3/23/2021 Peter Durantine

Professors Across Disciplines Teach Humanities of Pandemics

At the start of the 1918 influenza pandemic, Lancaster was among the few jurisdictions to fight Pennsylvania’s safety protocol orders to close businesses, churches and entertainment venues in order to contain the virus.

“So how does the state respond? It reroutes the trains around Lancaster County and had State Police block the roads; it seals Lancastrians off and they have to fold,” Franklin & Marshall History Professor Maria Mitchell said. “That is a dramatic, historically resonant story that I’d never heard before.” 

This was among the countless facts that students researched for their papers in this semester’s “Pandemics Past and Present” course, a first-of-its-kind interdisciplinary initiative organized and led by the Department of History. It covered everything from the bubonic plague to COVID-19.

“I enjoyed being able to learn about diseases in an interdisciplinary way,” said Emma Steffan, a junior government major whose paper examined the Native American experience in the 1918 pandemic, HIV/AIDS and COVID-19.

  • Headlines from various newspapers in Chicago at the time of the 1918 pandemic. Headlines from various newspapers in Chicago at the time of the 1918 pandemic. Image Credit: Gannett Web Archive

The 16 students who attended the Module 3 course will present their papers at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 25, for “Perspectives on Pandemics Past and Present: A Symposium of Student Research,” a virtual event for the campus. Here’s the Zoom link to attend.

To teach more than the history of pandemics, the course involved six other faculty members. They were: Dan Ardia, professor of biology; Ryan Fowler, assistant professor of classics; Harriet Okatch, assistant professor of biology and public health; Emily Marshall, assistant professor of sociology and public health; Louise Stevenson, professor of American studies; and James Strick, professor of environmental studies.

“Learning from historians, biologists, classicists, and public health experts allowed for the class to cover a wide range of understandings of disease,” Steffan said. “This allowed the course to be far more than just a history class, but rather one where the liberal arts were on full display. It showed how many of the different areas of study at the College can weigh in differently on a topic.“

For Jack Abdalla, a senior history and government joint major, the research aspect of the course was unique to his academic experiences. His paper examined the 1979 anthrax outbreak in the former Soviet Union. Deadly spores were mistakenly released from a biological weapons facility, killing an estimated 100 people.   

“I never had the opportunity to conduct historical research that pertained to illness and thought the class was far too relevant to pass up,” Abdalla said. “Medical history is not just a one-dimensional category of analysis. When examining the history of a deadly outbreak, science, politics, religion, and questions of justice in regard to race, class, gender identity, sexuality, etc. are all bound together.”

  • 1918 influenza poster produced by Rensselaer County Tuberculosis Association, Troy, N.Y.

First-year Claire Masterson, who is interested in becoming a public health and biology major, wrote about tuberculosis (TB) in 19th-century England.

“I’ve always been fascinated with infectious disease and pandemics, which is what drew me to the course in the first place,” Masterson said. “It was interesting to learn the scientific and medical side of things, while also viewing the sociological perspective. This class is literally the epitome of a liberal arts education.”

Masterson said the research intrigued her as she learned how medical authorities wrongly thought TB, an infectious airborne disease that primarily affects the lungs, was caused by heredity and how the upper and middle classes romanticized the disease.

“There were definite similarities between pandemics from a racial and socioeconomic perspective,” she said. “Black and brown populations, as well as people with lower socioeconomic statuses, often have a disproportionately higher mortality rate compared to white populations and people with higher socioeconomic statuses.”

The course was a success for students and faculty, Mitchell said.

“I think it accomplished its goals, which were to give the students an opportunity to reflect on contagion and pandemics from antiquity to yesterday, and to do so in an interdisciplinary way,” Mitchell said. “It really challenged us to think through these issues from the vantage points of biology, sociology, public health and history.”

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