By Kallie Delis
Amid heightened concerns about the Coronavirus, a traveling national exhibit called “Politics of Yellow Fever in Alexander Hamilton’s America” has captured the attention of the New College community.
The exhibit’s fascinating material is on display from now until April 11 in the Jane Bancroft Cook Library, detailing how science and politics informed the response to the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (and how this ultimately shaped the nation’s public health infrastructure). The hosting of the exhibit, and the student work it has inspired, could not come at a more appropriate time.
“It’s a little morbid but it is immersive,” said New College student Isabella Michal, who has studied yellow fever in depth. “This is what people don’t think about when it comes to public health.”
The exhibit—compiled by the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Library of Medicine (NLM)—moved students like Michal to complete a “Yellow Fever”-specific Independent Study Project (ISP) at New College, and even design a companion curriculum and website.
Tabea Cornel, visiting assistant professor of medical humanities at New College, and Kristopher Fennie, assistant professor of epidemiology, helped spearhead the effort.
The idea of involving students in “Yellow Fever”-related projects initially began when a New College alumna, NLM Traveling Exhibitions Coordinator Jane K. Markowitz ’79, reached out to Cornel. She nudged Cornel to apply for a competitive, nationwide grant that would allow New College to serve as one of the hosts of the exhibit.
After securing the grant, Cornel and Fennie co-taught an ISP that contributed heavily to the exhibit and outreach project. Students Michal, Corinna Carroll, Katherine Franca, Megan Galeski, Isabella Hochburger, Emma Hodge and Samuel Mingus learned about the history of the yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia, assisted in preparing events for the exhibit, developed a curriculum to teach to local high school students, and constructed an informative website (https://rosegoddessmc.wixsite.com/ncfyellowfever/).
The educational sessions the students created are structured to allow for lectures and interactive time. One of the approaches is an epidemic strategy and role-playing game, in which players make decisions about how to proceed in an outbreak scenario. Every decision has impacts that the players come to realize, and some decisions restrict the potential for other choices to be made later on in the game.
“We can take lessons from what’s in the exhibit and apply them to our current-day context. What’s similar, what’s different, what am I doing that I’m completely unaware of that might be having an impact?,” Fennie said. “I think it’s ideal because it gives us a chance to showcase the strength of our students. Hopefully, that will inspire kids in the community about the importance of education.”
Not only is the exhibit an educational opportunity to engage with the Sarasota-Bradenton community, but it is also an opportunity for growth and awareness.
“Almost all public health crises heighten socio-economic inequities,” Cornel said. “I think that the exhibit is an excellent opportunity for us to confront our white privilege and think about our neighbors of color on and, particularly, off campus.”
Understanding this intersection of effects is one of Cornel’s specialties. The sprawling yellow fever project that has been created around this exhibit aligns well with both Fennie’s expertise in epidemics and Cornel’s pioneering in medical humanities.
“We want to put the human individual back into the equation, with all their feelings, thoughts, needs and relationships,” Cornel said.
Kallie Delis is a student at New College of Florida.