Infectious HistoriansJun 01, 2023
Episode 109 - Interdisciplinary Studies of Disease before 1000 (a recent conference Merle and Lee attended)
Merle and Lee discuss a recent conference on epidemics in the first millennium of the common era they both participated in at Georgetown University (in Washington DC). They begin with an overview of the conference itself - its topic and structure - as well as the people they met, include quite a few who were already guests on the show (and a few others who will be guests on the show in the next few episodes). They discuss some of the topics of the talks in the conference and how the many scholars who work on mostly premodern diseases from different disciplines in certain times and places who came together and demonstrated the diverse approaches in this dynamic field of studies. They finish the episode with a brief outline of some of the future topics the podcast will cover.
Episode 108 - The Russian Flu with Tom Ewing
Tom Ewing (Virginia Tech) joins the Infectious Historians to discuss his work on the Russian Flu, a late 19th century influenza pandemic that resonates with the early 20th century Spanish Flu. After setting the stage and touching upon the name of the pandemic as well as its reasoning and implications, the conversation moves to reflect upon the interest (or lack thereof) in the Russian Flu, followed by moving into the topic of mortality counts - covering both their attraction to observers and the difficulties in actually reaching reliable numbers. The next part of the conversation examines the comparison between the Russian and Spanish Flus as well as how the memory of the Russian Flu influenced expectations and behaviors during the Spanish Flu. This soon leads towards Covid within the broader context of earlier pandemics.
Episode 107 - Jews and Plague in Early Modern Europe with Joshua Teplitsky
Joshua Teplitsky (University of Pennsylvania) comes on the podcast to discuss his work on plague and its effects on Jewish communities in early modern Europe and particularly during the 18th century. Joshua offers an overview of some of the rich sources he uses for his research, including both the sources for mortality at the time and sources that describe how local Jewish communities perceived and reacted to plague - ranging from rabbinic responsa to epic Yiddish poems. He then focuses on a single case study - the plague outbreak in Prague in 1713 to offer a more concrete interpretation. The conversation subsequently moves to a deeper discussion of the myth that Jews were somehow more immune or resistant to plague, based on Joshua’s research who explored both the evidence and the origins of the idea. Joshua further connects this myth to broader myths surrounding diseases.
Episode 106 - Knowledge, Science and Health in the Early Modern Caribbean
Pablo Gomez (University of Wisconsin, Madison) comes on the podcast to talk about knowledge, science and health in the early modern Caribbean. The conversation begins with the basics and how the region does not fall into the tropes of modernity, then focuses on Pablo’s interest in how people of African descent navigated the area and period. Pablo speaks specifically about a group of Black ritual practitioners and covers some of the ways in which he learns about them in sources (mostly inquisitional records). The conversation continues to discuss topics such as the transmission of specialized knowledge, memory of earlier societies in the area and the partial presence of the Caribbean in standard narratives of epidemics and pandemics. A brief reflection on Covid wraps up the interview.
Episode 105 - Disease and Healing in Ancient Mesopotamia with Troels Arboll
Troels Arboll (University of Copenhagen) joins the show to discuss his work on disease and healing in ancient Mesopotamia. Troels first defines ancient Mesopotamia both temporally and spatially and points out some of the sources we have for the period and their issues. The conversation soon reaches infectious diseases and how they were perceived and recorded by the inhabitants of Ancient Mesopotamia. This sets the stage for an overview of the difficulties of terminology in the surviving primary sources as well as the uncertainties of retrospective diagnosis that forces ambiguous ancient terms into modern-day categories. Troels subsequently surveys how the inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia responded to infectious diseases, and touches upon the questions of healing. Finally, the conversation moves to Covid and its effects on discussions in the field.
Episode 104 - Disease, illness and religion in early modern French Canada with Mary Dunn
Mary Dunn (St. Louis University) discusses her recent book on disease, illness and religion in French Canada over the 17th and 18th centuries. Mary begins with some background on Canada in the period, then moves to discuss some of the main sources from the period and their authors - the Jesuits. The main part of the interview examines some of the illness narratives Mary found in the sources and some of the stories they told about healing. Mary also shares some of her thoughts of how disability studies can contribute to our thinking about the past, and about her personal connection with her sources based on her own life experiences.
Episode 103 - The National Library of Medicine with Jeffrey Reznick
Jeffrey Reznick (The National Library of Medicine) comes on the podcast to discuss his work as Chief of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine and his research, particularly on the 1918 influenza pandemic. The conversation begins with a survey of the National Library of Medicine, and Jeffrey briefly outlines his normal work there before moving on to the Library’s multifaceted responses to Covid - including the preservation of information and ephemera. Jeffrey reflects on the connections between Covid and the 1918 influenza pandemic on multiple levels. The conversation includes multiple references to resources and tools that the Library of Medicine has been working on and making available to online users. Before wrapping up, the conversation touches upon some of the future directions for the Library of Medicine.
Episode 102 - DDT with Elena Conis
Elena Conis joins the Infectious Historians to discuss her recent book on the history of DDT and its use. The conversation begins with a brief overview of the early history of DDT up to and around its entry into mass production in the 1940s and 1950s. In parallel to the discussion of the commercial and industrial aspects of its use, Elena points out some of the cultural reasons why DDT was so popular. The next part of the conversation examines the changing attitude to DDT and its eventual decline, centered around Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) although earlier voices had similarly critiqued DDT and its massive use. The discussion covers the period until the 21st century, as DDT remains in use, albeit limited, today.
Episode 101 - HIV-AIDS in Kenya with Alex Otieno
Alex Otieno (Arcadia University) joins Merle and Lee to discuss HIV-AIDS in Kenya. After a broad overview of the AIDS pandemic from the 1980s until today, including the issues of mortality and treatment, the conversation moves to Africa and Kenya. Alex discusses the early failure of Kenya to deal with the pandemic, and the rapid evolution of its response since the late 1990s, which has resulted in considerable success. Among the topics covered is the international aid that Kenya receives, the rise of circumcision among males in Kenya, and how the country lives with HIV-AIDS at the present, and both top-down and bottom-up responses to HIV. The conversation concludes with a discussion of the future.
Episode 100 - The Infectious Historians’ 100th Anniversary
Merle and Lee reflect on the past 100 episodes of the podcast. They outline some of their plans for the podcast moving forward, share some of their own research projects, consider how Covid has affected academic life (and the podcast’s development), and discuss their respective disease courses this semester and how those relate to the podcast so far.
Episode 99 - Health and Illness in the Ancient World with Helen Rhee
Helen Rhee (Westmont College) joins the Infectious Historians to discuss her work on illness, pain and healthcare in early Christianity. The conversation begins with an overview of medicine in Greco-Roman antiquity, and transitions from there to survey health and illness in the Hebrew Bible before moving on to early Christian times. The topics covered include changes over time in the association between the divine and health (or disease), asceticism, pain, and the new idea of Christian health through hospitals in cities.
Episode 98 - Anti-Vaccination movements with Paula Larsson
Paula Larsson (University of Oxford) comes on the new Infectious Historians episode to talk about her work on anti-vaccination movements. The conversation begins with an overview of vaccines before moving into vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaccination. Paula explores the similarities in anti-vaccination movements and their arguments over the past two centuries, while drawing parallels to famous recent cases such as the MMR vaccine and its false links to autism and the Covid vaccine. Near the end, Paula discusses her public engagement work, which she has pursued through multiple pathways.
Episode 97 - Empire and the Development of Medicine with Jim Downs
Jim Downs (Gettysburg College) joins the Infectious Historians to talk about his recent book. The conversation begins with epidemiology and its origins, focusing on the 18th century military bureaucracy and the production of scientific knowledge in venues associated with slavery, prisons, the colonies and war. Jim follows the people who produced this knowledge - but emphasizes the voices of the marginalized groups who are an inherent part of this story. The last part of the interview is a discussion of Jim’s public-facing work and some of the issues that such work might encounter.
