An argument in favor of a society supporting the humanities–including history–is that one never knows when a seemingly arcane scholarly specialty will suddenly become relevant. The classic example is 9/11, after which scholars of Islamic history, culture, and language found themselves in the unfamiliar position of having journalists and government officials seek out their expertise.
I’ve always been a little leery of this line of reasoning. The study of history is a societal good in its own right, helping to shape informed citizens and well-rounded humans, irrespective of its relevance to current events.
But the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that when headlines prove frightening or enraging, UB History is well-positioned to offer context and insight. Over the last decade or so we have developed an impressive strength in the history of science and medicine. We have deployed this expertise to help the public better understand epidemics across time and space.
For example, in May Andy Daum published a long article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany’s two most influential newspapers, drawn from his research on the explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt. Daum shows how when Humboldt studied yellow fever in South America, he insisted on gathering as much eyewitness data as possible rather than relying on hearsay–a valuable reminder at a time when Covid data has been dangerously politicized. Likewise, Sarah Handley-Cousins has been active in reviewing and editing articles for Nursing Clio, a blog poised at the intersection of gender and medicine. Many of these articles put Covid into historical perspective, such as one that examines the representations of women wearing masks during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Such outward-facing interventions are crucial, yet UB History has an even greater responsibility to another “public”: our students. Here too our faculty contextualize the present pandemic. Mike Rembis has completely revamped his HIS 447, “Health, Illness, and Disability in U.S. History,” to focus on epidemics. From the debate over smallpox inoculation in 1721 Boston to the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, Rembis’s course explores how disease has shaped American history. And in HIS 144, “Health, Medicine, and Society,” Handley-Cousins incorporates innovative epidemic-related assignments, such as a role-playing midterm based on how the town of Norwich, England, should respond to the approaching plague in 1349.
At a time of Covid-induced cuts to the SUNY budget, your support of UB History is more important than ever. It helps us keep students–and other publics–informed about the pandemic and countless other topics.
Erik R. Seeman