GHC speakers discuss history of Native American diseases, flu epidemics

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A workshop at Georgia Highlands College last week took a look at the threat of epidemics in today's society based on how diseases affected the country in the past. 

GHC's history department partnered with Chieftains Museum/Major Ridge Home in Rome to host a Medical History Workshop Oct. 24 in the student center at the Cartersville campus. 

History professor Bronson Long said the workshop, attended by about 40 students, faculty and community members, zeroed in on two issues in medical history that were of local and global importance and helped shape the past: the role of disease in the European conquest of the Americas in the 16th through 18th centuries and the influenza epidemic of 1918-19 following World War I.

"The idea for the Medical History Workshop came out of discussions last year among GHC historians, discussions that took place with the knowledge that GHC had chosen wellness as a major theme for the 2018-2019 academic year," he said. "We wanted to do something in conjunction with this theme. The fact that this academic year is also the centennial of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic also helped things to come together." 

During the hour-plus workshop, Associate History Prof. Matt Jennings from Middle Georgia State University in Macon presented “What Disease Did (And What it Didn’t): New Perspectives on the Entry of Europe into the Americas” on the impact of diseases brought to the Americas by Europeans. 

"The talk was a little bit less about the specific diseases, though smallpox and measles played significant roles, and a little bit more about the way scholars have approached the topic of disease," he said. "I hoped to convince students not to accept the easy answer, that native people had no immunity whatsoever to European diseases and that bad biological luck doomed native people to defeat and presaged European domination. Disease cannot be separated from the wide-ranging effects of the long-term presence of Europeans in native homelands, such as displacement, disruption of food supplies and exploitation of labor." 

While Dr. Jennings specializes in Native American history, he said he "can't claim expertise in the history of disease."

"In my original scholarship, I focus on violence in the early American Southeast, and more recently, I've studied native history, archaeology and tourism at a Mississippian-era site in Macon, Ocmulgee National Monument," he said. "I have done a fair amount of reading on native people and disease, including works by Paul Kelton and others, that allowed me to feel comfortable enough addressing these issues."

GHC History Prof. Jayme Feagin addressed the influenza epidemics in her presentation titled “The Great Flu and the Great War: The Global Impact of Disease in the Early 20th Century.”

"I discussed the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918-1919, largely due to the centennial this year," she said.  "The Spanish flu, often considered the 'forgotten pandemic,' has a number of lessons to offer the modern world. In 1918, the year the Great War ended, the global flu pandemic killed more people in 18 months than the war had in roughly four-and-a-half years, and yet people 100 years later know little about it."

Dr. Feagin said she thought it would be "useful to reflect on the history of this ruthless killer, particularly in light of GHC’s focus on wellness this year."

"One of the biggest lessons that the Spanish flu pandemic offers the modern world is that illness and wellness are not just individual but must be considered in the context of a broader community," she said.  

Long was pleased with the information the speakers shared with the audience. 

"Both Dr. Jennings and Dr. Feagin did an excellent job with their presentations," he said. "I learned from both of their presentations. I believe that students certainly did."

Jennings was happy to accept the invitation from Long, his friend and colleague, to speak at the workshop, and Heather Shores, executive director of Chieftains Museum, was "kind enough to sponsor my visit," he said.

"I always appreciate the opportunity to visit college campuses and talk with students and faculty about Native American history," he said.

After the workshop, GHC's student life department hosted a reception where guests could view infographic projects created by Feagin's history class on topics related to the history of wellness in the Atlanta/northwest Georgia area.

The department also held a free flu shot clinic for students in conjunction with the event.