Episode 96 - Diseases and Urban Space with Sara Carr
Sara Carr (Northeastern University) joins the Infectious Historians for a conversation about her work on redesigning urban space in response to a pandemic. The discussion begins with a survey of the major changes in urban landscapes in the US over the past two centuries. Sara presents the epidemics she covers - ranging from cholera to urban blight - and talks about the speed in which changes might be expected to occur. The differential impact of diseases among class and residency status comes up in several contexts, and Sara discusses what changes might happen in urban space as a result of the Covid pandemic.
Episode 95 - New Research on the Source of the Black Death with Maria Spyrou and Phil Slavin
Maria Spyrou (University of Tübingen) and Phil Slavin (University of Stirling) join Merle and Lee to discuss their recent Nature publication on the source of the Black Death. After quickly covering the basics of paleogenetics and the history of the Black Death(!), the conversation moves on to the article itself and highlights its importance while also offering a “behind-the-scenes” look at how the research was planned and conducted. In the later part of the episode, Maria and Phil reflect on their collaboration over the past several years as well as on interdisciplinarity, its challenges and its potential.
Episode 94 - Epidemic Empire and Colonialism with Anjuli Raza Kolb
Anjuli Raza Kolb (University of Toronto) joins Merle and Lee to discuss “Epidemic Empire”, her recent book on the history behind the metaphor of the “terrorism epidemic”. The conversation covers the development of the idea of insurgent violence as an epidemic in the nineteenth century, touching on imperialism and colonialism, particularly from a British perspective. Anjuli traces the development of the metaphor chronologically, with several stops along the way, until Covid. Among others, Anjuli examines discourse about Muslims and infectious disease, and several transition points - such as the Haiti Revolution and the Algerian Independence Movement, as well as AIDS and 9/11.
Episode 93 - Pollen, infectious disease and the Black Death with Adam Izdebski
Adam Izdebski (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History) joins the Infectious Historians to discuss his work at the frontier between pollen and disease, and in particular in light of his recent work analyzing pollen from the time of the Black Death. The conversation begins with an introduction to palynology (pollen analysis) and its limitations. Adam discusses fieldwork as well as a few examples for what pollen can offer us before turning to his research and what his large meta-analysis of pollen sites across Europe found about the Black Death. Adam also touches upon the potential of interdisciplinary work as well as his outreach initiatives, including his project of getting involved with policymaking.
Episode 92 - Tropical Disease & Medicine with Suman Seth
Suman Seth [https://sts.cornell.edu/suman-seth] joins Merle and Lee to talk about his work on medicine in the British colonies during the 18th century and how it changed as people learned about tropical diseases. Suman begins by providing background on how medicine was practiced in Britain and in the colonies, alongside how new generations learned about tropical diseases over time. He then discusses how people new to colonies were “seasoned” to acclimate them to tropical diseases along with differences in this impact on colonizers, soldiers, and the enslaved among others. At the end, Suman describes how these changes shaped the development of ideas of race and racial thinking.
Episode 91 - The Mexican Church and Disease in the 16th century with Jennifer Hughes
Jennifer Hughes joins Merle and Lee to discuss her work on empire, society and church in 16th century Mexico. After Jennifer sets up the conversation with some background, the discussion focuses on the growth of the Catholic church in Mexico through the Spanish Empire against a backdrop of periodic epidemic disease, examining changes through both imperial and indigenous perspectives. The discussion covers themes such as the economic impact of disease, conversion to Christianity, and the indigenous response to cataclysmic epidemics. Jennifer also presents the range of attitudes and responses on the Spanish side.
Episode 90 - Public Health Labs in History and during Covid with Claas Kirchhelle and Samantha Vanderslott
Claas Kirchhelle (University College Dublin) and Samantha Vanderslott (Oxford University) talk to Merle and Lee about the development and history of public health laboratories and how they worked (or didn’t) during Covid. After first discussing what a public health lab is and how they work, they speak about when they were created in a few countries around the world and how they have developed historically. Claas and Sam note the role of public and private labs together and the key role of Swine Flu in 2009 in how this shaped public health then and during Covid. They also point out the tensions between centralized big data goals and the need for local public health facilities and aims. At the end, Claas and Sam suggest how Covid might be used to shape better outcomes in the future with a greater place for social scientists in future planning.
Episode 89 - Infectious Historians’ 2nd Anniversary!
Merle and Lee meet in person at Princeton University, where they both attended the first in person conference for over two years. The short episode begins with some reflections on Covid and its effects now that things are slowly returning to their pre-Covid state. The conversation continues towards thinking about the podcast’s past year, and Merle and Lee raise several ideas and suggestions they hope to pursue in the podcast’s third year.
Episode 88 - Immigrants and Quarantine at Israel’s Founding with Rhona Seidelman
Rhona Seidelman (Oklahoma University) talks to Merle and Lee about how the newly founded state of Israel quarantined immigrants at Shaar Ha’aliya. After discussing background information on how large the center was and how many people passed through it, she speaks about the diseases people were treated for while there and the reactions of the people quarantined at the center. Rhona then talks about why the site was no longer used over time, parallels to more familiar sites such as Ellis Island in New York, and why the Israeli public has largely forgotten the site in the decades that followed. At the end, she discusses the importance of such histories during Covid.
Episode 87 - Pasteur’s Empire with Aro Velmet
Aro Velmet (USC Dornsife) joins Merle and Lee to discuss his work on the Institut Pasteur in the context of colonial France in the late 19th century. The conversation begins with some background on colonial France and the French civilizing mission, then moves on to examine the foundation and operation of the Institut Pasteur, especially in the French colonies. Aro explains how the Pasteurians became involved in public health in the French colonies and reflects on their relationship to the French colonial state.
Episode 86 - The Antonine Plague with Colin Elliott
Colin Elliot (Indiana University) talks to Merle and Lee about the late second century CE Antonine Plague and the complicated ways to assess its impact in antiquity. He begins by offering the textbook background to the pandemic before turning to discussing the sources we have for the pandemic along with the problems each type of source has. Colin then turns to discuss how this pandemic exacerbated other existing changes to Roman society at the time and how to try to differentiate its effects. At the end, Colin talks to the hosts about the place of Covid in studying ancient pandemics and how his work might be useful for those who work on other pandemics in the premodern world.
Episode 85 - Racial Scripts and Pandemics with Keith Wailoo
Keith Wailoo (Princeton University) talks to Merle and Lee about his work on racial scripts and the racialization of pandemics with a focus on Covid. He begins by discussing the idea of pandemics unfolding in dramatic acts and then explains the role of race in this story. Keith examines the deeper history of these racial scripts, along with the impact various disparities play in other pandemics. Finally, he reflects upon the highly differentiated Covid story in the US based on geography and offers a future for the academic study of the history of medicine.
Episode 84 - Memories and the Modern Uses of the Black Death with Ben Dodds
Ben Dodds (Florida State University) speaks with Merle and Lee about his new book on memories, myths, and the modern uses of the Black Death over the past 200 years. He begins by discussing the emotional appeal of why people continue to study the Black Death, along with the increased focus on the pandemic since the outbreak of the Cholera Pandemics in the 19th century. Ben then speaks more specifically about the Black Death’s role as a key part of English exceptionalism, in which the pandemic is key to ideas about freedom and industrialization. At the end, Ben explains the importance of public facing histories and literature in the memory and myths of the Black Death along with outlining how he does research on these genres.
The image is from Green's A Short History of the English People, illustrated ed., 1902 (vol. 2, p. 478).
Episode 83 - Using Historical Epidemiology during Covid with Kaspar Staub
Kaspar Staub (University of Zurich) talks to Merle and Lee about his work in historical epidemiology and the ways in which it helps contextualize the ongoing Covid pandemic. After first offering background on the field and his education, Kaspar discusses one of his goals, which is to help public health officials and policy makers today understand the historical context of pandemics in the past. He then talks about his work on the 1918 Influenza in Switzerland and its implications for Covid policy, along with how it - and earlier pandemics such as the 1890 “Russian Flu” - fall into the disaster memory gap. At the end, Kaspar, Merle, and Lee have a wide ranging conversation about the role human values play in responding to pandemics and how to help shape those in the future.
