Public Health Innovations in Times of Crisis

AHA Session 74
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Gramercy East (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Rebecca R. Noel, Plymouth State University
Smallpox in Colonial America: “The Most Terrible of All the Ministers of Death”
Ann Becker, Empire State College, State University of New York
“Tijuana Abortions” and Abortion Decriminalization in California
Alicia Gutierrez-Romine, La Sierra University
Nancy Tomes, Stony Brook University, State University of New York

Session Abstract

New public health practices frequently emerge in response to medical crises. Epidemics in particular provoke urgent solutions, not only in medical care, but also in its delivery and public understanding. But many public health innovations arise in crises outside the medical realm, the focus of this panel. By embracing a range of extra-medical stimuli to public health change, we take a fresh look at the relationship between health and culture.

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.

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