Martin Luther on those who do not take precautions during a plague: “They are responsible before God for their neighbors death and a murderer many times over.”

What did Martin Luther think about those who act irresponsibly during public health crisis? Below is a piece by Mark Schwehn, Professor of Humanities in Christ College, the Honors College of Valparaiso University. Schwehn is perhaps best known as the founder of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso and the author of Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation (Oxford, 1993), Everyone a Teacher (Notre Dame, 2000) and with Dorothy C. Bass Leading Lives That Matter (Eerdmans, 2005, 2020). Enjoy! -JF

What should we say to those Protestants who, in the name of God and their own understanding of Christian freedom, choose to ignore or distort medical advice, to question science, to refuse to take what are thought to be elementary precautions, and who thereby endanger their neighbors? The founder of the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther had a simple answer to this question. Such people should be told in no uncertain terms that they are bound for hell and damnation.

The quotation below is taken directly from a pastoral letter written by Martin Luther in 1527 in response to a request from a Lutheran pastor about how Christians should respond in a time of bubonic plague. The outbreak of the plague reached Wittenberg in 1527, where Luther remained while others fled in order to minister to the physical and spiritual health of those afflicted with plague. He invited several townspeople into his home to care for them at great risk to himself and his family. His only son Hans contracted by plague but survived. His pregnant wife Katie gave birth to a daughter Elizabeth who died after eight months, doubtless weakened by exposure in utero to plague or by her mother’s stress and fatigue.

Luther insists throughout his letter that pastors, health care workers, and civil magistrates whose vocations require care for the suffering must not abandon their posts. And he is highly critical of those who flee unless they have made adequate provision for their replacements. He reserves his harshest words, however, for those fellow Wittenburg citizens who act irresponsibly.

Others [those who take no precautions] sin on the right hand. They are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons afflicted with the plague, but instead lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. . . . God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health. If they make no use of intelligence or medicine when they could do so without detriment to their neighbors such people injure their bodies and must beware lest they become a suicide in God’s eyes. By the same reasoning they might forgo eating and drinking, clothing and shelter, and boldly proclaim their faith that if God wanted to preserve them from starvation and cold, he could do so without food and clothing. Actually that would be suicide. It is even more shameful for them to pay no heed to their own bodies and to fail to protect them against the plague the best they are able, and then to infect and poison others who might have remained alive if they had taken care of their bodies as they should have. They are thus responsible before God for their neighbors death and a murderer many times over Indeed, such people behave as though a house were burning in the city and nobody was trying to put the fire out. Instead they give leeway to the flames so that the whole city is consumed, saying that if God so willed, he could save the city without water to quench the fire. (SOURCE: Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Osward, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 43 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 119-138).

Luther did not refer to suicide lightly, since it was then regarded by Christians as an unforgivable sin. In sum, he would regard many Protestants today as nothing less than murderers and suicides. In other words the founder of the Protestant Reformation would today have been much, much harder on Christians who refused to wear masks or maintain social distance or avoid large gatherings than anyone in the CDC or the Democratic Party

When Abigail Adams inoculated her children

Here is a taste of Ronald Shafer’s piece at The Washington Post:

At the dawn of the American Revolution, the world was fighting smallpox just as it now is battling the novel coronavirus.

Like the novel coronavirus, smallpox was “a highly contagious virus that is transmitted from contact with an infected person, causing illness,” said Jonathan Stolz, a retired physician in Williamsburg, Va., and author of “Medicine from Cave Dwellers to Millennials.” More than 100,000 people in the colonies died of smallpox. Scientists around the world were desperately seeking to develop a vaccine.

People are now beginning to receive vaccines to prevent covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, which so far has killed nearly 300,000 Americans. In 1776, the only medical preventive was an inoculation that had been developed in Boston in the 1720s by Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister, and Zabdiel Boylston, a physician, and was based on techniques shown to them by enslaved Africans, including one of Mather’s enslaved men, Onesimus. But the procedure was considered so dangerous that a number of states eventually banned it.

So many people ignored the ban, however, that in June 1776, Massachusetts suspended its prohibition, and many doctors set up shop in Boston to perform inoculations.

Abigail Adams headed to Boston with her four children — 11-year-old Abigail (called “Nabby”), John Quincy, age 9; Charles, age 6, and 4-year-old Thomas. She had the support of her husband, who had gone through the painful process of inoculation in 1764 and wanted his family protected.

Read the entire piece here.

Will the vaccine alone end the COVID-19 pandemic?