Episode 82 - Animals and Disease with Rebecca Kaplan
Rebecca Kaplan (Oklahoma State University) joins Merle and Lee to discuss some of her recent work on animals and disease. Rebecca first explains the different reasons why we should care about disease in animals - ranging from moral reasons to economic reasons such as the impact on humans and their livelihoods. Rebecca also touches upon some of the diseases that move between different species of animals. The second half of the interview focuses on brucellosis, a group of diseases that drew attention particularly in the early 20th century in the context of livestock. Rebecca surveys some of the issues with brucellosis in the US - such as its presence in milk particularly at a time where the dairy industry was trying to get more people to drink milk, attempts to mitigate its impact through regulation, and the involvement of industry and marketing in these processes.
Episode 81 - Archaeology, Pandemics, and Climate Change with Susanne Hakenbeck
Susanne Hakenbeck (University of Cambridge) joins Merle and Lee to discuss the key role of archaeology in histories of disease, pandemics, and climate change in the ancient and medieval worlds. After discussing the place of archaeology in understanding health and disease, Susanne talks about the pivotal role archaeologists have in contextualizing disease at specific sites, including dating and what human remains can and cannot show. She then speaks about archaeology and climate change, especially the place of resilience in premodern archaeology and how settlement patterns change over time. Finally, she discusses the inherent tensions within archaeology about micro and macro scales along with how right-wing and other groups have, at times, co-opted archeology for their own goals.
Episode 80 - Spatial Disease and Covid with Graham Mooney
Graham Mooney (Johns Hopkins University) talks to Merle and Lee about the key roles of place and space in how we understand disease in the modern world. After defining these terms and offering a few examples of how to research them, Graham discusses the key role of disease surveillance and tof state coercion in imperial centers and their colonies. He then turns to talk about changes in public health in the last half century, with a focus on the city of Baltimore. At the end, Graham reflects on all of these ideas in light of the Covid pandemic.
Episode 79 - Healthcare and Immigrant Healthcare in the United States with Beatrix Hoffman
Beatrix Hoffman (Northern Illinois University) joins the Infectious Historians to discuss the healthcare system in the United States. The conversation begins with an overview of the American healthcare system and its origins, then proceeds to cover governmental health programs, highlighting those who receive treatment (and in what form), and those who do not receive treatment and remain uninsured. Beatrix focuses in particular on Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in the 1960s and 1970s, and their attempt to provide heavily subsidized healthcare to union members. The conversation concludes with a reflection on some of Beatrix’s public facing work, in particular her curation of exhibitions at the National Library of Medicine.
Episode 78 - Covid in Iowa with Emily Mendenhall
Emily Mendenhall (Georgetown University) joins Merle and Lee to discuss Covid in her hometown in northwest Iowa. The conversation begins with a definition and reflection on the idea of syndemic, then gravitates towards Emily’s own experiences returning to her hometown of Okoboji during Covid. Emily uses the Okoboji case study to disentangle issues within the broader American response to Covid - ranging from the politicization of the question, to the personal and communal interactions and interests, as well as the common values in the community that influenced the overall response of Okoboji to Covid. The interview ends with a few reflections on potential ways forward.
Episode 77 - Humans, Animals and the Environment in South Africa with Jules Skotnes-Brown
Jules Skotnes-Brown (University of St. Andrews) joins Merle and Lee to discuss his work on humans, animals and the environment in the context of South Africa at the turn of the 20th century. The interview begins with some background about South Africa and its disease landscape at the time. Jules covers some of the ideas the different contemporary groups had about these diseases and how to prevent or deal with them. The conversation goes over some of these ideas and practices - such as extermination of big game animals or the creation of rat proof belts (cleared strips of land). Jules situates the experience of South Africa within a broader global context, while also centering the importance of race and colonialism in the discussion.
Episode 76 - Vermin with Lisa Sarasohn
Lisa Sarasohn (Oregon State University) joins the Infectious Historians to discuss her forthcoming book on vermin since the 17th century. The interview begins with an overview of what vermin are - and how different animal species have been included or excluded throughout the years. The conversation then moves to touch upon early modern conceptions of vermin which eventually led to the stereotyping of human groups as verminous or vermin in the context of colonialism and imperialism. Lisa also expands on two specific species of vermin - lice and rats - before tying the discussion to Covid.
Episode 75 - Translational Humanities with Kirsten Ostherr
Kirsten Ostherr (Rice University) joins Merle and Lee to discuss the role of the humanities in the context of Covid, in particular in an applied sense. The interview begins with an overview of Kirsten’s project and a few examples of current work in the applied humanities that attempts to address Covid. Kirsten notes how her background has helped her reconsider and reframe the traditional roles of the humanities in this context, and continues to highlight some of the limits and challenges the humanities must face in the 21st century mediascape. She also comments on some ideas to increase the humanities outreach among specific and more receptive audiences.
Episode 74 - Smallpox, Inoculations, and the American Revolution with Andrew Wehrman
Andrew Wehrman (Central Michigan University) talks to Merle and Lee about the importance of public health, especially smallpox and inoculations, during the American Revolution. After first orienting listeners to the political situation in North America, Andrew discusses differences between public health in Britain and the colonies, along with how the colonists used quarantine and isolation to stop the spread of smallpox. He then discusses the importance of inoculation in preventing smallpox on a broader scale, along with how the movement of armies during the Revolution led to more demand for more readily available inoculation even for the poor (although not Native Americans). At the end, he offers similarities between 18th century epidemics and Covid including why vaccines changed the calculus and why some outbreaks of smallpox were worse than others.
Episode 73 - Disease Studies Reflections during Covid
Merle and Lee have a reflective episode. The discussion begins with disease studies in academia during the pandemic in attempt to understand to what extent has the pandemic changed the ways in which scholars in the humanities and in particular history departments work on disease. When will things change? Should we expect a paradigm shift anytime soon? The conversation then moves towards resilience as a concept. Is it desirable or just a fuzzy buzzword? Merle and Lee also discuss the pros and cons of outreach and attempts to influence policy before transitioning to a brief discussion about the future of the podcast.
Episode 72 - Climate Change and the Globalization of Disease in the Early Middle Ages with Tim Newfield
Tim Newfield (Georgetown University) talks to Merle and Lee about the connected histories of climate change and diseases that become pandemics, focusing on the early medieval and late antique periods. Tim opens by discussing the global cooling events starting in 536 and how researchers know they happened through various proxy datasets, such as tree rings, along with how historians should approach using these types of natural sources. He then talks about the long-term climate cooling event, the Late Antique Little Ice Age, along with its supposed connections to the outbreak of the Justinianic Plague in 541. Tim also talks about why researchers have remained so focused on the influence of climate on plague. At the end, he discusses where he believes the field of pre-modern historical diseases is going and the influence of Covid in this trajectory.
Episode 71 - Zombie Films with Todd Platts
Todd Platts (Piedmont Virginia Community College) joins Merle and Lee to discuss his work on zombie films over the past half century. He begins by offering a history of zombie movies and the changing features and definition of the zombie. Todd points to a few key films - in particular George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead which eventually resulted in the explosion of zombie-related material in the 21st century. The conversation then moves to discuss disease movies more broadly and in particular in the context of Covid - why did these disease movies become so popular at the beginning of Covid? And what purposes did they serve for their viewers?
Episode 70 - Covid, Policy and History with Ben Trump
Ben Trump (US Army) joins the Infectious Historians for a wide-ranging conversation. He begins with his public health work before Covid and his path to the US Army. Ben then outlines the Covid pandemic through his experience of working on several related projects, already since January/February 2020. Some of these included how Covid might spread in the US’ Pacific islands to figure out the responses needed there, or how to solve basic questions (such as where would personal protective equipment or ventilators go). Ben also shares his experience in trying to draw connections between historical pandemics and our current experience, arguing that the historical case studies are useful in several aspects, for example in how people deal with risk.
