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Historian addresses need for deep, global perspective on human health

Ancient manuscript
June 16, 2011

As a historian of medicine, Monica Green studies the literal ills of society. Her scope of research is wide and deep, covering diverse eras and subjects, from Europe’s bubonic plague pandemic to the modern scourge of AIDS.

Later this month the professor in Arizona State University’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies will travel to London to present the opening plenary address for the Institute of Historical Research’s 80th Anglo-American Conference of Historians. This year’s theme is health and history, a topic seemingly custom created for Green, who is also affiliated faculty in the Global Health program of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

At the conference, Green will discuss her interpretive framework for the global history of health and how it can be used by a range of historians to shape a more comprehensive view of the subject.

Green promotes the study of long-term history as an important part of understanding how diseases arise, spread and are viewed and treated. Although many scholars involved in health policy see only recent history as relevant to current health challenges, Green suggests that manifestations of ill health often have roots extending back many generations.

“Humans have been ‘global’ for millennia and ‘emerging diseases’ are not a new phenomenon,” she explained. “What a ‘deep history’ of health can offer is a sense of scope and a sense of scale. It offers a sense that we are part of a larger narrative whose trajectory we can only partially direct.”

While diseases like bubonic plague and leprosy are not the nemeses they once were, they are still with us. Meanwhile other ancient health problems have evolved into new forms of old enemies, like drug-resistant tuberculosis. Green proposes that fuller views of diseases and approaches to combating them must be considered.

“Eradication of ancient diseases, if ever to be achieved, will have to involve more environmental and behavioral changes than drug development,” she said.

Green emphasizes that many factors – from economic to cultural – influence human health and, as a result, views transdisciplinary collaboration as the key to deeper insight into where humans have been, where they are now and where they are headed, in terms of health and wellness.

She recently teamed with ASU bioarchaeologist Rachel Scott to develop the “Global History of Health” cornerstone course of the Global Health program. Green is looking forward to future collaborations with Scott and other School of Human Evolution and Social Change faculty and is excited by the potential outcomes of research that melds historical records and new technologies, particularly genomics.

“The work that Anne Stone, Jane Buikstra and Luz-Andrea Pfister are doing on TB and leprosy is simply tremendously potent for integration with historical analysis, and that’s where I see the most future possibilities,” Green enthused.

Green teaches a variety of classes, including “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Women’s Health” and “Race and Medicine.” She has published extensively and has received fellowships from the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, All Souls College at Oxford and the National Endowment for the Humanities.