E. Thomas Ewing of Virginia Tech, a historian of epidemics, offers some historical context. Here is a taste of his piece at The Washington Post:

Finally, vaccines are not a magic bullet that will single-handedly end an epidemic. In 1918, as in 2020, a broad spectrum of public health measures was necessary to reduce infection and death rates. In early October 1918, the Board of Statistical Investigation in Massachusetts warned that “the use of a vaccine should not be taken as an excuse for omitting such safeguards” as wearing masks and maintaining good ventilation. This warning from more than a century ago clearly resonates with the likely course of events in the months ahead, as vaccines slowly become available, but it takes many months for even most Americans who want a vaccine to get it. For many months, vaccines will be but one more public health measure essential to living with an epidemic.

Read the entire piece here.

What early Americans could teach Donald Trump about this pandemic


Check out historian Andrew Wehrman‘s piece at The Washington Post:

Thomas Paine, who had helped shift public opinion with “Common Sense” in the spring of 1776, wrote a new book weighing in on the French Revolution from London, titled “The Rights of Man.” It was published in serial form on the front page of the Boston newspaper, the Independent Chronicle, and excerpts and reviews commanded tremendous public attention across other local newspapers, too. Supporters of shutting down the city during the epidemic used Thomas Paine’s words and reasoning to support their position.

He argued that government was “a trust. … It has of itself no rights; they are altogether duties.” He also urged the adoption of a system of “progressive taxation” to support a comprehensive program for the poor “to provide against the misfortunes to which all human life is subject.” The government needed to care for the “laboring man,” who paid all his taxes honestly but still could not afford it “if himself, or [his family] are afflicted with sickness,” Thomas Paine argued.

As the outbreak intensified and the pressure to shut down grew, city leaders announced on Aug. 28, 1792, that the city would close for a general inoculation. The people rushed to inoculate, quarantine and support the poor. On Oct. 8, Cooper declared that the city was free of infection. In all, 9,152 people had inoculated and 165 had died, a mortality rate of 1.8 percent. An additional 232 people caught the disease naturally, and of those, 33 died, a mortality rate of 14 percent. Closing down the city saved thousands of lives. Trade resumed and lives continued, but because the public health efforts were successful, they were largely forgotten.

Today’s leaders should heed the advice of one correspondent writing under the name “Centinel” in 1792. Centinel warned that politicians showed their “highest indignation” to the people by refusing to shut down to halt an epidemic. He argued that government ought to follow “the loud hints of the law, and the broad hints of the people.” He warned that when the public is kept from removing small pests like germs from their society, they will turn their anger on larger pests, like politicians.

Read the entire piece here.

How the Hudson Bay Company Tried to Prevent the Spread of Small Pox

Great Plains Art

In 1780, a smallpox outbreak that ravaged much of the Western North America arrived on the Northern Great Plains. According to historian Scott Berthelette, the disease spread from Mexico through “Indegenous horse-borne trading and warfare” and claimed tens of thousand lives. The responsibility for dealing with the outbreak fell on the members of the Hudson Bay Company (HBC), the joint-stock company that controlled the area. Writing at the blog Borealia, Berthelette describes how the HBC tried to protect the local Indigenous people (with whom they traded) from the disease. Here is a taste of his post:

Because eighteenth-century European notions of cleanliness prioritized freshly laundered garments over soaked and scrubbed hands and bodies, Cocking placed far more importance on sanitizing and disinfecting clothing. Nevertheless, it was sound epidemiologic advice because the smallpox virus could survive for extended periods of time on clothing and blankets. Similarly, William Tomison at Cumberland House along the Saskatchewan River ordered his men to fumigate the furs that they collected “with the Flour of Sulphur” as a disinfectant to prevent the spread of the disease. By all accounts, this policy of quarantine and frequent laundering of clothes and furs was successful with one HBC trader even optimistically writing that “by this prudent precaution the homeguards here are preserved.”

Read the entire piece here.

When Government Inaction or Delay Shaped the Course of Infectious Disease


A Civil War field hospital in Virginia, 1862 (Library of Congress; Photo by James Gibson)

Over at The Atlantic, Jim Downs, professor of history at Connecticut College and author of Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction, writes about “the epidemics America got wrong.”  A taste:

By late March 1863, hundreds had died in Alexandria, Virginia. The mortality rate had almost doubled in just one night, and even quadrupled in other parts of the country. Three thousand people were dead in less than a month in North and South Carolina. The numbers in Louisiana, Georgia, and parts of Mississippi were equally as high. As a smallpox epidemic tore through the country, more than 49,000 people died from June 1865 to December 1867, the years an official count was kept.