Episode 69 - Ottoman Medicines and Disease with Miri Shefer Mossensohn
Miri Shefer Mossensohn sits down with Merle and Lee to talk about Ottoman history of medicines and disease. She begins by discussing the broad contours of medicine and disease in the Ottoman Empire, which lasted for 600 years. Miri reveals the wide variety of medical individuals and institutions that existed in the Ottoman world, with few standardized systems until the 19th century, that meant people who sought treatment had huge numbers of options. During the conversation, she offers numerous examples of how infectious diseases were constantly around and accepted, leading to little proactive government policy. At the end, Miri discusses her time teaching a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Islamic history.
Episode 68 - Persecution of minorities during the Black Death with Tzafrir Barzilay
Tzafrir Barzilay (Ben Gurion University of the Negev) joins Merle and Lee to discuss persecution of minorities and in particular Jews before and during the Black Death. After some background on the Black Death, Tzafrir uses the case study of Strasbourg to demonstrate how persecutions of minorities could be deeply embedded in local politics. The conversation touches upon some of the practicalities of blaming Jews and other minorities for disease epidemics, and Tzafrir differentiates between well poisoning and other types of accusations such as ritual murder and host desecration. Near the end of the interview, the conversation reflects on the difficulties medieval decision makers faced when having partial and biased information at their disposal in the context of the Black Death and widespread uncertainty (e.g. well-poisoning accusations).
Episode 67 - Plague in Bombay and Urban Ecology with Emily Webster
Emily Webster (University of Chicago) joins Merle and Lee to discuss the significant plague outbreaks in Bombay during the Third Plague Pandemic of the turn of the 20th century and the place of environmental history in studying disease. After first surveying the Pandemic and its particular impact in Bombay, Emily discusses why the experience of Bombay was central to how plague was conceptualized across the British Empire and the world. She then explains the importance of urban ecology to understanding the severity of these outbreaks, along with how sanitary measures in Bombay exacerbated the spread of plague, rather than reducing its severity. At the end, Emily talks about her time earning a masters in public health as she was finishing her dissertation along with implications it revealed about the work of historians and scientists.
Episode 66 - Early Modern Pandemics, Quantitative Research and Inequality with Daniel Curtis
Daniel Curtis (Erasmus University Rotterdam) talks to Merle and Lee about his diverse work that touches upon multiple disease-related fields. After an overview of the timeframe in which Daniel works - the late medieval and early modern periods, the conversation moves to a discussion of scholarly collaboration in the humanities. Daniel then discusses the benefits and challenges in quantitative work, especially in premodern contexts, and points out that few scholars reflect upon the biases in the datasets. These issues are connected to Daniel’s current project, which looks at inequality in the aftermath of premodern pandemic. The end of the interview focuses on another of Daniel’s recent projects - looking at diseases, epidemics and pandemics in film, where he examines how women or the poor appear in these films, or how they portray heroism.
Episode 65 - Scientific Freedom, the Cold War, and Communicating Science with Audra Wolfe
Audra Wolfe talks to Merle and Lee about her work on scientific freedom during the Cold War and how it still shapes ideas about objectivity and politics in science to the present. After framing the discussion about the Cold War, Audra explains the notion of scientific freedom that supposedly allowed scientists to develop their own research agenda without state interference, which was created in opposition to the Soviet scientific system. She then discusses how this myth was made, especially in light of the Manhattan Project among other examples. Audra then moves on to discuss science, objectivity, and the idea of politicizing science from the end of the Cold War to the present. At the end, she reflects upon the different ways in which science is communicated to the public and history’s place in this process.
Image credit: HARRY KERR/BIPS/GETTY IMAGES
Episode 64 - Commerce, Capitalism, and the Making of Modern Medicine with Zachary Dorner
Zachary Dorner (University of Maryland) comes on to discuss his new book, Merchants of Medicine, which discusses the role of merchants, commerce, and capitalism in changing how medicine was made, administered, and thought about across the 18th century. Zack discusses the ideas about medicine before the 18th century and then highlights the dramatic changes in commerce and capitalism that shaped how people consumed and thought about what medicine should do by the end of the century. He highlights the role of early modern states and the development of what would become pharmaceutical companies in this process, while linking these changes to questions of race and ethnicity among others. At the end, Zack connects these new ideas about medicine to how we think about disease today, the often neglected role of social factors, and how medical ideas have been used during Covid that continue this legacy to the present.
Episode 63 - How Plague was Taught during a Pandemic with Janet Kay
Janet Kay (Princeton) returns to the Infectious Historians to discuss her promised after action report on teaching her 100 person course, The Art & Archaeology of Plague, at Princeton University. After reminding listeners about the structure of the course, Janet discusses two key features: plague simulations and the guest lecturers from around the world (including using an episode of the Infectious Historians!). She talks about what worked in the course, what students liked and struggled with, and the amazing work her teaching assistants did. At the end, Janet reflects on how she will teach the course again in a few years and what teaching this course might be like in 10 or 20 years.
Episode 62 - Cancer with Robin Scheffler
Robin Scheffler (MIT) joins the Infectious Historians to discuss his recent book on cancer. Robin begins the interview with a broad discussion of cancer and the different ways it was perceived and conceptualized over the past century. The discussion touches upon topics such as the so-called “war” on cancer and its meaning; cancer and gender; some of the trends and individuals involved in cancer research; and finally, government involvement in cancer research and some of the factors that influence it.
Episode 61 - Lyme Disease and Long Term Symptoms with Abigail Dumes
Abigail Dumes (University of Michigan) sits down to talk to Merle and Lee about her anthropological work on Lyme Disease and how it has shaped ideas about long term disease effects on people. After defining Lyme Disease and why its numbers have increased over the last few decades, she turns to the debate over clinical diagnosis of the disease and those who have experienced long term symptoms. Dumes traces out the significant implications of this debate and how it might change disease diagnoses and responses in the future. Finally, she discusses how her work on Lyme Disease can have implications for “long” Covid sufferers, which could reshape ideas about disease in the future.
Episode 60 - Plague and Microbiology in Brazil with Matheus Duarte
Matheus Duarte (University of St. Andrews) comes on the podcast to talk to Merle and Lee about his work on turn of the 20th century plague in Brazil and its impact on creating the field of microbiology. After a brief introduction to disease history in Brazil at the time, Matheus discusses the impact and immediate non-medical responses to the plague outbreak in Brazil and their implications for global events. He then discusses the use of pharmaceutical responses - vaccines and serums - in Brazil and their subsequent use in other places around the world, particularly India. At the end, Matheus discusses the key role these responses in Brazil, and their use around the world, played in the rise of microbiology in Europe and globally to this day.
Episode 59 - COVID Calls with Scott Knowles
Scott Gabriel Knowles (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) joins Merle and Lee to talk about his daily show since March 2020, Covid Calls. Scott begins by providing background to his show, the guests he has had on, and his audience’s responses to the show. He then discusses some of the broad themes he has learned during his 269 shows (as of our taping), including the importance of local context during Covid and the ways in which new themes continue to emerge over the past fourteen months. At the end, he lays out a hopeful vision of what his work, and other public projects of historians and social scientists, could do to shape responses to disasters and Covid in the future.
Episode 58 - Carolingian Medicine with Meg Leja
Meg Leja (SUNY Binghamton) joins Merle and Lee to discuss her work on early medieval medicine and the Carolingians. Meg begins the conversation by situating the Carolingians historically and explaining why they have been written out of the “standard” story of history of medicine. She continues by discussing how the Carolingians thought about health and medicine, while also pointing out some of the issues of concern - and innovations - of the Carolingian period. Among the topics that come up are the supposed dichotomy between “medical” knowledge and “religious” ideas and the extent to which these ideas were held among contemporaries. Meg also links the Carolingian story to broader issues in medieval medicine and reflects upon its importance to non-medievalists.
