Plagues, Plots, and People

Diseases, colloquially, are caught, transmitted, and contracted in many different ways: miasmas, bugs, germs, and vectors–to name just a few. How does the language people use to describe illness indicate beliefs about illness? This class studies historical, scientific, and popular accounts of illness to explore this question and others. Students explore whether disease creates immunity or results from lack of it, whether class, sexuality, race, gender, or geography protect against disease or expose people to it, how biomedical narratives of illness inflect cultural practices and social relations, and how the life cycles of pathogenic microorganisms shaped human history. This course’s materials include science writing, theory, film, and literature–as well as images and objects from the National Library of Medicine and the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology at the Smithsonian Institute.