Epidemics in the Age of Atlantic Revolutions

AHA Session 206
Saturday, January 8, 2022: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Grand Ballroom A (Sheraton New Orleans, 5th Floor)
Farren E. Yero, Duke University
Andrew M. Wehrman, Central Michigan University

Session Abstract

With the advent of Covid-19, the study of epidemics from a historical perspective has taken on a renewed interest and gained new meaning. Over the last year, medical historians everywhere have been interviewed by TV stations and newspapers, have written op-ed pieces for major news outlets, and have used social media to inform and question policy measures taken by governments all around the world. At the core of this intellectual energy is the idea that an understanding of medical history can help us both manage and make sense of the present crisis. This is perhaps especially true for the Age of Revolutions. The study of the history of epidemics in this era—when society was undergoing such dramatic social, political, and intellectual transformations—can be instructive for us today as we confront the challenges of political upheaval, climate change, and increasingly frequent disasters in similarly transformative times.

This panel will highlight and discuss the ways in which epidemics and medical writings impacted local, regional, and international dynamics within the Atlantic basin in the 18th and 19th centuries. It will do so by focusing on a particular set of epidemics that occurred on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean—namely, the 1720 Plague of Provence, the 1820 yellow fever epidemic of Savannah, and the yellow fever outbreaks of 1823, 1829-30, and 1837 in West and West Central Africa—and by examining contemporary medical treatises and manuals that aimed to legitimize enslavement through the pathologization of Black bodies. Together, the papers explore central themes in the study of the Atlantic World through a medical lens, including slavery and the slave-trade, resistance and revolution, labor and immigration, and the development and exchange of knowledge. In doing so, they underscore the importance of medical history for understanding the Age of Revolutions.

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