COVID-19: Engagements from the History of Medicine
By Denisa Popa, University of Toronto
Historians of any discipline are tasked with justifying the importance and relevance of their work. Living in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, historians of medicine find their work situated and viewed in a different light as the history of pandemics and public health have become more relevant than ever. As Canada begins to reopen, many of us are continuing to adjust to this new way of life. The last few months offer a unique opportunity to reflect on the response and call to action historians are faced with.
Pandemic historians and historians of public health from Canadian institutions are using their work to engage with the current pandemic through several different platforms. From interviews with the CBC, to participating in virtual roundtables, historians of medicine have certainly been busy.
Virtual Seminars and Roundtables
Over the last few months academic societies and institutions have sponsored and organized virtual conferences and meetings.[i] In the wake of COVID-19, the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine/ Société Canadienne d’histoire de la médecine (CSHM-SCHM) is currently sponsoring a series of virtual seminars that center on the history of pandemics.[ii] Established by Dr. Esyllt Jones, this virtual series facilitates discussions between historians of medicine and allows them to reflect on the current COVID-19 pandemic in Canada through raising historical questions and drawing historical parallels.
The first webinar, titled “Pandemic Histories: In the Midst of History- Reflections from Influenza Historians” was held on June 4th. Drawing primarily on the 1918 influenza in Canada, participants explored historical divergences and parallels between the 1918 influenza and COVID-19. Amongst the participants were Magda Fahrni (McGill University), Mark Humphries (Wilfrid Laurier University) and Esyllt Jones (University of Manitoba). Reflecting on the positionality of historians of medicine during COVID-19, Humphries claimed that he feels like “a historian in real time” (Canadian Society for the History of Medicine SCHM, 2020). Fahrni highlighted engagements between the media and pandemic history through the “keen interest among the media for history and for what history might teach us in the current context” (Canadian Society for the History of Medicine SCHM, 2020). The webinar is available here.
On June 15th, the second session, “Pandemic Histories: On the Margins- Epidemics and the Disenfranchised” invited contributions from Karen Flynn (University of Illinois), Maureen Lux (Brock University), Richard McKay (University of Cambridge) and Kevin Siena (Trent University). Siena summarized the session’s aim as “exploring how past epidemics have impacted the socially vulnerable, the marginalized, the poor and the politically disenfranchised”, while also emphasizing the relevance of this history in the wake of COVID-19’s social impact (Canadian Society for the History of Medicine SCHM, 2020). A necessary and timely discussion that is available here.
The seminar on July 7th focused on “Vaccine Viewpoints- from Polio to Pandemic Influenza” and included reflections from Catherine Carstairs (University of Guelph), Heather MacDougall (University of Waterloo) and Christopher Rutty (University of Toronto). The discussion is available here.
The next session will be held on July 23rd and is titled “Public(s) and their Health“. Participants include: James Hanley (University of Winnipeg), Sarah Isabelle Wallace (Trent University) and Mitchell Hammond (University of Victoria). More information about the themes that will be explored can be found here.
On June 29th, the Royal Society of Canada (in collaboration with the University of Ottawa, CSHM/SCHM and Ingenium) held a webinar titled, “Second Wave? Looking ahead to this fall through the lens of history and science” which took an interdisciplinary approach to COVID-19 discussions. The panel was moderated by David Pantalony (Ingenium and University of Ottawa) and included, Esyllt Jones (University of Manitoba), Christopher Rutty (University of Toronto), and Doug Manuel (University of Ottawa).
Historians in the Media
During the first webinar, several participants commented on the increased presence of historians in the media. Contributions by Dr. Esyllt Jones and Dr. Mark Humphries are amongst some of the early engagements between historians and the Canadian media in the context of COVID-19. Humphries’ opinion piece, “We are at war with COVID-19. We need to be clear about what victory looks like” offers a comparison between the 1918 influenza and the current pandemic, and pushes back on perceived similarities.
Dr. Jones also contributed to an article that reflects on both the 1918 influenza and the COVID-19 pandemic:
How the Spanish flu compares to COVID-19: Lessons learned, answers still being pursued.
