B.S., Cornell University; M.A., New York University; Ph.D., Boston University
Susan M. ReverbyMarion Butler McLean Professor Emerita in the History of Ideas; Professor Emerita of Women’s and Gender Studies
Historian of American health care, women, race, and public health with a focus is on equality and ethics.
As a historian of American health care, my major research has been on women's health, women as health workers/professionals, and the ethics of public health and research. My first books include the co-edited America’s Working Women (1976), Health Care in America: Essays in Social History (1979) and my monograph Ordered to Care: The Dilemma of American Nursing (1987). My next project was focused on what is often called the infamous "Tuskegee" syphilis study, the four decades long (1932-72) U.S. Public Health Service research study in which African American men were deceived into believing they were being treated, not monitored, for their disease. I edited a book on this study called Tuskegee's Truths: Rethinking the Tuskegee Syphilis Study (2000) and my written book on the study, Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy , appeared in 2009, winning three major academic awards. I was also part of the Legacy Committee that led to President Clinton offering a federal apology for this study in 1997.
As part of the research on the syphilis study, I found unpublished papers about a Public Health Service study (1946-48) in Guatemala that involved infecting men and women in a prison, army barracks, a mental hospital, and street sex workers with sexually transmitted diseases that had been kept hidden. I shared my about to be published paper on this with a former director of the Centers for Disease Control in 2010. The gruesome details of the study caused much alarm and concern. The result was that my work was used as the basis for the U.S. government’s apology by the Secretaries of State and Health and Human Services to the people of Guatemala, a focus on the study by the President’s Bioethical Issues Commission, and the reassessment of the protections we give to subjects, especially in studies that take place outside the U.S. borders. The study and apology garnered enormous media attention and sent me on a lecture tour on and off for two years.
My last book, Co-Conspirator for Justice: The Revolutionary Life of Dr. Alan Berkman (2020) is a biography of a global health physician who fought to get anti-retrovirals for HIV/AIDs into Global South countries in the early 2000s and helped to shape U.S. policy. He trained a generation of global health activists while teaching at Columbia’s public health school and was mourned worldwide when he passed away in 2009. However, he was also only the second physician in U.S. history to be arrested for accessory to murder after the fact (the first being the doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth after the Lincoln’s assassination) for not reporting treating the gunshot wound on a self-proclaimed revolutionary who was part of a mostly woman led anti-imperialist group. Berkman was deeply involved in anti-racism work, ended up doing seven years of very hard time in federal prisons while surviving several bouts of cancer that almost killed him, and was convicted of robbery and bombing. He considered himself a political prisoner. His journey from small town Eagle Scout to revolutionary doctor to global health activist is the subject of my book and my abiding concern with how people become political and anti-racist.
As Wellesley's first faculty hire in Women's Studies in 1982, I worked with my colleagues to build a fine department in this subject here at Wellesley, and “repurposed not retired” in 2017. I returned in the fall of 2020 to teach a course on the history of epidemics during the COVID pandemic. I have received support from numerous fellowships for my work, and continue to have a working relationship with the Project on Race and Gender in Science and Medicine at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. I received two honorary degrees, one from Sage College and another from Roosevelt University, and the Genevieve Miller Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association for the History of Medicine.
I continue to try to find ways to share my scholarship and perceptions with the public. I have written op eds, been interviewed by the media on numerous women's and health research issues, and speak often on radio and TV programs. I served on the board of directors of the ACLU of Massachusetts for more than a decade. I am now the president of the board of the Wellfleet Seasonal Residents Association on Cape Cod, an organization I helped to start, where I like to spend time photographing mushrooms.