Combating Disease and Spreading Expertise: Interdisciplinary and Transnational Perspectives on the History of Women and Global Public Health
Disease may know no borders or national identities, yet historical approaches to the practice and study of global public health have been characteristically national and imperial in their characterizations of disease prevention, treatment, and public health promotion. Shifting away from histories of government policies, institutional action, and scientific medicine, this panel seeks to understand the historical role of women—as theorists, activists, practitioners, and patients—in the organization and implementation of global public health initiatives. In the spirit of this year’s theme, “History and Other Disciplines,” this panel brings together well-established and early career scholars in History, Nursing, African Studies and Global Health from Canada, Europe, and the United States, who are active in ongoing interdisciplinary collaborations at the intersections of studying gender, transnational networks, and public health. While the study of nurses has illuminated more precisely the integral role of overlooked women and gendered negotiations within the fields of global health and the history of medicine, the public health studies provide historians with a closer technical understanding of how global networks and policies are implemented and operate on the local level.
The papers in this session are engaged with the questions that connect transnational organizations and theories with local implementation and practice. How do transnational networks of philanthropic and professional women, non-governmental relief organizations, and local practitioners function in historical narratives of global public health? How do these diverse historical actors engage (or not) with governments, international organizations, and one another in doing public health work on the ground? How have women become both empowered and instrumentalized as agents and targets for disease prevention, eradication, and education? In response, Jaime Lapeyre (Nursing) begins by questioning the assumption of national coherence in American approaches to public health by pointing out the ideological tensions between professionalization and public health relief orientations in Interwar nursing education and training. Aeleah Soine (History) and Sioban Nelson (Nursing) focus on the important interplay between local and global levels of public health advocacy and practical implementation by mapping the divergence of professional relationships and projects among the first cohort of women public health advocates and workers associated with the Henry Street Settlement, the Red Cross, and International Council of Nurses. Mari Webel (History/Public Health/African Studies) follows these historical patterns into the recent past with her study of disease eradication networks and neglected tropical disease lists operating within the field of global health, showing how African health continues to be viewed as something “to master,” and demonstrating the persisting co-existence of colonial and modern categories of neglected diseases and preventative care. In all three papers, the work of preventing and eradicating diseases, expanding health education, and reshaping gender relations has created new and underexamined ways that women were active in the transnational engagement among local and global partners throughout the twentieth century.