Thursday, August 9, 2012

Simon Finger's "The Contagious City"

Simon Finger is Visiting Assistant Professor of History and Humanities at Reed College.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Contagious City: The Politics of Public Health in Early Philadelphia, and reported the following:
In The Contagious City, I trace the interweaving lines of medicine in politics in early Philadelphia, exploring subjects including urban planning, sanitation, quarantine policy, charity and public relief, social reform movements, the development of scientific and medical education, and the changing place of medicine in the early republic.

Page 99 of the book deals with the personal and professional rivalry between John Morgan and William Shippen, the former director of the Continental Army's medical department, and the man who succeeded him. For four years, even through the heaviest fighting of the American Revolution, the two doctors waged their own war over medicine, professionalism, and patriotism. Charges of incompetence and malpractice flew back and forth alongside accusations of profiteering, and even treason.

The polarizing clash between Shippen and Morgan reflects the central theme of the book--the complex but enduring relationship between medicine and politics. Medicine offered powerful new technologies for achieving political and national objectives, and emerging governmental structures offered valuable opportunities for medical men to establish the legitimacy of their profession, as well as their own individual reputations.

From the very founding of Philadelphia, William Penn drew upon proposals for sanitation and public health developed in the wake of London's "Devil's Year" of war, plague, and fire (1665-1666). Throughout the colonial period, Philadelphia led the way among American cities in seeking solutions to medical problems. But institutions like the Pennsylvania Hospital were driven by more than just humanitarian sentiment--they embodied a new way of understanding the relationship between a healthy population and national power. Rather than considering health as a strictly individual concern, these new philanthropists and reformers believed that the greatness of any nation depended on the number and condition of its people, and that promoting health was therefore a public goal. In short, the commonwealth depended on the common health.
Learn more about The Contagious City at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue