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History of tuberculosis in the United States to be explored in unprecedented depth

July 11, 2016

Sun Parlor in Tubercular Hospital
Patients with tuberculosis convalesce in the sun parlor of a soldiers’ hospital in Dayton, Ohio, in the early 20th century. Patients were often prescribed sunlight and fresh air. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

When Howell Edmunds Jackson, a U.S. Supreme Court associate justice, died in 1895, his death drew national attention, in part because of the recency of his impassioned defense of the constitutionality of the income tax.

For a team of student researchers, though, the cause of Jackson’s death was more notable than his judicial legacy: it was yet another example of the significance of tuberculosis in American history.

Team members — recent and current undergraduates from Virginia Tech, George Mason University, and the University of Virginia — are applying research techniques from the humanities, social sciences, and data analytics to understand the significance of tuberculosis, the greatest single cause of death in the United States between 1870 and 1920. They will present their findings at a research forum titled, Microscopic Foes of Mankind: Understanding Tuberculosis in American History.

The forum, held July 13 from 9 to 11:45 a.m. at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., is sponsored by the Wilson Center, the National History Center, the American Historical Association, and 4-VA, a statewide initiative dedicated to fostering collaboration among Virginia universities.

Like many people with tuberculosis, often called “consumption” at the time, Jackson had been suffering from ill health for several years. In an effort to restore his vitality, he visited the dry climates of Western states and the “mild and yet bracing climate” of the mountains of Georgia.

This open-air treatment was not enough. Even as Jackson made vigorous arguments at the final hearings on income tax, according to his Washington Evening Star obituary, “it was evident to all that came into contact with him that life was slowly but surely ebbing away.” He returned home to Tennessee, where he died not long after.

To the research team, said project director E. Thomas Ewing, a history professor at Virginia Tech, Jackson’s obituary reveals more than the details of a richly led life. It also contributes to an understanding of the devastating impact of tuberculosis on the nation.

During the forum, research team members will describe their efforts to document lives lost to the disease in an online forum that tells victims’ stories, provides a searchable database, and offers analytical context. They will also explore contemporary questions about the role of history in shaping attitudes toward disease, the value of historical scholarship for integrating narratives and data into an interpretive approach, and the importance of historical perspectives for developing effective public health policies.

In addition to Ewing, the research forum participants will include two recent history graduates from Virginia Tech — Courtney Howell and Rachel Snyder — along with undergraduates Jay Pandya and Luis Villavicencio from Virginia Tech, Ian Criman and Scott Saunders from George Mason University, and Victoria Irvine and Sarah Tran from the University of Virginia.

Commentary by a panel of scholars will follow the student presentations. These experts will include Katherine Ott, curator of the Division of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institution; Jeffrey Reznick, chief of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine; Nancy Tomes, Distinguished Professor of History at Stony Brook University; and Alison Landsberg, a history professor specializing in memory studies at George Mason University.

“We’re applying new digital tools to traditional humanities research to capture details of an epidemic that, at its height, claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Americans every year,” Ewing said. “At a time of unprecedented interest in the nation’s past by genealogists and family historians, we’re hoping to engage the public in creating, interpreting, and understanding the history of a deadly illness through the lives of individual Americans.”

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