2022-2023: Shelia Biddle Ford Foundation Fellow
Jim Downs is the Gilder Lehrman-National Endowment for the Humanities Professor of Civil War Era Studies and History at Gettysburg College.
For the fellowship project, Downs will work on a history of the field of public health and the 1866 cholera epidemic, Deadly Water: A New Origin of Story of Public Health. This book uncovers how the field of public health developed in direct response to the cholera pandemic of 1866. Many scholars trace the rise of public health in the United States to increased urbanization, industrialization, and immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This project challenges this history by uncovering two major factors. First, it argues that the outbreak of cholera among Native Americans on reservations in the West and formerly enslaved people on military-run plantations in the postwar South led to the development of protocols to control the spread of the 1866 cholera pandemic. Second, it situates the origin of public health in a broader global context, uncovering how transnational networks influenced the creation of public health in the U.S. It examines the ways in which the development of public health protocols in post emancipation societies in the Caribbean provided state authorities, particularly in Louisiana, with insight on how to develop surveillance methods to track the spread of the pandemic. It also uncovers a surprising genealogy of public health that traces public health initiatives from London to India to the Caribbean to Louisiana. The scholarship on public health in the U.S. has fetishized cities in the Northeast, overlooking the South and the West but, most importantly, the Black and Native populations that resided in these regions.