Lessons from Public Health History

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It’s safe to say that most of us are tired of COVID-19. We are hopeful that 2021 will see the introduction of a safe and effective vaccine so that the Pandemic of 2020 can be relegated to the archives along with cloth masks and journals documenting the many hours of quarantine we spent watching television!


As a historian and teacher, however, I cannot let 2020 commence without one last suggestion as to how we can help our students contextualize our national experience this year by comparing current social and political conditions to a historical period of public health crisis. 


Last week students in my US Women’s History class read this fascinating article: “The Pioneering Health Officer Who Saved Portland from the Plague” (Smithsonian Magazine) by Bess Lovejoy, which tells the story of Esther Pohl, an obstetrician tasked with navigating Portland, Oregon, through a 1907 outbreak of bubonic plague as the city’s health officer. Pohl’s work in Portland at the start of the twentieth century was groundbreaking. One of only a few female physicians in the city, Pohl sprung into action as the city’s health commissioner in response to her study of an earlier plague that had ravaged sections of Honolulu’s Chinatown, leading that city to intentionally burn buildings to stop the disease’s spread in 1899. San Francisco, she learned, confronted the same plague in 1900, quarantining 25,000 residents of Chinese-descent in a 15-block area. 


Pohl, Lovejoy writes, “designed an anti-plague strategy [for Portland] that combined her scientific and technical expertise with an understanding of the power of the press.” She invited the press to inspect and report on areas of Portland’s waterfront where garbage was attracting large numbers of rats, known as the primary carriers of the bubonic plague. Unlike in Hawaii and California where politicians had made unsubstantiated connections between Chinese communities and the spread of the plague, Pohl “avoided racist rhetoric and targeted [clean up of] the waterfront instead….” My students were particularly interested in Pohl’s personal call for community action: “everyone in the city, rich and poor, should consider it his duty to exterminate rats.”


Esther Pohl’s story is a useful example of the kinds of challenges that educated women were tackling at the start of the twentieth century. Even though Pohl could not legally vote, she was committed professionally to using her knowledge and skills to aid her community and was subsequently recognized as an expert in a time of crisis. More importantly, considering the time in which we currently live, Lovejoy’s article acknowledges the long history of ethnic discrimination associated with public health crises in the United States and one female doctor’s ability to handle the crisis effectively without resorting to racism and ethnocentrism. 


My students, many of whom are the children of immigrants, were saddened by the fact that more than one hundred years after state governments’ xenophobic actions in Honolulu and San Francisco targeted people of Chinese heritage, politicians in 2020 have made similarly racist charges in relation to COVID-19. No doubt future history textbooks will document President Trump’s references to the “kung flu” and “Chinese virus” as an example of how slow our nation’s progress on race has truly been. Nonetheless, introducing our students to the work of Esther Pohl and other pioneers in public health is a great way to impress upon them that the experience of 2020 is not in itself unique. History presents us with examples of positive and negative responses by human beings to crisis, and offers our students opportunity for both intellectual growth and self reflection. 

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.