A new course in history aims to help students better understand the present-day pandemic by examining major disease outbreaks in the past, and how epidemics change future behaviour.
It’s fueled by feedback professor Shelly McKellar received for her Plagues, Pox and Flu course last year.
“I had students telling me the course helped them weed through all the doom scrolling they were doing during COVID and better understand what these events are, through a semblance of a larger context,” McKellar said. “It kind of warmed my heart, even though I always give them a disclaimer that talking about past pandemics is totally different than living through a current one.”
It also brought questions McKellar hopes to address more fully in her new half-course, From Cholera to COVID: How Epidemics Change the Way We Live.
The twelve-week course will be offered next term to second-year students across all faculties. It centres on the disruption arising from disease outbreaks in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“The main overarching theme of this course is change and uncertainty,” said McKellar, the Jason A. Hannah chair in the history of medicine and 2019-2021 faculty scholar.
By studying epidemics and pandemics, students have a lens through which to explore political, economic and socio-cultural practices in different places and times.
“If we focus on disease outbreaks, and how people behave or respond to change and uncertainty, I’m hoping students can carry that over to their present life and find context,” McKellar said.
(Not that) John Snow
McKellar’s teachings provide a narrative on past disease events, encouraging students to compare and contrast outbreaks. She also introduces fascinating vignettes where they discover “heroes through horrific stories” through lectures such as Cholera, John Snow and Sanitary Reform.
“Not that John Snow,” McKellar said of her Game of Thrones toss. “This is John Snow, the physician.”
Snow, often referenced as the father of epidemiology, couldn’t convince other doctors and scientists that cholera was spread through contaminated drinking water, until a mother washed her baby’s diaper in a town well in 1854, setting off an epidemic that killed 616 people.
“Cholera is a good start [for the course] because it is quite graphic,” McKellar said. “It hits you abruptly, you’re vomiting, and have diarrhea. You get dressed in the morning, get the tram car to work and you could be dying in the street six to eight hours later.”
McKellar likes the immediacy aspect because “it unravels a lot of people at the individual level, but at a collective level, it mobilizes them to respond,” she said. “One theme of this course is how epidemics change the way we live. It’s about individual behaviour and collective response; individual responsibility and collective responsibility. What happens when these two areas intersect?”
The cholera outbreak ultimately motivated politicians and the middle class to act, driving improved sanitation in their cities. During the polio pandemic, mothers marched door to door in the 1950s, collecting dimes to fund research that drove Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine.
“There’s continuity showing that in the end, people do step up,” McKellar said of these major events impacting our behaviours. There are also “influencers,” with Elvis Presley may well being the first, rolling up his sleeve on national television to receive his polio vaccine.
History repeats itself
It is the inevitability of change that causes history to repeat itself, McKellar said, and although a historian, she does not hesitate to bring the events she teaches up to present day.
“We’re trying to make these connections and identify themes,” she said.
After all, we’ve been here before. Wearing masks, social distancing and cancelling events are not new behaviours; neither is remote learning.
“During the polio outbreaks, the Toronto Star would publish the high school curriculum and put exercises in their paper,” McKellar said. “In the United States, they taught using radio broadcasts. Most measures put in place in the past are tried and true, with isolation and quarantine going back to the Middle Ages.
“Many people ask me, given the pandemic, if taking this course is going to be useful to them, to better understand or live through the current uncertainty,” she said. “I’m hopeful it will be. I think once students learn about the 1918 flu going through four waves before ending in 1920, they’ll gain perspective. Even though there were four waves, people returned to their lives.”