Making Connections: History & Medicine, Part Two

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In a January 2019 blog titled “Making Connections: History & Medicine” I wrote about the importance of incorporating the history of health care into survey history courses. At the time I was deeply entrenched in sabbatical research on women and the treatment of the mentally ill, which afforded me the opportunity to explore lots of sources that were new to me as someone who had not previously studied the history of medicine. Fast forward two years and healthcare in the United States has become even more central to the narrative of general US and world history. Thankfully, there are numerous online sources that can supplement our courses as we navigate the constantly changing world of science and medicine.


As we have now entered the vaccination stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s useful to encourage students to look at the long and controversial history of vaccines in the United States. The College of Physicians of Physicians of Philadelphia has a fabulous interactive site that allows students to examine the history of vaccines worldwide through 2018 as well as an article titled “The Scientific Method in Vaccine History” that enables comparison of earlier practices in the development of vaccines to what we as a society have witnessed over the last twelve months. Ask students to think about the time frame that today’s scientists and public health officials have worked with in comparison to early efforts against smallpox and measles. 


Film footage of mass-vaccination efforts are another interesting way to connect what students are seeing in news reports to historical events. Internet Archive enables students to search internationally-produced government films on vaccination efforts. Of particular interest to today’s students is “Unconditional Surrender,” which documents the story of the first child to be vaccinated against polio in the United States in 1954.


The American Social History Project has created “Epidemics in US History”  as a gathering point for primary sources on smallpox, cholera, influenza, and AIDS. The site provides links to online exhibits by the United States Library of Medicine, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Museum of the City of New York, each of which enable students to consider how American society has dealt with infectious disease in earlier periods.


Finally, the advertising industry’s long-standing relationship to healthcare is illustrated by the nearly 600 examples of health-related ads curated by the Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, & Marketing History at Duke University.  Who knew, for example, that Scott Tissue was once marketed as a protective face mask?


Encouraging students to study such healthcare-related advertisements is yet another innovative way to advance discussion of our historical understanding of germs and disease, health and wellness.




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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.