John Haldon (Princeton University) talks to Merle and Lee about how states and societies react to systemic crises through the lens of resilience studies. After an introductory discussion about the concept of resilience, they speak about how the Byzantine Empire survived massive political, economic, and military losses during the seventh century and was able to reconfigure its governance to meet new realities. Haldon also discusses why he thinks the later sixth and seventh century outbreaks of the Justinianic Plague did not play a significant role in these changes. At the end, Haldon offers some ways resilience research might be useful for thinking about Covid-19 and how historians might help influence policy to build better societies in the future.
Robert Alpert (Fordham and Hunter College) discusses pandemics in film as a form of popular culture. After an introduction of how to analyze film and whose perspective it conveys, the conversation focuses on two films, Outbreak (1995) and Contagion (2011), and the shifting ways in which each represented its fictional pandemic. Alpert points out the differences and similarities between the movies and our contemporary experience of COVID-19, explains why zombie movies should be considered pandemic films, and explains why he believes movies should not be disregarded because they are “unrealistic”.
Seth Archer from Utah State sits down with Merle and Lee to talk about the diseases that passed through the Columbian Exchange and their impact on Native Americans. Archer offers a broad take on how historians have written about diseases after the colonization of North America and then turns to his area of expertise: the impact of disease on Hawaii after the voyages of James Cook. He reveals how historians of disease can move past questions of demography to investigate cultural questions. At the end, he talks to the hosts about how Covid-19 has struck Native Americans today, connecting back to earlier episodes on the role of race and economic inequality in our current pandemic.
Ida Milne from Carlow College joins Merle and Lee in a conversation on the 1918 influenza pandemic. Milne’s work has been instrumental in uncovering the story of the pandemic in Ireland, and she reflects on her work so far. Among the topics covered are the vexed question of origins of the 1918 pandemic, as well as the the context of Irish history that plays an important role in the way the pandemic was experienced and remembered. The discussion also touches upon Milne’s methodology that included interviews with people who lived through and remembered the pandemic, and discusses the malleable memory of the pandemic among survivors and others.
Guy Geltner and Janna Coomans from the University of Amsterdam and members of the project Premodern Healthscaping, discuss their work that offers new insights into what public health was like in medieval urban settings. They reveal a far more complex picture of how local cities practiced various types of public health. Geltner and Coomans talk about examples from Italy, the Islamicate world, and the Low Countries of how produce markets and local communities, among many others, organized and maintained sanitary standards even before the Black Death struck Eurasia. At the end, they reflect on why studying medieval urban public health can change how we think about modern public health around the globe today.
Chris de Wet (University of South Africa) discusses his work on discourse analysis, and how we can use it today to better our understanding of the social, cultural and psychological effects of past infectious diseases. The discussion focuses on the sixth century historian John of Ephesus, as well as on the third century bishop Cyprian. Chris, Merle and Lee reflect on the importance of discourse and how it shifts over time - whether in late antiquity or in the present with regard to COVID-19.
Merle and Lee speak with Julia Simons, a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania, about her research on tuberculosis in ancient Greece and Rome. They discuss how ancient writers talk about the disease, the material culture evidence for it, and the increasing use of bioarchaeological remains in studying it. Julia offers insights into why diseases like tuberculosis have not featured as prominently in large questions of historical changes, even though it may have killed significant numbers of people in the past and continues to kill many around the world today. Merle and Lee conclude by reflecting on disease hierarchies and how we teach diseases in courses focusing on what is included and what is left out.
Image credit: Piccioli, A. et al. (2015) Bones: Orthopaedic Pathologies in Roman Imperial Age. The Italian Society of Orthopaedics and Traumatology (Springer International Publishing: pp 34-5)
Merle and Lee talk to Christos Lynteris, a medical anthropologist, on the Third Pandemic of Plague and its impact across the globe between 1894 and 1959. The pandemic is discussed in terms of its origins, spread and social, political and epistemological consequences, but also in terms of establishing the notion of the pandemic in medicine and beyond. Christos offers insights into the long-lasting legacies of the pandemic, including the development of the scientific study of zoonosis, epidemic photography, and various technologies of epidemic control.
Merle and Lee talk to Thomas Zimmer, a scholar of global public health, on how the nations of the world developed public health after World War Two and how they attempted to stop the spread of infectious diseases. They talk about how the World Health Organization attempted to eliminate diseases, particularly malaria, and why these efforts ran into problems. Thomas offers insights into how these mid-20th century issues shape how we approach global public health today and the many problems the politicization of public health entails. Merle and Lee conclude the episode by reflecting on the importance of understanding the 20th century history of global public health for scholarship on pre-modern pandemics as well.
Merle and Lee discuss how historical research is conducted today, in an episode aimed at a general audience. How do scholars decide to study a topic? What are primary and secondary sources, and how do historians use them? What are some of the other sources historians study other than texts? Throughout the episode, Merle and Lee use their own research experience as an example and reflect upon some of the challenges they encountered.
Merle and Lee discuss how the environment we live in has an impact on how the Coronavirus Pandemic spreads with Fushcia Hoover. They talk about how existing structural problems have made the pandemic worse in African-American and other communities and why simply telling people to socially isolate and behave better ignores all these issues. Fushcia also discusses some short and long term ways to solve some of these structural problems. Merle and Lee conclude the episode by reflecting on the similar points raised in the two recent episodes on inequality and environmental justice during the ongoing pandemic.
Image credit: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
Michelle Smirnova, a sociologist (University of Missouri, Kansas City), joins Merle and Lee to discuss some of the present-day effects of COVID-19 in the US. They cover the differential effects of COVID-19 on disadvantaged populations in the US, the US health system and the administration's stance towards infectious diseases, and touch upon some of the challenges involved in providing precise statistics.
Image credit: IDB
Quarantine in many countries around the world continues, preventing many from celebrating Passover, the first of three major holidays in April (followed by Easter and Ramadan). Abigail Agresta joins Merle and Lee to discuss the most infamous pandemic in history - the Black Death. After some general background on the Black Death, Abigail discusses her own work on plague in Valencia, a topic on which she has recently published an article (link in the show notes on our website), as well as contemporary reactions to the Black Death and minority scapegoating (or lack thereof).
Many of us are self-isolating and social distancing at home during the ongoing Coronavirus Pandemic in a modern form of quarantine. Merle and Lee speak with the leading expert on historical quarantine in the 19th century, Alex Chase-Levenson to learn how quarantine developed, how it worked, and whether it was effective. They also discuss similarities and differences between the past and the present.
Merle and Lee discuss the late antique Justinianic Plague (c. 541-750), also known as the first plague pandemic. They cover the current consensus about plague first, and then offer their reinterpretation, together with some ideas for further research.
Merle and Lee talk about the scientific and medical background to the plague describing the bacterium, Yersinia pestis, and how it sickens and kills humans. They offer an overview of the 3 historical plague pandemics, where we can find plague today, and touch upon the obsession with plague in popular culture.
As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to spread, in this short episode hosts Merle Eisenberg and Lee Mordechai discuss the reasons for launching a new podcast now, begin to consider how historical diseases might help us think about our present, and outline some of the upcoming podcast episodes.