicine Robert Daniels were successful in safeguarding it. The sculpture was taken down by a local plaster artist in 1987, with hopes it could be refurbished.

After over a decade out of the public view, the LSU Medical Center foundation initiated the effort to restore the sculpture in 1999. It was sent to conservator Lynn Harrington, who carefully restored the piece to its original state with support by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Louisiana State Arts Council, and the Louisiana Division of the Arts, Office of Cultural Development, Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism. On December 16, 2008, the frieze was installed in the newly-remodeled Library Commons at the Library's current location at 433 Bolivar Street. The sculpture's specially-prepared alcove and adjacent walls feature iridescent panels made to mimic the walls of a hospital. The final steps of the restoration process were completed by the conservator shortly after the sculpture's installation.

Picture of plaque describing sculpture

The group of men illustrated are Drs. Walter Reed, Aristides Agramonte, Jesse Lazear, and James Carrona. Dr. Agramonte is the central figure among the group of men illustrated in the sculpture. He was the pathologist for the expedition, and was later named LSU's first head of Tropical Medicine. He died shortly after his appointment to the faculty of the LSU School of Medicine, but willed his books to the school. These became the foundation of the medical library, whose original name was the Agramonte Medical Library. The left side of the sculpture represents agricultural and rural life, whereas the right shows industrial science. A nurse from Charity Hospital was the model for the central female figure.

Artist Enrique Alferez, born in Mexico in 1901, trained in the Bauhaus style at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1924. He began his career creating pieces for the burgeoning Chicago skyscrapers of the era. While trying to work his way back to his native Mexico, he arrived in New Orleans in 1929, and earned his first commission to build five figures for the Church of the Holy Name in Algiers. He was also fired to teach at the New Orleans Arts and Crafts School. He later served as director of the sculpture program of the New Orleans Works Progress Administration (WPA), during which he produced a large body of work for the city's public spaces. In addition to The Conquest of Yellow Fever, he completed two reliefs for Charity Hospital: Louisiana in Work and Play, cast in aluminum, and a second limestone carving of medical themes. Alferez also had commissions across the United States, Canada, South America, Europe, and Asia, but the greatest concentration of his work is in his adopted hometown of New Orleans. He continued to work and live in the city, with extended stays in Morelo, Mexico, until his death September 14, 1999.

More information about the expedition, the sculpture, the artist, and the digitized Aristides Agramonte Yellow Fever book collection is available in this booklet prepared by the Library.

--taken from the brochure "The Conquest of Yellow Fever: The famous relief sculpture bu world-renowned artist Enrique Alferez finds new life in the LSU Health Sciences Center Library"