Author Archives: Jenna Healey

About Jenna Healey

PhD Candidate in the History of Science and Medicine at Yale University.

Bringing Together #histSTM and #FergusonSyllabus

In late August, historian Marcia Chatelain started the twitter campaign #FergusonSyllabus as a response to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri following the death of 18-year old Michael Brown at the hands of local police. For Chatelian, an Assistant Professor of History at Georgetown, #FergusonSyllabus was a way for teachers and scholars across the country to crowdsource ideas about how to address the events of Ferguson in their own classrooms. Rather than ignore such a pivotal moment, and all of the racial tensions it brought to the surface, participants in #FergusonSyllabus were committed to engaging with these issues head on. The tragedy sparked conversations about the historical roots of white supremacy, discriminatory housing practices (such as redlining), and systemic economic and educational inequality, all issues that have shaped the contemporary urban landscape in St. Louis as well as in cities across the country. This experiment in academic crowdsourcing produced a diverse list of sources – historical, literary, musical, and artistic – that provide rich context for the struggles facing the people in Ferguson today.

In the weeks since, the #FergusonSyllabus campaign has lost steam, along with the mainstream media coverage of the events in Ferguson (although protests continue). As the semester gets busier, it feels that the urgency of the #FergusonSyllabus moment is already fading away, pushing aside the issues that Ferguson had forced to the surface. But #FergusonSyllabus remained in my thoughts as I read two major pieces of history related news this week. 

The iconic slogan of Ferguson protestors

The first was this editorial, by American Historical Association director James R. Grossman, about the controversies surrounding the introduction of “revisionist” history into American high school curriculum. Tension emerges between those who believe high school history should be a patriotic celebration of American accomplishments, versus those who think students should be taught to think critically about the more disturbing episodes of American history. Can we imagine selections from the #FergusonSyllabus being incorporated into high school as well as college curriculums? I think it is worth thinking about how these kinds of conversations can happen at every level of education, and not just among those who have the privilege of sitting in a college classroom.

The second was this interview, linked to in our Weekly Roundup, that reveals how very old ideas about inherent (read: biological) racial difference have been inscribed onto seemingly objective medical technologies. Author Lundy Braun  (a professor of Africana studies and medical science at Brown University) explains how the spirometer – a machine that measures lung capacity – was designed to adjust for race of the patient. The design of the spirometer draws on a centuries old belief that African-Americans have a lower lung capacity than whites do. Such ideas have been passed on uncritically, cited as scientific fact and integrated into medical practice so seamlessly that many physicians are not even aware of the instrument’s racial dimensions.

Although I did not contribute to the original #FergusonSyllabus, the Grossman article and Braun interview inspired me to think about the ways in which we, as historians of science and medicine, might contribute to this conversation. I am a strong advocate for the integration of history of science and medicine with American history more broadly. Thinking about the history of science and medicine as a field apart from American history, as many historians do, is to the detriment of both fields. Science and medicine do not happen at the fringes of society. Scientific and medical ideas about race have been repeatedly deployed to justify the enslavement, segregation, and oppression of African-Americans and other racial minorities. It is also essential to understand how modern health disparities have their roots not in biology, but in decades of discriminatory policies that prevent entire communities from accessing health care.

In this spirit, I suggest four history of science and medicine books that would appear on my #FergusonSyllabus. There is a strong bias towards the history of medicine because so much excellent work in the social history of medicine has addressed these questions head on. I would love to hear from readers in the comments: What would your picks be?  How they might we envision the history of non-medical science and technology, broadly construed, as fitting into this conversation?

My list, in no particular order:

1. Susan Reverby, Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy (University of North Carolina Press, 2009)

An instant classic and an obvious choice for this list. Not only does Reverby provide the authoritative account of the complex history of the Tuskegee syphilis trial, she traces how stories and memories about the trial continue to circulate in African-American and biomedical communities. Reverby takes the collective trauma of Tuskegee very seriously, even for those who were not directly impacted by it. The stories we tell about Tuskegee matter just as much as the facts of the case. The last section of the book, Traveling, explores these many afterlives of the Tuskegee trial.

