RECAP: “Parallels & Pragmatism: Disease Control in History” Panel Discussion

The manic depressive “end of history” rhetoric that inevitably arrives in lockstep with crisis is, Kinder Institute Associate Director Jeff Pasley pointed out in kicking off the April 24 panel on “Disease Control in History,” something that can (or at least should) be easily tempered by showing how, in similar times, history hasn’t actually ended. And we can learn something about our present difficulties by considering why.

Take, for example, the lesson to be gleaned from Benjamin Franklin’s response to the looming threat of French and Spanish privateers who were just off the coast of Philadelphia in 1747-48. As Temple University Associate Professor of History Jessica Roney showed in elaborating on her April 2 Washington Post op-ed, “Benjamin Franklin would want us to take the covid-19 battle into our own hands,” Franklin’s call for citizens to rise up in defense of the militia-less colony when the pacifist Quaker government wouldn’t has interesting parallels to our current (depending on when you read this) shelter-in-place lifestyle. Specifically, while staying at home might seem the polar opposite of members of Franklin’s Defense Association drilling in the streets of Philadelphia, Prof. Roney argued that they spring from the same ethos. We don’t stay indoors because we are coerced to by the government, that is, but we do so instead out of the same commitment to civil society—the same freely-made choice to defend one another—that motivated Franklin’s volunteer militia.

Prof. Roney warned, however, that we should not mistake Franklin’s DIY leanings for a conviction that we, as a public, can go it alone. Franklin was a pragmatist who believed in the state, and nowhere did this belief prove more accurate-by-negative-example than during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, when conditions worsened after state officials, along with members of the elite class, fled the city, leaving the people to fend for themselves. Likewise were the inherent inequities and injustices that arise during times of crisis on full display here. As Prof. Roney noted in closing, African Americans, who were thought unsusceptible to the disease, did much of the nursing during the pandemic, though credit for this frontline work was never given and has largely been lost in histories of the era.

Dr. Sonia Tycko, the Kinder Institute’s Junior Research Fellow at Oxford (St. Peter’s College) and the Rothermere American Institute, then highlighted her recent work that traces another disheartening historical parallel in examining the effects of disease outbreak on prisoners. For one, she underscored the treacherous ethics of putting people’s lives at risk for crimes that are not only often quite minor but for which prisoners have, in many cases, not yet been sentenced. Also troublesome are the ethics of prisoner release. In the mid-17th century, for example, POWs were frequently released during times of epidemic but then forced immediately into bound labor scenarios that were as dangerous to their health as imprisonment. Today, Prof. Tycko showed, we continue to see prisoners released not only into perilous, uncertain conditions but also into a world where the infrastructural apparatuses (e.g., parole offices) that can assist with re-integration have been shuttered. This is, Prof. Pasley added, something of a microcosm of the lockdown phenomenon as a whole, where policies, however good they may seem or be, are passed without legislators taking responsibility for what happens after.

Finally, MU Assistant Professor of History Kristy Wilson Bowers noted how fellow historians of medicine—and particularly pre-modern historians of medicine—have surged into the fray to provide important historical context both for our present times, in general, and for the specific policies that have been put into place to address the spread of disease. The separation of the sick from the healthy is, as she argued in a recent in-house article, not new at all but dates back beyond the common touch point of the Bubonic Plague to the earliest of civilizations. The trick in considering and contextualizing this, she continued, is to help people re-frame contemporary conditions away from medieval stigma. Containment strategies which keep us apart from one another are not barbaric; it’s not draconian to not be able to do what you want to do. Instead, strategies like sheltering-in-place represent—and have long represented—a communal effort to do the best we can with the little information we have.

Jessica Roney studies bottom-up political culture in colonial America. Her first book, Governed by a Spirit of Opposition: The Origins of American Political Practice in Colonial Philadelphia, studies voluntary associations and civic culture in Philadelphia from its English founding in 1682 until the American Revolution and argues that, in Philadelphia, the civic engagement of ordinary white men (rather than exclusively of elites) was far more pervasive than historians had understood. Her current book project, Revolutionary Settlement: The Colonies of the American Revolution, examines two linked diasporas that resulted from the American Revolution: one of Loyalists predominantly to Canada, and one of Anglo-American settlers to the trans-Appalachian west where they founded colonies that might—or might not—one day be part of the United States. Her work asks how these people (and the policymakers who wanted to regulate them!), who had all lived through the American Revolution, drew meaning from that seismic event, and how they implemented those lessons as they created new colonies as parts of larger empires.

Sonia Tycko is a historian of early modern England and its American colonies, with an emphasis on social relations, law, and labor. She received her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2019. As a Kinder Junior Research Fellow in Atlantic History at the Rothermere American Institute and St. Peter’s College, Oxford, she is revising her dissertation into a book, tentatively entitled Captured Consent: Forced Labor and the Rise of Freedom of Contract. This project examines what consent meant and how it worked in seventeenth-century master-servant relationships that were formed under coercion. An article arising out of this research, “The Legality of Prisoner of War Labour in England, 1648–1655,” is forthcoming in Past & Present. Her research has been supported by the Mellon-ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship, the American Historical Association, the Huntington Library, the North American Conference on British Studies, the John Carter Brown Library, and the McNeil Center for Early American Studies.

A native of northern Virginia, Professor Kristy Wilson Bowers first arrived in the midwest for graduate school at Indiana University. Upon leaving Bloomington, her teaching has taken her across the country from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Maryland and Pennsylvania, then back again to the midwest. She arrived at Missouri in 2015 after 13 years at Northern Illinois University.

Professor Wilson Bowers is an historian of medicine, whose research focuses on early modern Spain. Her first book, Plague and Public Health in Early Modern Seville, examines the processes of negotiation between city leaders, doctors and residents over public health regulations in response to plague epidemics. Her current book project focuses on sixteenth-century learned surgeons.