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Public Health Was Born From The Need to Keep Slaves Alive

by Andrew Feld

Each month, Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health holds a “Health Storytelling” livestream, hosted by journalist Maryn McKenna. This week, McKenna interviewed Jim Downs, Professor of History at Gettysburg college and author of Maladies of Empire: How Colonialism,  Slavery, and War Transformed Medicine (Harvard University Press, 2021). 

Downs answered an array of questions, ranging from his motivation in writing the book, to points readers should come away with. The eye-opening conversation highlighted that the field of epidemiology was not the brainchild of doctors or scientists, but rather a result of how experts monitored diseases occurring in slaves.

What makes the conversation even more important is the connection to our present-day experience of COVID. Downs explains that recognizing medicine’s link to slavery creates a different method of thinking, a method that focuses on social determinants of health rather than just health outcomes. For the coronavirus pandemic, this means understanding that lower-income communities may have seen a high number of cases because people had to continue working in person. Unlike higher-income people, they did not have the luxury of being able to work from home.
The session was a very easy listen. Down’s personality shined through, and his expertise and passion on the subject was evident. If you want to learn more about the true history of epidemiology, give the archived livestream a listen right here.