Smallpox exploded at this time not because of a lack of protocols or knowledge—a vaccine even existed—but because political leaders simply didn’t care about the group that was getting sick. Government inaction or delay—due to racial discrimination, homophobia, stigma, and apathy—have shaped the course of many epidemics in our country. In the 1980s, for example, HIV spread as the government barely acknowledged its existence.

Now the United States is facing the coronavirus pandemic. Once again, the threat a disease poses has been magnified by the slow speed with which the government has reacted. And although this disease is not concentrated within any one community, it is poised to exacerbate existing inequalities. The lesson of past outbreaks of infectious diseases is that public officials must take them seriously, communicate honestly, and tend to the most vulnerable. If the United States has not always lived up to that standard, we now have the perfect opportunity to apply the lessons of our past mistakes.

Downs concludes:

History has shown us time and time again that epidemics worsen when the federal and state leaders with the power to implement preventive efforts fail to take it seriously. In the past few years, public-health and national-security officials have issued warnings that the U.S. was not ready for a pandemic, but the government failed to act then. Now the coronavirus is in all 50 states. In the 1860s and in the 1980s, communities had to find a way to help themselves. Today the government has a chance to not make the same mistake again.

Read the entire piece here. And let’s keep learning from the past in these troubled times.

What Does History Teach Us About Our Current Coronavirus Moment?

BristowI have been trying to read more about pandemics in the United States so that I can share some good history with my readers here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  On Saturday night, I read Nancy Bristow‘s fascinating 2012 book American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.  (Thanks to Messiah College‘s Murray Library for making this book part of its e-book collection).

When thinking about the past, historians always look for continuity and change. How was the 1918 outbreak different from our current coronavirus pandemic? How was it similar? What might we learn from the 1918 outbreak as we think about our current moment? I had all of these questions in mind as I read Bristow’s book, but if I were honest, I was more in search of continuity than change. Frankly, there were so many parallels between 1918 and our present moment that I could not put the book down. I read it in one sitting!

So here are a few things I took away from American Pandemic:

First, I was struck by how local and municipal public health authorities took responsibility for controlling the influenza. This is happening today as well, but most of our attention seems to be focused on the national response. (Woodrow Wilson is only mentioned on three pages of Bristow’s book). This makes perfect sense. There was no television, internet, or national newspapers in 1918. Radio was limited. Bristow focuses on efforts in Chicago, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, Roanoke, San Francisco, Seattle, Tacoma, and Washington D.C.

Second, local public health authorities urged their residents, with an appeal to their sense of patriotism, civic duty, and commitment to the public good, to stay away from public spaces. They told people to wash their hands regularly, keep their hands and objects out of their mouths, stop sharing drinking cups, and avoid public transportation if possible. Initially, most Americans submitted to these restrictions. But the longer the restrictions stayed in place, the more people lost patience. In other words, many people eventually came to resist government control over their lives.  (Keep an eye out for this today). Some people began to resent the public health “experts” behind these restrictions. The Progressive Era was coming to a close.

Third, decisions to close schools and churches were controversial and contested.

Fourth, and most interesting, Americans developed a severe case of amnesia in the wake of the epidemic. Bristow argues that individuals and families told stories about this tragic moment in American history, but the nation as a whole wanted to forget about what happened. The tragic results of the epidemic (over 675,000 dead) did not fit well with the kind of “optimistic” or “progressive” narrative Americans like to commemorate. This amnesia comes with consequences for our society. When the nation did tell stories of the epidemic, these stories tended to emphasize the positive: heroic health care workers, renewed faith in God, and other stories of “redemption.” Stories of suffering (both individual and familial, physical and emotional), death, trauma, “constitutional failures,” “ethical doubts,” and failures to serve the common good were often ignored. Bristow writes:

How a people   remember their past has real, lived consequences.  Perhaps most important is the forgetting such remembering imposes, the silencing of other narratives the preferred storylines demand. In the case of the pandemic, the simplified and singular memory of the complex events of the crisis forestalled deeper analysis of the meaning of those events. In the case of health care professionals, the positive and ultimately triumphant narrative of their experience in the pandemic quieted the more troubled voices among them.

She concludes:

There is no simple way to prepare for the pandemics of the future. As a recent volume on influenza and public health reminded its readers, “Each pandemic unfolds in a different way.” While we will turn to scientists to determine the best way to contain disease, and public health leaders to determine the best way to protect and educate the public, it will be left to others of us to remember and act on the human lessons of the 1918 pandemic. Should we face such an eventuality, let us prove better prepared to admit to a tale of sorrow and loss, to acknowledge the trauma such a tragedy leaves in its wake, and to provide the support and understanding sufferers would need in its wake.