Episode 57 - Historical Epidemiology with Jim Webb
Jim Webb (Colby College) comes on the podcast to talk to Merle and Lee about his work in historical epidemiology and how its multidisciplinary approach could transform how we teach and research diseases. After first defining what historical epidemiology is and why it is a difficult field in which to do research, Jim gives examples of how he approached these questions based on his malaria research in both the recent and deep past. He then turns to how research on diseases works today and how historical epidemiology could help transform research, teaching, and academia as a whole moving forward. At the end, Jim discusses his recent book on intestinal diseases and how his research was different and similar based on environmental, ecological, and social factors that shaped its impact.
Episode 56 - Historical Demography of Infectious Diseases, Policy and Outreach with Svenn-Erik Mamelund
Svenn-Erik Mamelund (OsloMet) joins Merle and Lee to discuss his work. The first part of the interview focuses on Svenn-Erik’s research as a historical demographer focusing on the 1918 influenza pandemic, and he shares some of the findings about the differential effects of the pandemic on certain groups in the population. In the second half, the conversation moves to discuss Svenn-Erik’s experiences using his research to influence policy in the context of the Covid pandemic, and more broadly conducting outreach. Svenn-Erik shares some of his ideas and suggestions about both policy and outreach.
Fore additional material click here.
Episode 55 - Polio in Hungary and the End of Epidemics with Dora Vargha
Dora Vargha (University of Exeter) talks to Merle and Lee about her work on polio epidemics after World War Two in Hungary. After unpacking the basic information on polio’s longer history, Dora discusses how polio struck Hungary during the 1950s and the way in which vaccines were introduced that stopped the epidemics by the 1960s. She uses polio as a lens to reveal some of the shifting gaps in the Iron Curtain, where east and west worked together to stop these deadly epidemics. Dora then talks about how her work on polio has led her to reconceptualize how epidemics are traditionally seen as ending, along with what this idea might reveal about the so-called end of Covid.
Episode 54 - Alexandre Yersin with Michael Vann
Michael Vann (California State University, Sacramento) returns to the Infectious Historians (our first returning guest!), this time to focus on the biography of Alexandre Yersin, the Swiss-French doctor who discovered the bacterium that causes plague. The discussion covers Yersin’s biography from childhood, through his move to southeast Asia, his successful career and larger-than-life reputation - alongside the less palatable aspects of Yersin’s life. The conversation also touches upon issues such as Yersin’s entrepreneurship, his life as a European within a colonial context, and his personality.
Episode 53 - Joshua Lederberg: Public Science and Re-Emerging Infectious Diseases with Nathan Crowe
Nathan Crowe (U. of North Carolina-Wilmington) comes on the podcast to talk about the life and career of Joshua Lederberg, a key figure in various fields including biology, genetics, and disease from just after World War Two until his death in 2008. Nathan first sketches out Lederberg’s background and his early career, including his work that received a Nobel Prize in 1958 when he was in his mid-30s. He then talks to Merle and Lee about how Lederberg transformed his new status into various public science and governmental policy roles, which also expanded the topics he worked on to include exobiology and diseases among others. At the end, Nathan discusses how Lederberg is remembered now and what his legacy is for infectious diseases today.
Episode 52 - 1st Anniversary Episode!
Merle and Lee celebrate a full year of Infectious Historians (52 episodes)! They reflect on the past year and the podcast, after re-listening to their not-so-bad first episode. They then survey the broad topics that the podcast covered so far - such as local experiences or disease in popular culture - mentioning some of the guests they interviewed along the way. The conversation then moves on to highlight some of the recurring themes that appeared in the episodes this past year, including Lee’s favorite time period - the turn of the 20th century - and Merle’s favorite -isms such as imperialism and colonialism. Merle and Lee then outline the near future of the podcast, and conclude the discussion with a brief survey of the podcast’s diverse audience.
Thank you all for listening, and thanks again to all our guests through the year - it’s been great!
Episode 51 - Yellow Fever in New Orleans with Urmi Engineer Willoughby
Urmi Engineer Willoughby (Pitzer College) joins the Infectious Historians to discuss Yellow Fever, with a focus on New Orleans over the course of the 19th century. Urmi first talks about the biological, the environmental, and human factors that shaped the spread of Yellow Fever from Africa to the Americas across the last few centuries. She then moves on to discuss its particular importance in the city of New Orleans with its differential effects on inhabitants depending on race and class in particular. Finally, she talks about questions of immunized people who survived Yellow Fever along with the ways in which her work could be used in other times and places, including today during Covid.
Episode 50 - Ancient Medicine and Heresy with Jessica Wright
Jessica Wright (University of Sheffield) joins the Infectious Historians team to discuss ancient medicine. The conversation begins with a definition of ancient medicine (and a reflection upon its meaning), as well as considering how ancient practitioners conceived of infectious diseases and infection. The discussion then moves to Christian heresies, which Jessica explains and connects to her own work that shows how certain ancient writers such as Augustine understood these Christian heresies as mental illnesses. At the end, Jessica reflects on the use of mental health related language in the present as a way to discredit one’s (often political/ideological) opponent.
Episode 49 - The Medieval Translation Movement and Late Ancient Medical Texts with John Mulhall
John Mulhall (Harvard University) joins the Infectious Historians to talk about the famous medieval translation movement and his own work on late antique texts. John first talks about what the translation movement was (and was not) along with how it worked and why it is so central to histories of medicine, science, and philosophy. In the second part of the episode, John turns to his own work on late ancient medical texts that were innovative in their understanding of medicine, disease, and especially plague as reactions to events happening in the world. At the end, he reflects upon what these new texts will mean for histories of the plague.
Episode 48 - Black workers in the US Military: Immune or Infectious? with Khary Polk
Khary Polk (Amherst College) joins the Infectious Historians to talk about his recent book on African-American workers in the US military, particularly in the context of their perceived immunity to certain infectious diseases such as Yellow Fever. The conversation touches upon several related topics, such as patriotism and gender roles in the military. Khary also describes how racial thinking shifted over time, and how African-American troops were (mis-)treated within the military over the first half of the twentieth century. The conversation concludes with the potential links between Khary’s research and the Covid pandemic
Episode 47 - HIV/AIDS: Patient Zero, History, and Popular Culture with Richard McKay
Richard McKay (University of Cambridge) talks to Merle and Lee about his work on the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with a particular focus on Patient Zero and the history of the disease. After speaking about the problematic idea of the term Patient Zero, including its chance development, he discusses the early history of the epidemic and its popularization in broader public culture. He then turns to how these public perceptions of HIV/AIDS, and Covid, shape policy responses to disease along with some possible ways forward for historians to engage in public work in the future.
Episode 46 - Ancient DNA and Paleogenetics with Stephanie Marciniak
Stephanie Marciniak (Penn State University) joins Merle and Lee to discuss some of the fascinating developments in studying historical diseases from a scientific perspective: ancient DNA and more broadly paleogenetics. Stephanie provides some context for this research approach, before touching upon several related topics: the process of researching ancient DNA, the diseases that we can (or cannot) identify in human remains, some of the research questions that interest ancient DNA scientists, and a few issues concerning numbers of remains and of positive identifications of disease.
Episode 45 - Teaching Plagues and Pandemics with Janet Kay
Janet Kay (Princeton University) talks to Merle and Lee for a special episode about preparing to teach her “Art & Archaeology of Plague” during the upcoming Spring 2021 semester. She discusses her planning for the broad chronological range of her course that runs from the Plague of Athens (c. 430 BCE) to Covid-19, while introducing Plague Simulations, an innovative set of assignments, and several guest lectures by colleagues. Janet then talks about why she thought this was a perfect time to offer a course like this and how she hopes it will help students think about disease and pandemics of the past while reflecting on our world today. At the end, she promises to come back at the end of the semester and talk about how the course went.
For more content related to the episode, click here.
Episode 44 - Epidemiology and Infectious Disease Models with Lukas Engelmann
Lukas Engelmann (University of Edinburgh) joins Merle and Lee to discuss the history of epidemiology. The conversation begins by thinking about epidemiology as a discipline as well as the gap between the discipline and scholars who use epidemiology. After discussing the development of epidemiology, including in the context of Covid-19, the interview moves to reflect upon infectious disease models, which have become especially popular in the recent pandemic. Some of the advantages and disadvantages of models are discussed, as well as some of the different approaches in how to evaluate them.
