Medical Philately

Postage stamps may seem a trivial medium for medical history, but it is actually quite interesting. Medical philately is both engaging as commemorative art and sociologically informative about the public interest in this or that health topic. While individual stamps are ephemeral, the stories they depict are enduring. 


World wide, there have been a huge number of stamps issued with medical/health themes, over many decades and by many countries.  

The father of ‘medical philately’ is Fielding Garrison, a military physician and medical historian, as noted in a nice introduction to the field in the Journal of the Association of Physicians of India. The March 2015 issue is dedicated to this topic and a treasure trove of examples world wide.

Herewith is a small sample of some from the United States.

The Red Cross

The first medical-theme stamp was issued in 1931 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the American Red Cross. It is based on The Greatest Mother in the World poster from 1918, part of a WWI promotional campaign. The founder Clara Barton was honored in 1948. The American and International Red Cross organizations are recurring subjects.


A stamp issue is to honor Emily Bissel (1980) is a curious case of “para-philately”—to coin a phrase. Bissel was a social worker who, in 1907, started charity stamps to fight tuberculosis. Initially a collaboration of the Red Cross and the forerunner of the American Lung Association, they were promoted at Christmas time (“Christmas Seals”) and even sold in post offices. 


The Doctor

Physicians of America were honored in 1948. The picture is based on The Doctor, a painting commissioned by Sir Henry Tate as an ode to the doctor who attended the fatal illness of one of his children. It hangs in the Tate Gallery.


Notable Causes

Includes cancer, sickle cell disease and AIDS.


Notable doctors

Includes Johns Hopkins, Charles Drew, Elizabeth Blackwell and Virginia Apgar.


Notable researchers

Includes Barbara McClintock and Linus Pauling.


Artistic Evolution 

Two of the most attractive stamps, in my opinion, are from different eras of printing technology: Polio (1957) and Hospice (1999). 


And you can see the evolution of artistic style comparing the breast cancer stamps from 1996 and 2014.


Mystery Stamps

I leave  you with two stamps that are exercises for the reader: how are Captain Cook, an adventurer, and Mary Lasker, a philanthropist, related to medicine?


What next? 

The complete collection of U.S. postage stamps is available on the Smithsonian’s Arago web site. I counted seventy one health–related stamps. The Arago search function circles through the Google search page and back—annoying but manageable. Have fun exploring and let me know if you have a favorite.

There are very few related books. One notable series (older vintage) is coauthored by the famed hematologist Robert Kyle.

Medicine and Stamps (Volume 3)

Marc A. Shampo (Editor), Robert A. Kyle (Editor)

"...will appeal to anyone with a interest in history and biography, as well as stamp collectors. The book is comprised of biographical sketches of more than 100 physicians and members of the scientific community."

The images used here are from StampWorld.

Check out more books on the history of medicine through our Amazon affiliate link.