K. A. Foss: Constructing the Outbreak

Constructing the Outbreak. Epidemics in Media and Collective Memory

Foss, Katherine A.
232 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Andrea Wiegeshoff, Seminar für Neuere Geschichte, Universität Marburg

COVID-19 is a stark reminder of how the present continues to shape the questions historians and the public have about the past. The ebbs and flows of public and media attention to historical topics are closely intertwined with current developments, often expressing a desire to learn from past experiences. The on-going pandemic has sparked interest in historical outbreaks, countermeasures, as well as in the ways in which past pandemics ended. Over the last two years, SARS in 2002/2003, the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918/1919, the history of smallpox vaccination, and the case of the healthy typhoid carrier “Typhoid Mary” Mallon have appeared in the media as examples of historical reminiscences and analogies. Early on, such renewed interest in medical history has led some historians to caution against superficial comparisons and tendencies to overstretch similarities between historical and current contexts.[1]

In her new book, Katherine A. Foss, professor of media studies at Middle Tennessee University, traces the multifaceted layers of the connection between epidemics, media, and cultural contexts shaping the perception and representations of outbreaks. She zooms in on different epidemics in American history that span a period from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Building on the observation that “media (newspapers, magazines, radio, television, websites, and social media) play key roles in framing epidemics” (p. 2), Foss considers two guiding questions throughout the book. On the one hand, she is interested in the ways media have constructed news of epidemics during historical outbreaks. On the other hand, from the perspective of our present, the book seeks to shed light on the aftermaths of such representations by investigating how today’s media have “constructed diseases of the past, thus shaping collective memory” (p. 2) of these illnesses.

From a historian’s point of view, and this is the perspective guiding the following remarks, such an approach appears promising and familiar. Historical media, especially but not only newspapers, have presented important sources for historians investigating the history of epidemics to discuss historical perceptions of diseases as well as processes of scapegoating, underlying political agendas, power structures, and societal orders.[2] Conceptually, Foss draws on scholarship that emphasizes the dual nature of diseases as biological entities and socio-cultural constructions. The narrative mirrors this approach by closely following the occurrence, development, and impact of outbreaks as mediated in historical media while, simultaneously, critically examining these discourses with a view to cultural contexts and, most notably, “power dynamics and discrimination during epidemics” (p. 12). The transformation of media over the centuries, e.g. in terms of distribution and outreach but also the emergence of new platforms, is the backdrop against which the story unfolds.

Arranged chronologically, the book focuses on seven epidemics from 1721 to 1952. As acute outbreaks, the smallpox epidemic in Boston in 1721 (chap. 1) and the infamous yellow fever incursion into Philadelphia in 1793 (chap. 2) mark the beginning of the analysis. The following chapters then turn to decisive, well-studied shifts in the medical and public understanding of diseases: Chapter 3 asks how the advent of bacteriology changed the perception of tuberculosis in the late 19th century. It specifically focuses on the media discourse in the health resort of Colorado Springs that became a major destination for patients suffering from the disease. The medical recognition of the role which healthy carriers could play in spreading pathogens is closely linked to the often-retold story of Mary Mallon, better known as “Typhoid Mary,” whose case is analyzed in chapter 4. The last three chapters discuss epidemics marked by very different media coverage, namely the influenza outbreak in Lawrence, Kansas, at the end of World War I (chap. 5); the race to bring desperately needed medicine to the isolated town of Nome, Alaska, to stem a diphtheria outbreak in 1925 (chap. 6); and a polio epidemic in the United States in 1952 (chap. 7). Censorship and war efforts shaped the representation of influenza whereas the dramatic efforts to save the inhabitants of Nome were widely publicized and closely followed by local and national media. Finally, the polio outbreak in the 1950s occurred after years of media campaigns to educate the American public about the disease and raise funding for its victims.

The different chapters give a detailed, grippingly narrated account of the outbreaks. They demonstrate how useful it is to analytically locate epidemics and pandemics in specific places where cross-border, even global phenomena materialized, invading and shaping everyday lives. Foss shows that local newspapers often provided an outlet for people on the ground to articulate their needs and fears in times of epidemics. At the same time, she emphasizes the limits of the source material that tended to represent the voices of certain segments of society while marginalizing and often scapegoating others, notably ethnic minorities and women. For instance, Foss criticizes the framing of Mary Mallon as a thoughtless and selfish “superspreader,” to borrow a recent term, as inextricably tied to her status as a “poor Irish female immigrant” (p. 119). While this argument is, of course, convincing, it would have been interesting to further broaden this discussion by contextualizing Mallon’s case, and the others examined, in their historical specificity. Mary Mallon’s fate, grim as it was, still differed markedly from the treatment of Asian migrants to the United States in the early 20th century. This group was racially stigmatized as undetected carriers of hookworms and other parasites and, in turn, subjected to harsh examination, confinement, and often deportation.[3]

The limits of media sources, both in terms of representing different groups as well as outreach, complicate the hypothesis upon which the analysis rests. While, for instance, the case of the polio epidemic of 1952 clearly demonstrates that “how media construct these moments critically influences public perception” (p. 204), the situation appears more complex for earlier outbreaks. Regarding the smallpox epidemic of 1721, Foss emphasizes that the Boston press “hardly conveyed the panic and grief experienced by the town” (p. 36) and consequently relies on other sources as well. Hence, more systematic and extensive reflections about the historically changing relationship between public and published perceptions could contribute to a more nuanced picture of the role media played during outbreaks over the centuries.

With regard to the second guiding question, the issue of how today’s media have addressed, framed and, thus, “largely constructed our collective memory of past diseases” (p. 14) is briefly discussed at the end of each chapter. Highlighting some examples of how different illnesses are mentioned, or indeed not mentioned, in recent literature, popular culture, and news coverage gives interesting insights into current images of past diseases and shows how far these images stray from the historical phenomena. However, a broader analysis of the different contexts and historical moments such references have appeared in would help to write and critically evaluate a contemporary history of perceptions of diseases and safety, as well as todays’ disappointment over our enduring vulnerability to allegedly overcome dangers, most notably in the face of COVID-19 but also with regard to earlier Emerging Infectious Diseases such as HIV/Aids, SARS, and Zika. “[C]onsistent themes” (p. 205) that have characterized public health discourses, not only in the United States, such as the marginalization of specific experiences, racialized ascriptions of diseases, or scapegoating in times of outbreaks, would thus emerge as both, rooted in historical constellations and in need of historization in their specific more recent moments.

[1] E.g. Robert Peckham, Covid-19 and the Anti-Lessons of History, in: The Lancet 395 (2020), pp. 850–851.
[2] Cf., amongst others, Conevery Bolton Valenčius, The Health of the Country. How American Settlers Understood themselves and their Land, New York 2002; Mark Honingsbaum, A History of the Great Influenza Pandemics. Death, Panic and Hysteria, 1830–1920, London 2014; James Mohr, Plague and Fire. Battling Black Death and the 1900 Burning of Honolulu’s Chinatown, Oxford 2005; Guenter B. Risse, Plague, Fear, and Politics in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Baltimore 2012.
[3] Nayan Shah, The Empire of Medical Investigation on Angle Island, California, in: Alison Bashford (ed.), Quarantine. Local and Global Histories, London 2016, pp. 103–120. Cf. Alan M. Kraut, Silent Travelers. Germs, Genes, and the “Immigrant Menace”, Baltimore/London 1994, pp.78–104.

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