Episode 43 - Ebola Outbreaks in West Africa with Adia Benton
Adia Benton (Northwestern University) talks to Merle and Lee about the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014 and why that disease in particular has terrified Western audiences since the late 20th century. After discussing the basics on what Ebola is, where it was discovered, and where it is found today, Adia expands upon its recent large outbreak in West Africa. She then examines why so little time was spent on caring for people who got sick with it and why Ebola has such a powerful sway over popular imagination. She then outlines what she calls racial immuno-logic before reflecting on Ebola and Covid at the end of the episode.
Episode 42 - The Age of Pandemics in India and the World with Chinmay Tumbe
Chinmay Tumbe (Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad) talks to Merle and Lee about his new book, The Age of Pandemics, that reveals the story of how three pandemics - cholera, plague and influenza - have significantly affected India over the course of the long 19th century, resulting in episodes of mass mortality. He first discusses some background on all three pandemics and then turns to why they have not had significant historical scholarship on them over the last century. Chinmay then offers thoughts on new ways to approach the history of pandemics moving forward. At the end, he turns to the process of writing the book during Covid.
Episode 41 - The Justinianic Plague and the Making of the Plague Concept
Merle and Lee record their final episode for 2020 in which they cover a recently published article of theirs. The article, published in the American Historical Review, examines how scholars thought about the Justinianic Plague over the past century and a half. While the scholarly interpretation of plague increased to include more deaths over a longer period and a wider geographical scope, Merle and Lee argue that a more critical analysis reveals that much of this understanding is based on limited evidence and can be better explained through what they term as “the plague concept” - the difference between what plague actually did and our assumptions of what plague should do, by its definition - which often tend towards exaggeration. The discussion therefore examines the changing mortality of plague alongside its different chronology and geographic scope, and then touches upon a couple of truisms - our almost automatic association of the plague with rats and climate which tends to oversimplify the evidence. Merle and Lee wrap up with a discussion of some potential next steps in research on the Justinianic Plague.
Episode 40 - Forgetting and Remembering the 1918 Influenza Pandemic with Guy Beiner
Guy Beiner (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) talks to Merle and Lee about his work on the memory and forgetting of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. Guy first provides background about the impact of the Influenza Pandemic and offers an introduction to memory studies and social forgetting while pointing to problems with concepts such as collective memory. During the discussion Guy examines how historical events are remembered, then surveys the different ways academics and the public have discussed the 1918 Influenza in the past century. He highlights key moments that increased attention to the topic, such as the publication of Alfred Crosby’s book on the topic or the 1968 “Hong Kong Flu”. Finally, Guy reflects upon the most recent wave of attention to the 1918 pandemic during the present-day Covid pandemic.
Episode 39 - Environmental History: Past, Present, and Future with John McNeill
John McNeill (Georgetown University) speaks with Merle and Lee about the changes to environmental and disease history over the last half century. After laying out his definition of environmental history, John discusses the background of the field, then reflects on how different chronological and geographical fields use sources along with how this may change moving forward. Following the previous episode, the question of agency of non-humans is raised again. The conversation touches upon other issues as well - collaboration, how it works and how it may change in the discipline of history. The question of engaging public audiences for example through writing for non-specialists, or creating podcasts and documentaries.
For additional details and readings, visit the episode's page on our website!
Episode 38 - Animals and Epidemics with Susan Jones
Susan Jones (University of Minnesota) talks to Merle and Lee about the role of animals in the spread of diseases and how these diseases can spill over from animals to humans. After laying out some background on the topic, she discusses her new work on “Plague Homelands” in Soviet central Asia during the 20th century. Susan talks about how the Soviet state first attempted to eliminate and then control the spread of plague in various regions, with the implications for people, animals, and the environment. At the end, she reflects upon how her unique background, a doctorate in veterinary medicine in addition to a doctorate in the history of science, shapes the questions she asks about historical sources and animals.
Episode 37 - The Local Effects of Covid in Kansas City with A.J. Herrmann
A.J. Herrmann (Director of Policy for Mayor Quinton Lucas of Kansas City, Missouri) speaks with Merle and Lee about one of their key ideas, the diversity of local experiences during a pandemic, tying it to the present-day experience of Covid in Kansas City since the beginning of the pandemic. AJ begins by laying out the complex regional administrative and political situation of Kansas City, which straddles two states and multiple counties. He then moves on to a discussion of the city’s roll out of its first Covid policies in March and the responses and problems it encountered, as the city adjusted to new realities. At the end, AJ discusses communicating these policies to the citizens of the city and plans to prepare for potential vaccines.
For additional content visit our website!
Episode 36 - Epidemics, the Media, and Collective Memory with Katie Foss
Katie Foss (Middle Tennessee State University) talks to Merle and Lee about her recently published book on epidemics in the media and collective memory in U.S. history from the early 18th century to the mid-20th century. Katie discusses the changes in media technology and how this shifted the coverage of epidemics across these two centuries. She then turns to how the media plays a key role in shaping narratives along with governments and academic research. The conversation also discusses the media’s role in shaping long-term memories of epidemics and diseases. Finally, Katie discusses what it was like to finish a book on epidemics during the COVID pandemic.
Episode 35 - Ancient Malaria with David Pickel
David Pickel, PhD Candidate at Stanford University and Director of Excavations, La Villa Romana di Poggio Gramignano Archaeological Project, Lugnano in Teverina, Italy sits down with Merle and Lee to talk about his research on malaria in the ancient world from both a local and a global perspective. He discusses his ongoing archaeological excavation of a child cemetery, which may have been used specifically for victims of malaria. The conversation then turns to how and why historians suggest malaria had a starring role in stopping Attila the Hun and malaria’s use in the fall of Rome narrative. Finally, he reflects upon the new collaborative work on malaria published across various disciplines recently.
Episode 34 - Vaccinations in China with Mary Augusta Brazelton
Mary Brazelton (University of Cambridge) joins Merle and Lee to talk about her work on vaccinations in China in the early and mid-twentieth century. Mary highlights the Chinese governments’ attempts to vaccinate its citizens, including in times of war, and the different options citizens and officials had at their disposal. The conversation also covers science in China and Chinese scientists’ involvement with the global intellectual community. Finally, the discussion touches upon re-introducing China to global pandemic narratives, while at the same time attempting to avoid stereotypical depictions of China as the origin of pandemic.
Further reading recommendations for this episode.
Episode 33 - Syphilis and Sexual Health in the United States (1890-1940) with Elliott Bowen
Elliott Bowen (Nazarbayev University) joins Merle and Lee to discuss his work on sexual health more broadly. The conversation focuses on syphilis, a venereal disease, between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries in the United States. The disease itself is first put into its social and cultural contexts. One of the most popular centers for the treatment of syphilis at the time was Hot Springs, Arkansas. Elliott outlines some of the experiences of people who came to visit the city, ranging from frequent scalding-hot baths to mercury treatment. The different experiences of underrepresented groups are also touched upon, as are some of the other phenomenon associated with the town such as the widespread prostitution in it.
Link to additional material on the Infectious Historians website.
Episode 32 - Typhoid Fever and Epidemiology in Victorian England with Jacob Steere-Williams
Jacob Steere-Williams (College of Charleston) discusses the role of typhoid fever in Victorian (19th century) England as a key reason for the development of epidemiology. The chat begins with some background about typhoid and its effects along with comparisons to other diseases such as cholera and plague. Jacob then surveys how epidemiology developed over the course of the late 19th century and its place in history, discussing how it has been forgotten compared to bacteriology and Germ Theory. At the end, Jacob briefly chats about the place of epidemiology today and the place of England in the study of public health more broadly. In the post-interview section, Merle and Lee have a meta discussion where they reflect upon the numerous episodes over the last few months about late 19th century diseases, pandemics, and public health and what the future of the history of disease might look like.