Wise words.

Bancroft Prize-Winning Historian Nancy Tomes is Coming to Messiah College Next Week!

Tomes Poster

If you are in the area on Thursday evening, September 27, join us for the 2018 Messiah College American Democracy Lecture.  This year’s lecturer is Nancy Tomes of the State University of New York at Stony Brook.  In 2017, Tomes was awarded the Bancroft Prize in American History for her book Remaking the American Patient: How Madison Avenue and Modern Medicine Turned Patients Into Consumers.  Tomes’s American Democracy Lecture is titled “Doctor Shoppers: From Problem Patients to Model Citizens.”  The lecture will take place at 7:00pm in the Calvin and Janet High Center for Worship and Performing Arts, Parmer Hall on the campus of Messiah College.  Free tickets are required.  To reserve tickets call 717-691-6036 or reserve tickets online at

If you want a taste of what you might expect at the lecture, listen to our interview with Tomes in Episode 22 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

If you are a health-care professional or someone who is interested in our current health care debates, this lecture is for you.  I will see you there.

Bancroft Prize-Winning Historian of Health Care Nancy Tomes is Coming to Messiah College

Nancy Tomes is Distinguished Professor of History at Stony Brook University.  Her 2016 book, Remaking the American Patient: How Madison Avenue and Modern Medicine Turned Patients into Consumers won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in American history.

“This is like a dream come true.”

On September 27, Tomes will deliver the 2018 Messiah College American Democracy Lecture at 7:00pm in Parmer Hall.  If you are in the area you will not want to miss this lecture!  See you there.  Stay tuned for more details.

Listen to Tomes discuss her book on The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.



The Author’s Corner with Victoria Johnson

AmericanEden+Final+Cover+DesignVictoria Johnson is Associate Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College of the City University of New York.  This interview is based on her new book American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic (Liveright, a division of W.W Norton, 2018).

JF: What led you to write American Eden?

VJEight years ago, in the course of research for a journal article on contemporary American botanical gardens, I came across David Hosack (1769-1835) for the first time (in Peter Mickulas’s Britton’s Botanical Empire). I love New York City, and I was floored to learn that Rockefeller Center had once been a botanical garden—the first founded in and for the young United States. I knew immediately that I wanted to write a book about Hosack. He was a polymath and involved in several dozen organizations (quite a few of which he helped found) and he was not famous enough to have had a critical edition of his papers published. Following his trail as I reconstructed his life eventually took me to about thirty archives in the US and Europe.

JFIn 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Eden?

VJ: There is a botanical garden two centuries old buried under one of the most iconic urban spaces in the world. The man who created it, David Hosack, is a forgotten architect of New York’s rise to civic primacy in the nineteenth-century United States, and his life story thrusts us into the post-Revolutionary generation’s battles over what kinds of institutions make cities and nations truly great and stable.

JF: Why do we need to read American Eden?

VJMany, many historians have written eloquently and rigorously on politics and natural history in the early Republic, and I’m deeply indebted to them for their scholarship. Because American Eden is a biography, we get to see through David Hosack’s eyes the very fraught political relationships all around him and to feel the excitement and heartbreak of institution-building and scientific inquiry. In the process, certain figures from the Founding era take on new complexity: not only the shadowy Hosack, long known simply as the attending physician at the Hamilton-Burr duel, but also Hamilton and Burr themselves, both of whom loved botany and horticulture. New York City likewise comes into clearer focus in American Eden. We don’t usually think of nature, agriculture, and natural history when we think of New York in the early Republic, but Hosack botanized right in the city as well as on Manhattan’s beaches and farms and in its meadows and woodlands. Finally, I’d add that while history is a field of intellectual inquiry that matters regardless of any explicit links we make to our present circumstances, I’ve found Hosack’s struggles enlightening as I try to make sense of contemporary American political culture and our divided views on science and nature.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

VJ:  I’ll answer the “historian” part first and then the “American” part. My PhD is in sociology, with a specialty in organizational sociology, but I was drawn to historical research early. One of my dissertation advisors in Columbia’s sociology department was Charles Tilly, who had a huge influence on my choice of dissertation topic: political relations between the French government and the Paris Opera from Louis XIV to Napoleon. That became Backstage at the Revolution (Chicago, 2008). For my second book, American Eden, I crossed the Atlantic and began studying American history because of my fascination with David Hosack and his enormous, unacknowledged contributions to New York, his young country, and translantic scientific networks.

JF: What is your next project?

