War is perhaps the most salient context affecting public health. In “Smallpox in Colonial America: the most terrible of all the ministers of death,” Ann M. Becker demonstrates that the introduction of mass troop inoculation within the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War finally enabled acceptance of the practice. Inoculation was available during previous epidemics, yet it gained approval only in the context of a military crisis.
Dramatic economic change can also unsettle and alarm people, as the early nineteenth century shows well. In “‘A Good Investment’: Personal Health Amidst Economic Uncertainty,” Jonathan Riddle demonstrates how the physiological reform movement deployed the tools of the antebellum marketplace revolution. Physiological reform provided an individualized, bodily program for grasping the promises of marketplace capitalism while avoiding its perils.
Cultural change and friction can revealingly operate as crises too. In “‘Tijuana Abortions’ and Abortion Decriminalization in California,” Alicia Gutierrez-Romine traces liberalization of California abortion laws to a perceived women’s health crisis in the 1960s. Women (often white women) traveled from California to Mexico for abortions. Although women’s fatalities were rare, American ideas about race, ethnicity and nationality, and gender fused to create alarm that altered public health adjudication and policy.
Our panel offers connective comments by the eminent medical historian Nancy Tomes. We hope the audience will follow up with a lively conversation about public health in crisis times.