2. Steven Epstein, Inclusion: The Politics of Medical Difference (University of Chicago Press, 2007)

Epstein’s book really gets at the tension between biological explanations of racial difference, on one hand, and the very real health disparities created by segregation and poverty, on the other. For many years, clinical researchers used white, middle-aged men as their primary research subjects. As a consequence, white, male bodies became the standard to which all other bodies were compared. It also meant that drugs in clinical trials were not accessible to anyone who didn’t fall into this category. This changed in the early 1990s, when activists called on the NIH to require clinical researchers to recruit a diverse subject pool that included both female and non-white subjects. This inclusionary impulse, however, runs the danger of reinforcing our belief in racial essentialism, without grappling with the fact that many supposed racial differences are social, not biological, in origin.

3. Jim Downs, Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering and during the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2012)

Reconstruction is perhaps the era of history most maligned in traditional historical narratives. It is also a time period which has largely been ignored by historians of medicine. Downs recounts the devastating consequences of emancipation for the health of many freedpeople, as they were left to contend with the fallout of the Civil War with few resources and limited access to medical care. Severe epidemics of smallpox, cholera, and yellow fever, not to mention malnutrition and exposure, crippled communities of freedpeople trying to establish themselves in Southern society.

4. Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Broadway Books, 2011)

Perhaps this is a controversial choice, as it is one of the most dynamic stories of late 20th century medical history as told by (gasp!) a journalist. Skloot recounts the story of the HeLa cell line as created from the tumor of Henrietta Lacks at Johns Hopkins in the 1950s. Lacks was a young black woman living in Baltimore when she passed away from cervical cancer, and her family had no idea that biological material removed from her body would go on living without her. What I think Skloot does so well here is to capture the uneasy relationship between Henrietta’s family and a biomedical giant like Johns Hopkins. Skloot’s emotional engagement with members of the Lacks family hammers home the irony if the HeLa cell line generating billions of dollars in profit (and countless medical breakthroughs) while Lacks’ children are unable to access the most basic medical care. It is a eye-opening contrast between world class, high-tech biomedicine and the atrocious or non-existent level of care only a few blocks down the road.

What books would appear on your #FergusonSyllabus?

Laughing at Smallpox

Back in July, something pretty serious happened. On July 8, 2014, the CDC made a chilling announcement: six vials containing the smallpox virus were discovered in the back of a freezer in a NIH laboratory in Bethesda, MD. The vials were discovered when a researcher cleaning out the lab pulled them out of a cardboard box. Nobody had any idea that they were there.

Smallpox. It’s serious.
CDC Public Health Image Library
The CDC reacted to this serious discovery in an appropriately serious manner. After the authorities were alerted to the existence of the variola-labelled vials, the CDC immediately took possession of the samples and brought them to a high-security laboratory in Atlanta. After testing the contents of the vials, the CDC invited the World Health Organization (WHO) to witness their destruction. A few weeks later, the CDC confirmed that the vials did indeed contain smallpox, and that the material in at least two of the samples was capable of infecting humans. Disaster was averted, but only narrowly.

And yet, something funny happened when the CDC announced this wildly terrifying discovery. The internet, and in particular the twitterverse, found the whole situation to be rather…hilarious.

July 8 will be remembered on the internet as the day of the smallpox joke. Now, smallpox-related comedy is an odd genre (to say the least), and it will be the topic of my blog post today. Although I won’t always be joking about deadly diseases here at AmericanScience (which should come as a relief to the rest of the team), I will be writing about the cultural and social dimensions of biology and medicine.

Before this summer, my exposure to smallpox humor was limited to the wildly inappropriate “smallpox blanket” card one can play in the irreverent game Cards Against Humanity (If you don’t know what I’m referring to, you can check it out here).  In my experience, the card is usually played to great effect, eliciting a combination of horrified laughter and disapproving gasps. And far as the game goes, this is generally the point.

As English actor Peter Ustinov once observed, “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.” Humor is a universal human mechanism for confronting the issues that make us the most uncomfortable. As a historian, I’ve always found jokes to be useful sources for understanding a given culture. In the instance of Cards Against Humanity, the smallpox blanket card invokes the long and violent and history of the European colonization of Native Americans – and that makes most people pretty uncomfortable. And so the academic (read: humorless) side of me can’t help but wonder: What are the anxieties driving this particular wave of smallpox humor? Why is smallpox humor even a thing?

