Shelter-in-place orders have been in effect throughout the United States for over a month now, but few reading lists have appeared. Streaming services are more appealing than books in their ease of access: Flip on the TV or computer, turn to the desired show, and press play. Books, however, offer different yet equally enjoyable escapes from reality. You have to focus on the words on the page to follow the story; you cannot play the content on your phone or work on the side. Reading thus demands your concentration in ways television does not, forcing you to detach yourself from the world around you and delve into the pages of another reality.

So, what will allow you to simultaneously escape from reality and help you process it? Here are some suggestions from graduate students at the Johns Hopkins Department of the History of Medicine.

Interested in the 17th-Century Italy Plague?

Histories of a Plague Year by Giulia Calvi

You may know about Black Death, but plague epidemics continued to hit European countries in waves until the end of the 1700s. In her book, Calvi uses court cases and municipal documents to examine efforts against and responses to plague epidemics in 17th-century Florence, Italy. Her narrative particularly resonates in its focus on the common people and their relationship to city elites. Like many people today, Florentines listened to and criticized their civic leaders; self-quarantined and maintained a “distance of eight arm-lengths” (57 inches) from other persons; and subverted public health restrictions to keep their businesses open and assert their own authority in a constrained situation. Third-year Ph.D. student Alex Parry recommends this book for its holistic and well-written take on the traditional historical case study, turning a forgotten period of epidemics into an examination of everyday responses to infectious diseases.

Interested in Colonialism and Sanitation?

Epidemic Invasions by Mariola Espinosa

Espinosa’s quick-read  account crafts an accessible and thorough timeline of yellow fever eradication in colonial Cuba. With the backdrop of the Spanish-American War (1897-1901), Espinosa traces how the U.S. Public Health Service, led by William Gorgas, moved into Havana to prevent yellow fever from traveling into the American South via trade with Cuba. Gorgas and his men fumigated Cuban homes, streets and public spaces and drained stagnant water in an effort to stop yellow fever’s endemic ravage. Through her analysis, Espinosa demonstrates how colonial public health efforts often sought to benefit white populations over nonwhite ones, especially when epidemics jeopardized white businesses and trade.

Interested in Race and Public Health in Baltimore?

Infectious Fear by Samuel Roberts*

Through the eyes of Baltimore’s black community, Sam Roberts exposes early 20th-century tensions between black Baltimoreans and city officials as the two groups struggled to fight increasing tuberculosis rates in the city’s poorer neighborhoods. For Ph.D. candidates Ayah Nuriddin and Sam Scharff, Roberts’ narration especially impacted their own work on American medical history. City officials, made up of municipal officers and medical professions, drew on new public health trends to segregate black residents from white ones and to impose “racial hygiene” measures on black households, restricting black rights in favor of white health. In the meantime, black residents sought to mitigate TB’s devastating effects on individuals and families by cooperating with municipal laws and treating — sometimes hiding — ill family members with the few resources available to them. Roberts’s story thus helps us understand how stereotyping and racism can heavily influence how infectious disease management plays out and at what cost.

Interested in AIDS and Historical Memory?

Melancholia and Moralism by Douglas Crimp

By now, the global COVID-19 death rate has exceeded 200,000. Such large numbers, and their impact on our personal lives, can be difficult to fathom, as Crimp recognizes through his essay collection on HIV. Crimp exposes how the HIV/AIDS pandemic affected homosexuals living in the U.S., especially how they reflected on their own roles in spreading and helping those with the disease. Third-year M.D./Ph.D. student Maya Koretzky recommends the book as a way to reflect on our current struggles, especially regarding “how to balance personal liberty, important social/cultural practices and an enjoyable life, while reducing infectious risks.” Ultimately, Crimp’s essays highlight how epidemics can fundamentally shift our perceptions of everyday realities for the better, but also for the worse.

Other great history of public health and infectious disease reads, include:

Want historical content directly related to COVID-19? Check out our faculty’s contributions to evolving pandemic discussions. From all of us at the Institute of the History of Medicine, we wish you pleasant reading as you quarantine, social-distance yourselves and help those in need.

* indicates online accessibility through the Johns Hopkins library system.


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