Yale professor to give UNCW history lecture about fighting disease in Caribbean

This lecture is later today and I don’t think anyone will rush to North Carolina for it, but the research seems quite interesting, so it’s worth a look.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, Mariola Espinosa lived near a street called Ashford Avenue.

Not until she was an undergraduate at Princeton did she discover it was named for Bailey K. Ashford, an American medical officer in Puerto Rico who, in 1899, became the first doctor to treat hookworm successfully.

Espinosa went on to earn a Ph.D. in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is now an associate professor in the history of medicine at Yale. And on Thursday, she’ll become the ninth young scholar to deliver the Sherman Lecture at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Espinosa will speak on “Contagion and Conquest: The United States and the Fight Against Disease in the Caribbean” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in UNCW’s Burney Center. Admission is free, and the public is invited. Her focus will be the U.S. campaigns against yellow fever and hookworm after the Spanish-American War, when the U.S. Army occupied the former Spanish colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Yellow fever claimed hundreds of lives in Wilmington in the fall of 1862, after a Confederate blockade runner apparently brought the disease from the Caribbean. The epidemic’s toll claimed as much as 15 percent of the city’s population.

“The U.S. military was concerned because yellow fever threatened the Southern states,” Espinosa said in a telephone interview.

In 1878, she noted, a ship from Havana spread yellow fever into New Orleans. The disease spread up the Mississippi River and claimed more than 20,000 lives.

Americans revere Walter Reed, the Army physician who headed the commission that determined yellow fever was spread by a particular species of mosquito. Cubans, however, point to the Cuban physician Carlos Finlay, who first theorized the link to mosquitoes as early as the 1880s.

“Finlay’s experiments, however, were not controlled,” Espinosa said. “Reed’s experiments had controls.”

Hookworm, a parasite picked up by humans through bare feet, was a major scourge in Southern states before 1900. Ashford’s treatment campaign in Puerto Rico in 1903 and 1904, which lowered death rates on the island by 90 percent, was later copied by the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission in the early 1900s, leading to hookworm’s virtual eradication in the South.

To research her 2009 history, “Epidemic Invasions: Yellow Fever and the Limits of Cuban Independence,” Espinosa spent years going through archives, going through the letters and reports of men like Reed and Ashford. “They’re still heroes,” she said, “but now we can see they’re more complex, more human.”

The daughter of physicians, Espinosa had no wish to follow them into medicine. “When I was little, I really dreaded visiting my father in the hospital,” she said. Her turn into medical history, she said, was pure accident.

Her next book, she said, will take a longer view, studying how diseases such as yellow fever affected the rise and fall of empires in the Caribbean from the 1500s to the present.

Named for Virginia and Derrick Sherman, the Sherman Lecture brings an emerging young scholar in the social sciences or humanities to UNCW each year for a lecture.

“Espinosa stood apart from the other nominees this year,” said Taylor Fain, an associate professor of history at UNCW and chairman of the Sherman committee. “In her young career, she has already established herself as an accomplished historian of Latin America, medicine and public health policy, as well as U.S. relations with the nations of the Caribbean.”

The article appeared at http://www.starnewsonline.com/article/20101019/ARTICLES/101019599?p=1&tc=pg

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