Episode 31 - Indigenous Perceptions of Disease: Smallpox in Mexico with Tara Malanga
Tara Malanga (Rutgers University) comes on the podcast to discuss her research on colonial Mexico. The conversation begins with a survey of smallpox and the situation in the New World just before Columbus, then examines smallpox after Contact. Tara describes some of the sources and methodology she uses in her research, and describes some of the ways indigenous populations understood the new infectious diseases they encountered, particularly in the sixteenth century. In the post-interview reflection session, Merle and Lee discuss meta level academic research, comparing their own field and discipline to others.
Visit our website for the episode's additional readings.
Episode 30 - Smallpox, Slavery, and Vaccinations with Elise Mitchell
Elise Mitchell (NYU) sits down to talk to Merle and Lee for the second episode of their mini-arc on vaccines and vaccinations. They discuss the impact of smallpox and forced inoculations on enslaved people during the 17th and 18th centuries, the experiences of enslaved people during this process, and governmental and non-governmental responses to epidemic outbreaks. At the end, Elise talks about the importance of her work during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
This episode concludes our two-episode mini-arc on vaccinations, and we recommend listening to them both if you’re interested in the topic!
Episode 29 - Vaccinations and anti-Vaxxers with Jim Harris
Jim Harris (Ohio State University) joins Merle and Lee to offer an overview of the development of vaccinations since the first smallpox vaccine in the late 18th century. The discussion touches upon pre-18th century practices for treating smallpox, before examining the spread in vaccination use. The second part of the interview moves to discuss anti-vaccination ideas and movements in their socio-cultural contexts. Finishing at the present, it covers the main factors influencing anti-vaccination as the group attempts to understand it as a historical phenomenon.
Episode 28: The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt with Michael Vann
Michael Vann (California State University, Sacramento) talks to Merle and Lee about the arrival of the Third Plague Pandemic in colonial Vietnam that led to the Great Hanoi Rat Hunt. Michael tells the amazing and amusing story of how colonial administrators put out bounties for killing rats in an effort to stop the spread of plague, and the surprising results of that approach. The story sheds light on questions of colonialism, racism, and imperialism. Michael also talks about the process of turning his academic article into a graphic history and the public outreach and responses to it.
Episode 27 - Sleeping Sickness in East Africa with Mari Webel
Mari Webel (University of Pittsburgh) discusses the impact of sleeping sickness at the turn of the 20th century in East Africa. Mari talks about the role of sleeping sickness both before and after European colonization and how this disease shaped public health more broadly. She also speaks about the experience of local inhabitants during imperial efforts to stop sleeping sickness. The conversation also covers African history, thinking about how it is taught and researched, while considering the sources that researchers use.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Robert Koch Institute, Berlin
Episode 26 - Playing Pandemic: Infectious Diseases in Games
Merle and Lee consider games that feature infectious diseases in multiple media. After a brief overview of types of games and references to games that feature infectious diseases as part of their plot, the conversation focuses on two popular and successful, yet very different pandemic games where the infectious disease pandemic is central to the game: Pandemic and Plague Inc. Pandemic is a cooperative board game in which players have to quickly find cures for a few threatening diseases while avoiding too many disease outbreaks around the world. Plague Inc is a single player video game (also an app) in which players are supposed to infect the entire world and kill all the humans in it.
Episode 25 - Germ Theory and Popular Culture with Nancy Tomes
Nancy Tomes (Stony Brook) talks to Merle and Lee about how Germ Theory was developed in the second half of the 19th century and how the public learned of it through advertising and other forms of mass media. Nancy also talks about the central role of women in this process alongside how ideas about germs changed over the 20th century. Other topics they discuss are the centrality of the AIDS pandemic to these later developments and how some of the ideas to reduce the spread of germs that seemed outlandish at the turn of the 20th century have returned with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Episode 24 - The Outbreak Narrative with Priscilla Wald
Priscilla Wald (Duke University) joins Merle and Lee to discuss the “outbreak narrative” she outlined in her influential book Contagious. After defining the outbreak narrative as a common way to understand infectious disease outbreaks, the conversation moves to examine where the outbreak narrative is used, and why has it been so popular for so long. Other topics covered include the relationship between zombie stories and the outbreak narrative, whether COVID fits the narrative, and why there are - perhaps - reasons for post-COVID optimism.
Episode 23 - Myths and Legends about the Black Death
Merle and Lee chat about four myths that have repeatedly circulated in popular media about the effects of the Black Death: it was an economic leveler that ended feudalism, it led to the Renaissance, it created modern public health, and it changed intellectual ideas about medicine. They reflect upon why these myths remain popular, since they are based upon causal ideas of history where one big event leads to another and changes the world, despite historians demonstrating their problems for decades. These myths exist across all media - this episode’s cover image, for example, is often used to accompany media coverage of the Black Death, even though it is not an image of the bubonic plague.
Episode 22 - Virology Research Developments with Vincent Racaniello
Vincent Racaniello (Columbia University) joins the podcast to discuss virology. The conversation includes trends and developments in virology over the past few decades. Vincent discusses the importance of vaccines in preventing pandemics, and offers an overview of the connections between politics, industry and research. Multiple references throughout the conversation touch upon the research, collaboration and potential effects of COVID-19. During the reflection section, Merle and Lee are joined by Infectious Historians’ new research assistant Tori Zirul, who offers her own take on the conversation with Vincent and its implications as well as on science outreach.
Episode 21 - Iran in the Age of Cholera with Amir Afkhami
Amir Afkhami (George Washington University) talks to Merle and Lee about the 19th and early 20th century outbreaks of cholera in Iran. He begins with a broad overview of recent Iranian history in the context of infectious diseases, and continues to discuss how imperialism and colonialism shaped how cholera struck Iran. Amir then shows how modern public health emerged in the country as one of the outcomes of this disease. At the end of the conversation Amir also discusses the wider context of infectious diseases in Iran, including the 1918 Influenza Pandemic and Covid-19.
Episode 20 - Archaeology and Infectious Diseases with Jordan Pickett
Jordan Pickett (University of Georgia) comes on the podcast to talk about archaeology. The first part of the interview covers archaeology, together with its different methodologies and its challenges. In the second part, Jordan suggests different ways in which archaeology might provide evidence for the effects of infectious diseases. Mass graves - in different sites - are discussed, as well as other potential indicators of infectious diseases and their effects. Additional topics include the problem of equifinality, as well as collaboration within and between disciplines.
Image: View from late antique fortifications at Sardis, Western Turkey (credit: Jordan Pickett)
Episode 19 - Plague and Contagion in the Medieval Islamic World with Justin Stearns
Justin Stearns (NYU Abu Dhabi) talks to Merle and Lee about his research on contagion, disease, and plague in medieval Islamic thought. Their conversation touches upon the central role of plague to Islamic thinking, since plague struck during the early conquests and the formation of the Islamic community. Justin also highlights some similarities and differences between studying these topics in the Islamic world and Christian Europe. Finally, he reflects upon how Islamic thinking about plague has been talked about during the Covid-19 Pandemic.
Episode 18 - Medicine in the Middle East, 1830-1950 with Liat Kozma
Liat Kozma (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) speaks about medicine in the modern Middle East using a regional perspective. The conversation discusses the beginnings of modern medicine in the region, the establishment of medicine schools from Istanbul to Baghdad to Cairo, the identity and activities of the practitioners and the health contrasts between urban centers in the region and the countryside. A recurring theme is the continued interaction between the Middle East and the broader world in particular Europe, demonstrated through politics as well as scientific debates. The conversation also covers certain events such as the cholera outbreaks in the region and their context.
Episode image: Qasr al-ʿAyni, Staff of the School and Hospital 1884-1898
Episode 17 - Resilience and Rebounding from Crises with John Haldon
John Haldon (Princeton University) talks to Merle and Lee about how states and societies react to systemic crises through the lens of resilience studies. After an introductory discussion about the concept of resilience, they speak about how the Byzantine Empire survived massive political, economic, and military losses during the seventh century and was able to reconfigure its governance to meet new realities. Haldon also discusses why he thinks the later sixth and seventh century outbreaks of the Justinianic Plague did not play a significant role in these changes. At the end, Haldon offers some ways resilience research might be useful for thinking about Covid-19 and how historians might help influence policy to build better societies in the future.
