Writing Medical History in a Pandemic, Part 1

It's been a couple of months since I've blogged, and it feels like longer. When the coronavirus crisis hit my region, I decided to take an intentional mini-hiatus from blogging, because like so many others, I'm spending more energy than usual on the giant task of absorbing and processing what's happening around us, which leaves me with less energy for other things. I didn't know how long I'd be away from the blog and I didn't announce the mini-hiatus, and now I'm tiptoeing back in.

Since I signed the contract to write Exploring American Healthcare Through 50 Historic Treasures (a year ago now!) I have been using this blog to give you glimpses into the writing and research process and share pieces of information that I can't fit into my chapter drafts. Today, I want to give you glimpses into what it's like to write medical history during a pandemic.  There's at least one more of these posts coming, because it turns out I have a lot of thoughts on the matter.
  • I find that I've been talking and joking a lot about how when I was just doing medical history for my museum job and writing about medical history in my "free" time, I liked it, but now that I'm also living through medical history, it's suddenly a lot harder. I've mentioned this to my writing groups, in online social get-togethers, and in medical history groups, and it usually gets a sympathetic laugh or groan. I've mentioned it in so many contexts, to different people, I started to feel like it was becoming my "bit," but I realized that no, this really is hard, and talking about it is helping.
  • I am both very lucky, and very privileged. I still have a job (and one I like!), and I haven't personally lost anyone so far. I'm in a low-risk category myself, and while I have a number of loved ones who are at high risk because of their health or disabilities and some loved ones who are at high risk because they've been forced to work in contact with many people during the crisis, very few people I personally know are in both groups. I think about how hard the pandemic is hitting structurally marginalized communities, and I can't imagine doing any kind of writing if I were more immediately affected. My experience is so different from that of a front-line worker of any variety. If you're also among the lucky and privileged and don't know how bad it is first-hand, I highly recommend reading this short article about what it's like for my neighbors a few miles away in Chelsea.
  •  I had created a list of fifty artifacts and historic sites I wanted to feature as part of the book proposal, but I've been tweaking that list as I go, and one of the most recent additions was a microscope slide from a 1920 outbreak of bubonic plague. I didn't know anything about the history of the plague pandemic that took place from the 1890s through the mid 20th century. I had been struggling to find a good artifact to represent the 1918 flu pandemic, so for a while, I had been strongly considering combining them into one chapter, called something like "two plagues." Last month, I realized there's no way that I can do that -- in a book that's a survey of American medical history that should be coming out in 2021, when the chapters are only the length of magazine articles, the 1918 flu absolutely has to have its own chapter. 
  • Sometimes, I'm very, very angry, and not just about the present day. That plague pandemic in the early 20th century? It hit China (and many other parts of the world) much harder than the USA, and it happened that the first place the disease was found in the US was in San Francisco's chinatown, and white people reacted with a wave of especially intense Sinophobia, in a period when Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans were already many people's favorite scapegoat. Meanwhile, government officials denied a that the plague outbreak was even happening, and newspapers claimed the "hoax" was bad for business. You can't make this shit up.
  • To end on a light note, here's one of my favorite anecdotes I've learned while researching the book, from 1940. Early penicillin researchers, treating a patient with sepsis with the new drug for the first time, struggled to produce enough penicillin to keep up with the patient’s infection. The team collected the urine and extracted the drug that his body had not absorbed. They called the errand of bringing the penicillin-containing urine back to the lab “P-patrol.” I enjoy it a little bit for the lightly crass humor, more for the pun, but most for the peek into the jokes developed by a medical and scientific team doing great things under great pressure.