Understanding Public Health Historically: An Interview with Dr. Melanie Kiechle - Oklahoma Center for the Humanities

Understanding Public Health Historically: An Interview with Dr. Melanie Kiechle

Scholar and author Dr. Melanie Kiechle will be joining us on Oct. 8th at 7:00 pm on Zoom for a conversation about the history of public health and the varied responses to medical testimonies by laypeople, particularly women, since the 19th century. Here, she answers some questions about her research and its relevance to our current Covid health crisis.

1. What drew you (or continues to draw you) to the topic of nineteenth-century public health?

In the course of researching my first book, Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America, I did not set out to write about public health, but I discovered that the public health movement was especially concerned about exposure to foul odors and the necessity of breathing fresh air. I also became intrigued by how public health reformers tried to convince others that the government should be protecting everyone’s health—this seems like an obvious responsibility in an increasingly linked society, and it was successful despite strong opposition. By the end of the nineteenth century, many cities and states had created public health departments that actively intervened to try to protect and improve people’s health. I have been intrigued by how reformers “won” the argument, as well as the powerful opposition they faced—both from political opponents and from industrialization’s toll on the environment and bodies.
Today, in the context of our pandemic, I’m more fascinated in the idea and the activities of public health than ever.

2. Do you think that a historical understanding of our relationship with the environment, healthcare, and medicine can be helpful in informing our current healthcare situation(s) and/or the Covid crisis?

Great question! My answer is YES, absolutely. Before the discovery that microbes and bacteria cause illness, which occurred towards the end of the nineteenth century, people believed that bad airs (miasmas) made them sick. The everyday actions they took to protect health are useful for us today, as we deal with the increasing knowledge that the novel coronavirus spreads via the air. For example, nineteenth-century Americans paid a lot of attention to the ventilation of their buildings, and scientists and physicians recommended regularly airing rooms in order to avoid breathing air that anyone else had exhaled. That’s a practice that we can and should use today, and it has recently been encouraged by the German government (Read more about this here). Americans also carried handkerchiefs to cover their noses in crowded spaces—a practice that is very similar to wearing masks when we go out in public. When we remember that the environment around us affects our health, all of us can better control how we interact with the environment and take steps to prevent illness.

3. Your first book, Smell Detectives, addressed the connection between smells and health in 19th century America. Your current research tackles the topic of women’s health testimonies and how they were/are received by the medical field and the general public. I would love to hear about how your first book might have informed your latest area of research. What drew you to the topic of women’s healthcare testimonies and why do you think it’s important?

There is a direct link between the two projects. In my first book, I was curious how olfaction and odors mattered in the nineteenth century. This project picks up a question that came out of that research—what makes some people’s senses more trustworthy or reliable than others? As I’ll discuss on Thursday night, even though everyone has a nose, nineteenth-century Americans reacted different to the odors they inhaled—and to one another’s accounts of physical effects. The question of why society at large, and health experts in particular, trust some people’s physical experience but doubt others strikes me as incredibly important. I think these issues of trust and doubt have powerfully shaped the unequal healthfulness and exposure to dangers that we experience in our society today.


==>Register for Laughable Testimony: When Women Discuss Health with Melanie Kiechle.