Based on my observations, here are a few ways you can laugh at smallpox:

1. A Disease of History
I admit that my own reaction to the SmallpoxVialsFiasco2014 was generally sarcastic. Sometime between hearing the news (while in very close proximity to Bethesda, I might add) and picking my jaw up off the floor, I turned to social media to express my incredulity:

My sarcastic reaction was not uncommon. Twitter filled up with comments that were some variation on “Oh, no big deal, I JUST FOUND SMALLPOX IN A FREEZER”:

These flippant comments were a reaction to the dissonance created when you juxtapose an act as mundane as cleaning out one’s freezer and with the horror of discovering samples of a deadly human virus that is not supposed to exist (according to the incongruity theory of comedy). No way around it: the scenario in which one opens up a cardboard box and finds smallpox in it seems inherently ridiculous.

But this is only because we live in a post-1980 smallpox eradication world. I can’t imagine anyone having the same reaction to a story in which a scientist stumbles upon a box of diphtheria samples, for example. And there is evidence to support this – in the month of July, the CDC had two other serious incidents in which samples of anthrax and H1N5 avian flu were left unsecured. It was also confirmed that the box that contained the vials of smallpox also contained 300 other vials holding dangerous infectious agents. None of these incidents inspired the same incredulity, or fear, that the smallpox discovery did.

Smallpox wields special power not only because it is so deadly, but because it feels so out of place in our modern world. Smallpox is a disease of history. Its story has been relegated to textbooks and fading vaccination scars (and the John Adams miniseries on HBO). It may have dramatically shaped our past, but it has no place in our future. To be so sure that humans have banished smallpox from the face of the earth, only to find it carelessly stuffed into the back of the freezer, is humbling and horrifying at the same time.

Cue the nervous laughter.

2. Oh The Incompetence!
Some jokes were aimed at the supreme incompetence of the NIH/FDA/CDC/IRS/the White House/Obama, take your pick. To be fair, the discovery of decades old samples of smallpox in an unsecured federal laboratory does not exactly inspire confidence. It was a perfect opportunity to get in a dig at inefficient bureaucracies:

I highly recommend this piece in The New Yorker that imagines a memo sent to NIH maintenance staff after the incident. After reassuring staff that there (probably) aren’t any other deadly pathogens “lying around the facility, tucked behind hedges on the grounds or stacked like cordwood in the common areas,” the supervisor suggests a few precautions that should be taken (Just in case! Probably unnecessary!) What follows is an inane list of bureaucratic instructions, ranging from using a wet floor sign to signal the discovery of deadly neurotoxin to leaving the Ark of Covenant untouched if one happens to come across it.

Beyond poking fun at bureaucracy, the piece is also reacting to complaints made by NIH workers that they were not notified when the vials were found. Fortunately, no workers were harmed during the incident. But one can imagine workers being evacuated for much less than the discovery of a Tier 1 infectious agent.

Lastly, this comic appeared in the Chicago Tribune on August 5, after the CDC announced that two physicians infected with ebola would be transported back to the United States for treatment. Fear of this new deadly scourge collided with outrage over the smallpox incident and claims of incompetence on the part of the CDC. If the CDC can’t keep track of diseases we’ve eradicated, how can we trust them with new biological threats?

3. Vaccination Wars
A gem to emerge from this wave of smallpox humor was the parody twitter account, @NIH_Smallpox, created in honor of the vials themselves. Turns out that tweeting from the POV of long-lost vials of smallpox is a goldmine of comedic material:

Only 24 hours after its creation, however, the NIH_Smallpox account was temporarily suspended for making disparaging comments about celebrity anti-vaccination crusader Jenny McCarthy. But the vials (and others) managed to get in a few good shots at the anti-vaccination camp first:

I found this one to be a tad peculiar, because a) we no longer vaccinate against smallpox b) strategic vaccination against smallpox (in the military, for example) is highly controversial. Smallpox is one of the few cases in which the risk of accidental infection through vaccination potentially outstrips the risk of contracting the disease in another situation. More than anything, these jokes show the intensity with which the vaccine debate is still raging in the United States.

4. Saving The Best For Last
What is my very favorite smallpox joke, you might ask? Without a doubt:

I do love a good pun.

If you’re interested in more smallpox jokes (because, who isn’t?), check out this great compilation (which I can’t take any credit for) by @tarahaelle .