“Epidemics are a fascinating topic given their characteristic disrespect for any kinds of borders” – Interview with Andrea Wiegeshoff

Andrea Wiegeshoff is a historian at Marburg University. She received her PhD in 2011 with a thesis on the German Foreign Service and held a long-term visiting Fellowship at the GHI Washington in 2018/2019. Her research foci are the history of epidemics and health, the history of the U.S. and the British Empire as well as global and transnational history. For her current project, she is writing a history of the policies on epidemics in the British and the American empires in the 19th century.

You are working on epidemics during the 19th century in a global perspective: Are epidemics a transregional research topic per se? Why is it useful to apply a global perspective when researching epidemics and what are the challenges?

Generally speaking, epidemics are indeed a transregional phenomenon and therefore it makes sense to approach them from that angle. However, it, depends on the research questions which analytical perspective might be most helpful. Diseases and epidemics in particular are topics that enable various approaches and questions. They can be used as an analytical lens to study negotiations over social order or gender norms or to study the relationship between medical developments and the emergence of modern statehood – to name only a few examples. Excellent research has been done in these and other fields.

Historical source material | Picture: Andrea Wiegeshoff

For historians interested in transregional, transnational or transimperial dynamics, epidemics are a fascinating topic given their characteristic disrespect for any kinds of borders reflected upon by contemporaries and dealt with throughout centuries – despite a lack of understanding of transmission processes and medical disputes over contagion itself. Thus, studying epidemics offers a productive way to look into contemporary assessments of transregional mobility and increasing connectivity, an aspect I am very interested in. I find the 19th century especially noteworthy in this regard because it was the first time in history that epidemics turned truly global, reaching every inhabited continent. There are naturally challenges when focusing on such a global, yet elusive phenomenon. When I started thinking about the project and conceptualizing it, the sheer ubiquity of epidemics during the 19th century presented a major challenge. It took some time to decide on actual case studies that allowed me to narrow down a border-crossing topic like this.

More precisely, you are particularly interested in the history of the policies on epidemics: Which influences did both imperial and colonial structures have on such policies?

Quarantine certificate

This is an interesting question that touches upon an important on-going discussion about the nature of “colonial medicine”, namely how colonial it actually was – given oftentimes similar developments in European nation states, for instance, in dealing with the poor in terms of public health. To give a short answer, I would still argue that imperial and colonial contexts were crucial in shaping local responses to epidemic crises. Empires, and especially an increasingly global one such as the 19th-century British Empire, depended on unhampered mobility of people, goods and information. This need influenced and could sometimes interfere with, for example, local decisions about implementing or lifting a quarantine. Moreover, health initiatives in colonial settings cannot be separated from the circumstances of foreign rule and hierarchically structured colonial societies. Often, medical interventions addressed first and foremost the health of the colonizers. Such initiatives could also be used to enforce social and political order. Finally, experiences and knowledge gained in colonial contexts influenced European medicine and medical science especially with a view to racialized understandings of health and disease.

Let’s dwell for a minute on the policies on epidemics: In your research, who were the crucial actors in this regard and what are some of the central differences (or similarities?) to today’s policies on epidemics?

The central actors might appear quite familiar to us today. In my research project, governments and administrations, public health officials, physicians and medical practitioners, business interests, the press and, of course, the public (or more precisely: different sections of society with often conflicting needs and interests) are important players who influenced political practices. However, the differences between the 19th century’s and today’s public health policies are crucial and important. Admittedly depending on the actual context, the level of transparency surrounding political decisions as well as access to scientific data and information is greater today. In turn, societal actors can participate more actively in political debates, thereby shifting the balance in decision making processes. For instance, in countries such as Germany, we can observe huge efforts by scientific experts to not only share their data but also explain their findings to the public. Another example for change are international organizations and players, like the WHO and also globally active companies such as big pharmaceutical firms, that are deeply involved in international and national efforts to counter epidemics. Though the 19th century witnessed growing internationalization and, with regard to epidemics, international conferences dealing with that particular threat, the current degree of inter- and supranationalization differs markedly compared to the 19th century.

In the beginning of the current COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of comparisons to the Spanish Flu were drawn: How useful are such historical comparisons in the field of epidemic research, what can they clarify and where are their limits?

It is, of course, legitimate and understandable to draw comparisons to past crises when facing a pandemic. The so-called “Spanish Flu” was a major global pandemic that spread at  breathtaking speed killing between 50 and possibly 100 million people worldwide. Medical experts have studied this pandemic as a case study, especially since the 1990s, to prepare for future events like that. I cannot speak to the importance of historical data in medical epidemiological research, but I believe that it provides some useful insights for this field.

From a historian’s perspective, I would argue that it can be very illuminating to look at current events from a historical perspective – drawing attention, for instance, to specific dynamics or pointing to the longer history of certain developments that, at first glance, might appear rather new. However, I am more than skeptical about comparisons culminating in equalizing the Covid-19 crisis and the 1918–20 influenza pandemic that are sometimes used as an argument for or against certain political measures. It is true, that historians tend to look less enthusiastically than others at the question of learning “lessons from history”. History, and the history of a global phenomenon in particular, provides ample evidence for a whole array of events that one can run the risk of using bits and pieces of history almost randomly to underline specific, sometimes contradictory claims. Especially when detached from the historical context (or the context of medical research), comparisons can become superficial and all too simple. It is absolutely crucial to contextualize and historicize epidemic events and their responses. The differences between 1918 and 2020 are immense, globally, nationally and locally – with the most glaring being World War I and its aftermaths which set the stage for ways to deal with the influenza pandemic.

Citation: “Epidemics are a fascinating topic given their characteristic disrespect for any kinds of borders” – Interview with Andrea Wiegeshoff, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 04.06.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24055

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