Despite the widespread use of the word “unprecedented” to describe our experience with the current global health crisis, Dean College students are using the power of history to understand how humans in general—and Dean students of the past more specifically—have responded to pandemics like this before. The lessons of the past are there for those who would learn them, and Dean students are taking charge. As sophomore dance major Cici Kling stated, “We're learning from their mistakes back then in hopes to stop the coronavirus today.” 

Today’s pandemic seems unprecedented because, thankfully, it’s been so long since we have had to deal with a disease as virulent and potentially deadly as COVID-19; unfortunately, that does little to mitigate the fact that we are in the midst of the most ruinous pandemic of the last century, with little clarity on when the worst may be over. That’s where the learning comes in: Dean students are responding to today’s crisis with the histories of science and medicine to gain insight and contextualize what we are experiencing today, fostered, in part, by a recent grant to Dean College from the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH)

Throughout Dean’s history curriculum this spring, students are learning that while the novel coronavirus is, well, novel, public health measures such as social distancing, quarantines, border controls and heightened hygiene protocols have a long history in the fight against endemic disease. Senior communications major Glenn Morales, a student of  Dr. Rob Lawson’s, produced a great short film with accompanying slides explaining how plague affected Italian communities in the 14th and 15th centuries. In Morales’ work, the basics of public health needs, like identifying the sick and keeping them from public interaction, are eerily similar to what many of us experience today. Other, more local echoes of the present in the past were the Rhode Island authorities which turned back New Yorkers in Long Island Sound as people attempted to escape the 1832 cholera outbreak in the city, as well as the establishment of an extraordinary hospital in the Dean campus’ Ray Building when the regular infirmary in Memorial Hall began to overflow with patients during an early twentieth century Scarlet Fever outbreak. 

Drawing many comparisons to today’s COVID-19 pandemic is the Influenza of 1918, often called the Spanish Flu. Dr. Emily Hamilton of University of Massachusetts Amherst—a Dean College consultant on the NEH history of science and medicine initiative—explains that there are many similarities between the pandemics of 1918 and 2020, while our own associate professor of history, Dr. David Dennis, brings the learning home to Dean students with a special presentation on the Influenza of 1918

One of the many commonalities between now and then was the call in 1918 for all medical personnel to assist wherever they could, resonating with today’s fast-tracking of advanced medical and nursing students to allow them to jump in where needed to fight. Also highly reminiscent is the implementation of social distancing. Sophomore history major Kobe Welch-Porter learned from the 1918 comparison of Philadelphia (which was slow to implement social distancing) and St. Louis (which was speedier): “When Philadelphia did not take the outbreak seriously,” Welch-Porter responded, “you saw a large number of people being infected and a high death rate…We can take away from this to show that with the right measures in place we can slow the spread of this virus and…prevent overcrowding of hospitals and stop the spread from being unmanageable.”  

The learning goes even deeper, and more local. Army post Camp (now Fort) Devens was especially hard-hit by the 1918 outbreak, described as a “‘hellhole of death,’ with piles of dead bodies, overflowed beds and soldiers lined up outside hospitals.” The Dean community had, sadly, a front-row seat to the devastation. Corporal George Angell of the U.S. Army was a former Dean student, and he was at Camp Devens during the worst of it. Students today read and respond to his letters, which have been transcribed by Dean Learning Center staff member Susan Elliott, showing that they understand the concerns that haunt people today—worries about well-being of self and family, fear of financial insecurity and dreading social isolation—were the same trepidations felt by Angell in 1918. Students remark that they, like Angell, have had to miss big events (tearfully, he couldn’t attend his sister’s wedding in Vermont), and they note that he was worried about his parents handling his letters as they arrived. 

But social distancing and other precautions made an impact, and Angell went on to live a long and productive life. Junior marketing major Ann Bosio, a student of Dr. Dennis’, responds that cancellations of gatherings and maintaining separation was—and is—painful but necessary, noting that students today have an advantage over their past counterparts: online learning. “This is why distance learning is essential for educational systems to take part in,” Bosio writes, “the distance that it allows between individuals helps to ensure our safety.” It’s inspiring, writes another of Dr. Dennis’ students, dance sophomore Rebecca Cimmino: “[George Angell’s] experience can show us that even though times are scary, we can't just completely shut down, we can push through this scary time.”

And scary it is, and was. There were additional threats, such as the often-rushed desire to find cures which sometimes resulted in quackery and false promises. Dean students have been looking at advertisements from the 1918 flu outbreak, some of which turn out to be rather dubious, such as the promotion of ingesting onions and distilled water to stop the pandemic. Students’ responses show great application of information literacy skills, discriminating between public health messages based on science and those that took advantage of peoples’ fear to sell their products. “As for the false advertisements,” writes communication junior Seth Porter, “the most likely motive is to increase profits for a company” and to “spin the pandemic as a way to garner attention to themselves.” 

To combat this phenomenon, students suggest—as does Mark Genesky, a student in Dean’s School of Continuing Studies—that “strong leadership is needed from many aspects of society to communicate the lessons learned and apply them to today’s crisis…I also believe that candid, tough discussions are needed from as many credible sources possible to send the same messages over and over.” Without credible information, Genesky states, “chaos…can result.”

What stands out in the work of today’s Dean students as they use history to confront the crisis before us is their clear-eyed view of the lessons of the past. Sophomore business major Stephanie Pak Kai Li calls on us to take advantage of the power of history: “So if history teaches us anything,” she argues, “it's to remain calm and self-controlled, and not to underestimate the power of viruses.” And out of this sobering analysis comes a powerful motivator: Hope. “I know things will improve,” writes history senior Kristin Hansen, “We just must remember stories like Angell’s to be reminded that there are happy times to follow.”  

Author: Dr. Rob Lawson, Professor of History & Director of the Honors Program, and Dr. David Dennis, Associate Professor of History and Humanities Program Coordinator