Academics and Research

Abrams to deliver University Lecture on health care during revolutionary era

When Americans want to learn about the nation’s founders — their ideals, their politics, their legacies — they can choose from thousands of book titles.

But when they want to get to know the founders on a more intimate level, historian Jeanne Abrams has just the prescription: “Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and Health” (NYU Press, 2013).

A professor in University Libraries and DU’s Center for Judaic Studies, Abrams will share insights and findings from that much-hailed book when she delivers the University Lecture, an annual event that showcases the work of different faculty members. The 2016 lecture is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday, April 7, in the Center Theater at the Cable Center.

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“With this lecture, the University community comes together to celebrate publicly this activity that is so simply described, so profoundly rewarding and important, and yet can be so enormously challenging and time-consuming to produce,” says Provost Gregg Kvistad. The criterion for naming the lecturer, he adds, “is that the faculty member has produced superlative creative and/or scholarly work.”

Abrams’ labor of love marries her longstanding interests in medical and colonial history. Her passion for the former triggered extensive research into Colorado’s pivotal role as a center for tuberculosis treatment. Her passion for the revolutionary era, meanwhile, sent her leafing through the letters and journals of the visionaries who steered the country to independence.

“I’ve always been an admirer of the founders. I don’t know when the light bulb went off, but I believe I read something to do with Benjamin Franklin and some of his medical experiments. I said to myself, ‘Gee, there are so many books about America’s founders, but I’ve [only] read bits and pieces about some of their health issues,” she says. “I started to think about combining my keen interest in the life of the founders with my keen interest in medical history. There are so many books about America’s founders, but what I wanted to do, and which I hope I have done, is look at the founders from a different lens, away from the usual perspective of politics to the perspective of illness and medicine in the 18th century.”

When she began her research, Abrams expected to uncover horrifying stories of infant mortality, lethal maladies and life-purging epidemics. After all, the Age of Enlightenment preceded what she calls the “advent of the three A’s.” There were, she notes, “no antibiotics, no antiseptics, no anesthesia.”

But even given these harsh realities, Abrams was struck by just how much the founders prized medical knowledge. “For many of them, it was the most important science. They really saw medicine as an index of progress,” she explains.

“As I got into the project, I was just amazed by how involved the founders were with ideas about medicine, about good health care, about illnesses. I realized that certain of them, particularly Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were really leaders in changes in medicine in their era. As a matter of fact, Franklin was nicknamed Dr. Franklin. And Thomas Jefferson probably did more than anyone else in America to move small pox vaccination forward.”

While newcomers to the topic may marvel over the health challenges that faced the founders, Abrams hopes that they come away from her book and lecture with an appreciation for the individuals themselves. “Illness and death were constant companions on a daily basis,” she says. Knowing that, it’s easier to appreciate “how human they were, how resilient they were.”

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