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What sickness, health, and medicine from the past can teach us now

Thinking about the current pandemic inspired Assistant Professor of History Kate Johnston to develop a new course that examines health and healing in America’s early history.

Sickness, Health, and Medicine in Early America is giving students a new perspective on epidemics, such as smallpox and yellow fever, and how they transformed life for various communities in the past. The class compares the cultural, religious, and racialized components of healing in indigenous, African- and Euro-American traditions, and connects those public health concepts to what we see in America’s treatment of the pandemic today.

The course encourages students to discover more about the past while also thinking critically about the present. “Covid is new for us—it’s this new thing that we’re all learning to live with and are reeling from—but epidemics aren’t new,”  says Professor Johnston. “What can we learn from past pandemics and epidemics that might help us today? That could be through applying the lessons we learn or seeking comfort in the fact that this has happened before—or not taking comfort in it and asking, ‘How can this happen again? We should have known all this.’”

Johnston’s research focuses on slavery, the environment, and health in the Atlantic world. Much like today, Early America proved that during widespread health crises, communities are not affected equally. “Fears and interpretations of disease are bound up with the creation of racial categories in Early America, which developed the racialization of health and illness today,” Johnston says. “These connections are essential to understanding approaches to race in medicine as well as the racism that is often embedded in public health measures.”

As a result of the course’s interdisciplinary approach and inclusion in the Health & Healing Channel, Johnston was pleasantly surprised by the diverse interests of the students in her class. “Of the people in the class who have majors, we have critical identity studies, biochemistry, anthropology, history, biology, psychology, health and society, environmental studies. I really like the perspective that they’re bringing. For pre-med students or someone interested in a health career, history can actually be really important in helping us think this stuff through,” she says.

Channels classes also aim to help students make connections between their interests and potential career opportunities. To that end, Johnston invited alumna Amanda Mehl’06, a public health administrator in Illinois, to talk to her class over a video conference about her path. “I think a lot of alumni go on to get several different kinds of jobs, and their careers change over time. I think it’s also good to see that there are so many avenues open,’” says Johnston. “I’m hoping to build up a network through Channels and ideally keep offering this class and have alumni from this class come back and talk.”

This semester, the course was entirely online, but that didn’t prevent meaningful conversations from happening. In fact, Johnston thinks the virtual format facilitated them. “I think the class has actually been going very well because it offers us the opportunity to meet in different formats,” says Johnston.

Once she didn’t limit herself to thinking only about teaching online versus in person, Johnston was able to consider what would be ideal setups for a mod course. “Because we’re meeting every day, I thought: let’s change up the format—let’s meet half at a time, let’s meet all together, let’s meet in small groups. You can’t have small group work in a Covid classroom, so being able to be online meant that in Zoom, I can go around and visit breakout rooms while they’re all doing group work. Being online has allowed for that to happen.”

Meg Kulikowski’21
September 24, 2020
  • History Professor Kate Johnston is teaching a special history course for the first time this fall that considers health and healing in a historical context. She is shown teaching a class in 2019.
    Howard Korn’87

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