Three Wellesley Professors Teach Students to View the Pandemic Through a Historical Lens

pandemic art "Citizens of Tournai bury their plague dead"

A year into the COVID-19 crisis, it seems like almost everyone can recall the moment they first sensed just how extensively the pandemic making its way around the world would upend their lives.

For Simon Grote, associate professor of history at Wellesley, it came during one of his last unmasked walks in Halle, Germany, where he spent the fall semester doing research, as restaurants and shops in his neighborhood were shuttering en masse.

“The gravity of the situation was becoming impossible to ignore,” Grote said. “I had been feeling as if the pandemic was offering us all an extraordinary opportunity to understand things about ourselves and our communities that might not otherwise be obvious, and I didn’t want to miss it. I kept asking myself, ‘What should I be paying attention to? What questions should I be asking? What should I want to know about?’”

As the pandemic intensified, the journalistic articles Grote had been reading didn’t seem to offer answers to those questions. He found himself turning increasingly to sources that could provide a longer view: historians and scholars of epidemics.

“I wanted to use their investigations of past epidemics as a model for the coronavirus pandemic, and to try to understand what mattered to them,” Grote said.

In June, Grote reached out to Jacki Musacchio, professor of art, to discuss ideas for a course that would address those topics.

“Last year, I was teaching ARTH 251: The Arts in Italy Before and After the Black Death,” Musacchio said. “We had literally just reached the Black Death when the campus, and the world, went into lockdown. So I was thinking about constructing a new course for the fall to focus specifically on plague-related art in the early modern period when Simon reached out to me with his idea of examining epidemics more broadly, from a historical perspective.”

While living and teaching under pandemic conditions is new for Musacchio, her interest in the history of pandemics is not. Her first book examined the role of art and objects related to childbirth after the outbreak of the Black Death in Italy in the mid-14th century.

Grote and Musacchio decided to create a course for fall term 2 on the history of epidemics from the 14th through the 18th centuries, primarily in Europe but also in the Americas. “We tried to give students a sense of how scholars of history, art history, and various other disciplines have been using epidemics to gain insights into the workings of the communities that experienced them,” Grote said. Throughout the term, scholars from around the world joined the class by Zoom to discuss their work, as did several members of the Wellesley community. Grote and Musacchio also incorporated objects from the Davis Museum and Special Collections.

Students learned about historical outbreaks of disease, then researched and wrote short essays to explain to a general audience how understanding history can help them understand our current situation.

“It was exciting to see students developing their appreciation, based on knowledge of historical examples, for the often insoluble problems faced by public health officials,” Grote said. “The most electric moments seemed to come when we had been studying something historical and then pivoted to the present.”

“When I chose to take this class, I expected there to be some similarities between the past and the present, but I certainly did not expect there to be as many similarities as we found,” said Hailey Sweeney ’23. “Perhaps it’s because human nature doesn’t change, but I realized that people tend to respond similarly to mass disease. People tend to blame others, people want to leave infected areas, people want to believe that they are above public health measures, and governments often don’t have the best responses either. But people also cope in similar ways, too. People make art, people make music, people worship together.”

Ella Mints ’22, an art history major who took the course, said that examining pandemic-related objects from Special Collections had a significant impact on her. “It was more comforting than I previously imagined to see these physical reminders of the many people who have shared our anxieties and desperately strove to protect themselves,” she said.

While Grote and Musacchio focused on history, and the history of art, Susan Reverby, Marion Butler McLean Professor Emerita in the History of Ideas and professor emerita of women’s and gender studies, taught a term 2 course that examined the pandemic through the lens of health activism.

“It felt like the wrong time to be an historian of medicine and a feminist health activist and not be teaching,” Reverby said. She turned to courses she had previously taught, such as Health Activism and Race, Class, and Gender in American Healthcare, to shape her approach to the topic, and like Grote and Musacchio, she invited experts to join the class as guest lecturers.

“It was exciting to meet and hear from experts in public health and health activism about the topics we were studying, as well as their career paths,” said Talia Benheim ’21, an economics and psychology double major. “We learned how so many aspects of the current pandemic differ from past pandemics, and how, in addition to the biological factors that affect the course of an outbreak, social, cultural, and historical contexts and values shape people’s experiences of a disease.”

Reverby said she wanted the assignments to be as open as possible. For the final projects, students recorded podcasts, annotated bibliographies, created websites, and wrote research papers.

Shreya Huilgol ’21, a cognitive and linguistic sciences and health and society double major, developed a script for a podcast episode about health department response lessons from previous epidemics in New York City. She said the dynamic nature of the course’s texts and assignments throughout the term inspired her to attempt a nontraditional project.

“Early in the term, I decided to write an analysis on an episode of ‘Hidden Brain,’ one of my favorite podcasts,” Huilgol said. “Because we had so much freedom for final projects and I enjoyed that analysis, it felt natural to write a podcast script for my project.”

While the term has ended, the conversation that began in Reverby’s virtual classroom has continued into 2021.

“Our class has remained in touch with each other and Professor Reverby,” Benheim said. “We regularly exchange relevant updates and articles about the pandemic and public health.”