By Patricia Tuohy~
I am not an historian of medicine. However, many of the historians of medicine with whom I’ve worked have wryly talked about researching their “favorite” epidemics. I always found the topic of epidemics to be grim; I was reluctant to join the conversations.
That reluctance, though, didn’t mean the topic was a bad idea for exhibitions.
The Exhibition Program has produced three exhibitions about the history of epidemics: the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, the 1964 rubella epidemic, and the AIDS epidemic during the 1980s. While I still find the topic of epidemics to be grim, there are aspects of these exhibitions that continue to resonate with me.
Ashley Bowen, PhD guest curated Politics of Yellow Fever in Alexander Hamilton’s America, drawing on the earlier work of historian Martin S. Pernick, to shape her narrative. Politics of Yellow Fever tells the story of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia—then the nation’s capital. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Rush, physician, civic leader, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, vehemently disagreed on the causes and cures for the disease that was ravaging the city, disintegrating society, and killing thousands people. The devastation was widespread and those with means fled town.
My “favorite” part of this story is about Philadelphia’s free African American residents who kept the city from total collapse.
Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, both ministers and former slaves, founded the Free African Society in 1787 to provide social services to free people of color in Philadelphia. This experience prepared the Society to respond to yellow fever on behalf of all Philadelphians.
Rashes to Research: Scientists and Parents Confront the 1964 Rubella Epidemic, also guest curated by Ashley Bowen, PhD, and informed by the earlier work of historian Leslie J. Reagan, tells the story of what happened when an epidemic of rubella raged across the country.
Most people experienced mild symptoms when infected with rubella (also called roëthln, German measles, or three-day measles). However, women who were pregnant and caught rubella during their first trimester had a high probability of miscarriage or delivering a baby with congenital rubella syndrome (CRS).
My “favorite” part of Rashes to Research is about the scientists working to develop a rubella vaccine and improve screening techniques.
The researchers were motivated by their knowledge that rubella posed the greatest risk to young, growing families, and that women exposed to rubella needed to make difficult decisions about their pregnancies.
Jennifer Brier, PhD guest curated Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture drawing from her book Infectious Ideas: US Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis. Surviving and Thriving explores what happened in America when AIDS first appeared—the fear and persecution, and the activists who demanded that people with AIDS be part of the solution.
My “favorite” part of this story is, in response to the devastation AIDS caused, a new movement led by people with AIDS—the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). They fought to be included in the scientific process, demanded the release of new drugs, advocated for an expanded definition of the disease, and insisted that other systemic inequalities could no longer be ignored.
People with AIDS and their advocates have made lasting changes to contain the epidemic and provide access to lifesaving treatments, but serious obstacles—including poverty and societal violence—preclude many from staying healthy. Dedicated health professionals continue to work alongside longtime activists. Together, they struggle to develop new ways to care for people living with HIV/AIDS and prevent the disease from spreading.
I don’t think I’ll ever have a “favorite” epidemic. However, my favorite parts of each of these stories, as revealed by the gifted historians with whom I’ve worked, is the courage of those working to overcome societal inequities and scientific challenges to provide better health for all.
Patricia Tuohy is Head of the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.