Episode 16 - Pandemics in Film with Robert Alpert
Robert Alpert (Fordham and Hunter College) discusses pandemics in film as a form of popular culture. After an introduction of how to analyze film and whose perspective it conveys, the conversation focuses on two films, Outbreak (1995) and Contagion (2011), and the shifting ways in which each represented its fictional pandemic. Alpert points out the differences and similarities between the movies and our contemporary experience of COVID-19, explains why zombie movies should be considered pandemic films, and explains why he believes movies should not be disregarded because they are “unrealistic”.
Episode 15 - Diseases and Native Americans from Colonial Hawaii to Covid-19 with Seth Archer
Seth Archer from Utah State sits down with Merle and Lee to talk about the diseases that passed through the Columbian Exchange and their impact on Native Americans. Archer offers a broad take on how historians have written about diseases after the colonization of North America and then turns to his area of expertise: the impact of disease on Hawaii after the voyages of James Cook. He reveals how historians of disease can move past questions of demography to investigate cultural questions. At the end, he talks to the hosts about how Covid-19 has struck Native Americans today, connecting back to earlier episodes on the role of race and economic inequality in our current pandemic.
Episode 14 - The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 with Ida Milne
Ida Milne from Carlow College joins Merle and Lee in a conversation on the 1918 influenza pandemic. Milne’s work has been instrumental in uncovering the story of the pandemic in Ireland, and she reflects on her work so far. Among the topics covered are the vexed question of origins of the 1918 pandemic, as well as the the context of Irish history that plays an important role in the way the pandemic was experienced and remembered. The discussion also touches upon Milne’s methodology that included interviews with people who lived through and remembered the pandemic, and discusses the malleable memory of the pandemic among survivors and others.
Episode 13 - Medieval Public Health with Guy Geltner and Janna Coomans
Guy Geltner and Janna Coomans from the University of Amsterdam and members of the project Premodern Healthscaping, discuss their work that offers new insights into what public health was like in medieval urban settings. They reveal a far more complex picture of how local cities practiced various types of public health. Geltner and Coomans talk about examples from Italy, the Islamicate world, and the Low Countries of how produce markets and local communities, among many others, organized and maintained sanitary standards even before the Black Death struck Eurasia. At the end, they reflect on why studying medieval urban public health can change how we think about modern public health around the globe today.
Episode 12 - Fact, Fiction, or Both? A Discourse Approach to Historical Epidemics with Chris de Wet
Chris de Wet (University of South Africa) discusses his work on discourse analysis, and how we can use it today to better our understanding of the social, cultural and psychological effects of past infectious diseases. The discussion focuses on the sixth century historian John of Ephesus, as well as on the third century bishop Cyprian. Chris, Merle and Lee reflect on the importance of discourse and how it shifts over time - whether in late antiquity or in the present with regard to COVID-19.
Episode 11 - Tuberculosis in the Ancient World
Merle and Lee speak with Julia Simons, a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania, about her research on tuberculosis in ancient Greece and Rome. They discuss how ancient writers talk about the disease, the material culture evidence for it, and the increasing use of bioarchaeological remains in studying it. Julia offers insights into why diseases like tuberculosis have not featured as prominently in large questions of historical changes, even though it may have killed significant numbers of people in the past and continues to kill many around the world today. Merle and Lee conclude by reflecting on disease hierarchies and how we teach diseases in courses focusing on what is included and what is left out.
Image credit: Piccioli, A. et al. (2015) Bones: Orthopaedic Pathologies in Roman Imperial Age. The Italian Society of Orthopaedics and Traumatology (Springer International Publishing: pp 34-5)
Episode 10 - The Third Pandemic
Merle and Lee talk to Christos Lynteris, a medical anthropologist, on the Third Pandemic of Plague and its impact across the globe between 1894 and 1959. The pandemic is discussed in terms of its origins, spread and social, political and epistemological consequences, but also in terms of establishing the notion of the pandemic in medicine and beyond. Christos offers insights into the long-lasting legacies of the pandemic, including the development of the scientific study of zoonosis, epidemic photography, and various technologies of epidemic control.
Episode 9 - Public Health in the mid-20th Century
Merle and Lee talk to Thomas Zimmer, a scholar of global public health, on how the nations of the world developed public health after World War Two and how they attempted to stop the spread of infectious diseases. They talk about how the World Health Organization attempted to eliminate diseases, particularly malaria, and why these efforts ran into problems. Thomas offers insights into how these mid-20th century issues shape how we approach global public health today and the many problems the politicization of public health entails. Merle and Lee conclude the episode by reflecting on the importance of understanding the 20th century history of global public health for scholarship on pre-modern pandemics as well.
Episode 8 - Studying Historical Epidemics
Merle and Lee discuss how historical research is conducted today, in an episode aimed at a general audience. How do scholars decide to study a topic? What are primary and secondary sources, and how do historians use them? What are some of the other sources historians study other than texts? Throughout the episode, Merle and Lee use their own research experience as an example and reflect upon some of the challenges they encountered.
Episode 7 - Links between Environmental Justice and COVID-19
Merle and Lee discuss how the environment we live in has an impact on how the Coronavirus Pandemic spreads with Fushcia Hoover. They talk about how existing structural problems have made the pandemic worse in African-American and other communities and why simply telling people to socially isolate and behave better ignores all these issues. Fushcia also discusses some short and long term ways to solve some of these structural problems. Merle and Lee conclude the episode by reflecting on the similar points raised in the two recent episodes on inequality and environmental justice during the ongoing pandemic.
Image credit: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
Episode 6 - COVID-19 and Inequality in the United States today
Michelle Smirnova, a sociologist (University of Missouri, Kansas City), joins Merle and Lee to discuss some of the present-day effects of COVID-19 in the US. They cover the differential effects of COVID-19 on disadvantaged populations in the US, the US health system and the administration's stance towards infectious diseases, and touch upon some of the challenges involved in providing precise statistics.
Image credit: IDB
Episode 5 - The Black Death, Part 2: Central Asia
Merle and Lee talk to Phil Slavin about the evidence for the impact of the Black Death in Central Asia before it arrived more famously in Europe.
Episode 4 - The Black Death
Quarantine in many countries around the world continues, preventing many from celebrating Passover, the first of three major holidays in April (followed by Easter and Ramadan). Abigail Agresta joins Merle and Lee to discuss the most infamous pandemic in history - the Black Death. After some general background on the Black Death, Abigail discusses her own work on plague in Valencia, a topic on which she has recently published an article (link in the show notes on our website), as well as contemporary reactions to the Black Death and minority scapegoating (or lack thereof).
Episode 3 – Quarantine in the Past & Social Distancing Today
Many of us are self-isolating and social distancing at home during the ongoing Coronavirus Pandemic in a modern form of quarantine. Merle and Lee speak with the leading expert on historical quarantine in the 19th century, Alex Chase-Levenson to learn how quarantine developed, how it worked, and whether it was effective. They also discuss similarities and differences between the past and the present.
Episode 2 - The Justinianic Plague
Merle and Lee discuss the late antique Justinianic Plague (c. 541-750), also known as the first plague pandemic. They cover the current consensus about plague first, and then offer their reinterpretation, together with some ideas for further research.
Episode 1 – Plagues in Human History
Merle and Lee talk about the scientific and medical background to the plague describing the bacterium, Yersinia pestis, and how it sickens and kills humans. They offer an overview of the 3 historical plague pandemics, where we can find plague today, and touch upon the obsession with plague in popular culture.
Episode 0 - Introduction
As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to spread, in this short episode hosts Merle Eisenberg and Lee Mordechai discuss the reasons for launching a new podcast now, begin to consider how historical diseases might help us think about our present, and outline some of the upcoming podcast episodes.