September 16, 2003

From Plagues to People

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How many degrees separate Herodotus and the Egyptians from the Black Death? Not very many, according to Prof. Laura Harrington’s new two-credit course entitled “Plagues and People,” Entomology 210. The ancient scholar and the Nile-centered civilization both discovered methods of avoiding bug bites with the use of nets; the plague was a flea-bred disease that killed up to one-third of the European population in the 14th century.

By studying arthropods as vectors of diseases, Harrington traces the scientific and historical importance of the most horrific plagues throughout our existence.

The class, with an enrollment that hovers around 50 students, focuses on the pathogens and parasites that cause human disease. “Insects have influenced history and culture,” Harrington said. By discussing epidemics in a historical context, their causes and consequences can be better understood.

Harrington, whose fascination with mosquitoes and malaria began in college, is currently exploring the impact of dengue fever in Thailand and “strategies for minimizing the risks” of contracting West Nile virus in the U.S., she explained.

For this course, she is focusing mainly on the bubonic plague, typhus, malaria, yellow fever, and bio-terrorist threats of the future. Because she created the class to include a “historical perspective,” Harrington said, guest lecturers from Cornell and around the country will share their views on plagues in history.

Prof. Paul Hyams, history, is the director of the Medieval Studies program and will be speaking to the entomology class later this semester. He accepted Harrington’s invitation to participate because “the gulf between the so-called sciences and the so-called humanities is ridiculous and damaging to our culture,” Hyams said. He will put the Black Death in a socio-historical context and said he hopes to “open up one or two other possible avenues” of studying the impact of vector-born diseases.

Entomology 210, Hyams said, was made for interdisciplinary cooperation because of its focus on insect-human interactions over a long span of history and geographical regions.

In addition to lectures, students will take a trip to the Johnson Museum of Art and hear from artist Leonor Pisano to understand how the plague affects different artistic expressions of human emotion.

“We are studying things I wouldn’t normally think to be in an entomology course,” said Adrian Reich ’04, a student in the class. He signed up after reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, a book that made him interested in “putting diseases in their historical context,” Reich said.

In addition to discussing history, Harrington has decided to emphasize the future of plagues as well. The latter part of the semester focuses on their possible existence in the present, how they may be spread with emerging technology, and how they can be avoided. Dr. Charles B. Beard from the Center for Disease Control will present a lecture regarding non-vector-born diseases like SARS, monkey pox, and other recent outbreaks.

“I was a little surprised to see bio-terrorism on the syllabus,” Reich said. He now believes the knowledge gained from this course will be applicable to the study of anthrax and other fears of the future.

“I hope to give people a balanced view and a better understanding about the ecology of these diseases,” Harrington said. Her goal in teaching the course is to impart upon her students the “impact that these diseases have had and could have in the future in our society,” she said, not just to scare them with horror stories of oozing sores and black patches of raw skin that were common among victims of the bubonic plague.

Archived article by Melissa Korn