“The learned experiences from a devastating flu pandemic 100 years ago that staggered the world don’t make it any easier this time around, says a historian and author who specializes in health and infectious disease.”
As we move forward, we should continue to reflect on how historians are engaging with COVID-19 as pandemic specialists (of a different nature) and the broader implications this has on engaging with the history of science, technology and medicine in Canada.
(Image: Toronto General Hospital, College Street Buildings 1913. Courtesy of the University of Toronto Archives.)[iii]
Bernhardt, D. (2020, April 11). How the Spanish flu compares to COVID-19: Lessons learned, answers still bring pursued. Retrieved from CBC News: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/spanish-flu-covid-coronavirus-canada-manitoba-1.5523410
Canadian Society for the History of Medicine SCHM. (2020, June 9). In the Midst of History: reflections from influenza historians. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HAHqSeCoS4&feature=youtu.be
Canadian Society for the History of Medicine SCHM. (2020, June 18). On the Margins: Epidemics and the Disenfranchised. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3paQ7cpCLS8&feature=youtu.be
Canadian Society for the History of Medicine SCHM. (2020, July 15). Vaccine Viewpoints: from polio to pandemic influenza. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZMVxf4WTLM
Department of History, Princeton University. (2020). Pandemic, Creating a Usable Past: Epidemic History, COVID-19, and the Future of Health. Retrieved from Princeton University: https://history.princeton.edu/centers-programs/center-collaborative-history/special-projects/pandemic-creating-usable-past#Session1
Home/ Accueil. (n.d.). Retrieved from Canadian Society for the History of Medicine/ Société Canadienne d’histoire de la médecine (CSHM-SCHM): https://cshm-schm.ca/?doing_wp_cron=1594067308.2695860862731933593750
Humphries, M. (2020, April 10). Opinion: We are at war with COVID-19. We need to be clear about what victory looks like. Retrieved from The Globe and Mail: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-we-are-at-war-with-covid-19-we-need-to-be-clear-about-what-victory/
MacDougall, H. (2006). Toronto’s Health Department in Action: Influenza in 1918 and SARS in 2003. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 62(1), 56-89.
Royal Society of Canada. (2020). Second Wave? Looking ahead to this fall through the lens of history and science. Retrieved from RSC-SRC: https://rsc-src.ca/en/events/second-wave-looking-ahead-to-this-fall-through-lens-history-and-science
Spinney, E. (2020, July 2). Pandemic Histories July. Retrieved from CSHM-SCHM: https://cshm-schm.ca/pandemic-histories-july/?doing_wp_cron=1594310100.1541779041290283203125
Spinney, E. (2020, June 16). Reminder: Pandemic Histories July 7th Seminar. Retrieved from CSHM-SCHM: https://cshm-schm.ca/reminder-pandemic-histories-july-7th-seminar/?doing_wp_cron=1594071559.7842969894409179687500
Spinney, E. (2020, May 22). Virtual Seminar Series: Pandemic Histories. Retrieved from CSHM-SCHM: https://cshm-schm.ca/virtual-seminar-series-pandemic-histories/?doing_wp_cron=1594071136.1868050098419189453125
Spinney, E. (2020, June 4). Virtual Seminar Series: Pandemic Histories 2nd Seminar June 15. Retrieved from CSHM-SCHM: https://cshm-schm.ca/virtual-seminar-series-pandemic-histories-2nd-seminar-june-15/?doing_wp_cron=1594071477.6182060241699218750000
[i] For example, see Princeton University’s Virtual Conference: “Pandemic, Creating a Usable Past: Epidemic History, COVID-19, and the Future of Health” at https://history.princeton.edu/centers-programs/center-collaborative-history/special-projects/pandemic-creating-usable-past#Session1
[ii] The first routable was not hosted by the CSHM/SCHM, but the remaining were.
[iii] Cases of the 1918 influenza were treated at the Toronto General Hospital during the outbreak in Toronto (MacDougall, 2006).