VJ: Book tour! I will be sharing Hosack’s story of intense civic engagement and devotion to science with as broad an audience as wants to listen, in both the US and the UK; I have talks lined up running through 2020. In the meantime, I’m slowly starting to think about what comes next (to quote a certain king).

JF:  Thanks, Victoria!

Some Historical Perspective on Our Health Care Debate (and Another Plug for the Podcast)

TomesI know our patrons are eagerly awaiting the drop of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast patrons-only episodes.

I am happy to announce that our first such summer episode, which focuses on Civil Rights Movement tourism, will be available on Sunday.  If you are a patron, stay tuned for more directions.  I am sure you will be hearing from our trusty producer very soon.

Not a patron of the podcast?  It’s not too late to get these special episodes and all the other great perks that come with being part of our support community (including books and mugs!). Click here.

Whether you are a patron or not, I encourage you to go back and check out Episode 22–“The History of American Healthcare.”  Our guest on this episode is Nancy Tomes, Professor of History at Stony Brook University (SUNY) and author of the Bancroft Prize-winning book Remaking the American Patient: How Madison Avenue and Modern Medicine Turned Patients into Consumers.  Tomes’s book and interview provide some much needed historical perspective on what is going on in Washington D.C.  right now.

The Tomes interview is representative of the kind of history interviews you will get every other week at The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Historicizing Healthcare With Bancroft Prize-Winner Nancy Tomes

TomesEpisode 22 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast will drop on Sunday.  Our guest is Professor Nancy Tomes of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Tomes is the recipient of the 2017 Bancroft Prize for her book Remaking the American Patient: How Madison Avenue and Modern Medicine Turned Patients into Consumers.  We are thrilled to have her on the show not only because she wrote a very timely award-winning book, but also because she was a member of my doctoral dissertation committee. (Needless to say, this comes up in the episode!)

With Tomes as our guest, we are devoting the entire episode to the history of healthcare.  Stay tuned.

And if you like what we are doing at The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, please consider supporting our efforts by heading over to our Patreon site and making a pledge. Good American history is always needed, but it is especially important in times of great political and social change.

The production of a quality podcast can get expensive. Our goal is to get The Way of Improvement Leads Home on solid financial footing so we can move forward and continue to deliver solid American history programming with great guests.

If you can’t support us financially, please consider writing a review of the podcast at ITunes or your favorite podcast site, sending out a tweet or Facebook message telling your friends about our work, or subscribing to the podcast.


Why Medical Students Should Study History

Anyone who reads The Way of Improvement Leads Home on a regular basis know that I am always interested in the way historical thinking skills translate into a variety of different occupations.  This, of course, is the primary reason why we started our “So What Can You Do With a History Major?” series.

Over at the blog of Oxford University Press, several prominent historians of medicine make a case for history in medical education.  Here is a taste:
Why are historical perspectives invaluable to physicians in training? For starters, it is critical that physicians today understand that the burden of disease and our approach to therapeutics have both changed over time. This is obvious to anyone who has spoken to their grandparents about their childhood, or to anyone who has looked at bills of mortality, old pharmaceutical advertisements, or any other accounts of medicine. The challenge is to have a theory of disease that can account for the rise and fall of various diseases, and an understanding of efficacy that can explain why therapeutic practice changes over time. A condition like obesity may well have a strong genetic component, but genetics alone cannot explain the dramatic rise in obesity prevalence over the past generation. New treatments come and go, only partially in response to evidence of their efficacy. Instead, answers to questions about changing diseases and treatments require careful attention to changing social, economic, and political forces—that is to say, they require careful attention to historical context.
In an underground surgery room, behind the front lines on Bougainville, an American Army doctor operates on a US soldier wounded by a Japanese sniper. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Medical knowledge itself–firmly grounded in science as it may be — is nonetheless the result of specific cultural, economic, and political processes. What we discover in the future will depend on what research we fund now, what rules we set for the approval of new remedies, and what markets we envisage for future therapies. History provides perspective on the contingency of knowledge production and circulation, fostering clinicians’ ability to tolerate ambiguity and make decisions in the setting of incomplete knowledge.
Ethical dilemmas in medical research and practice also change over time. Abortion has been criminalized and decriminalized, and is now at risk of being criminalized once again. Physician-assisted dying, once anathema, has lately become increasingly acceptable. History reveals the specific forces that shape ethical judgments and their consequences.
History can teach many other lessons to students and doctors, lessons that offer invaluable insight into the nature and causes of disease, the meanings of therapeutic efficacy, the structure of medical institutions, and the moral dilemmas of clinical practice. We have not done, and likely cannot do, rigorous outcomes research to prove that better understanding of the history of medicine will produce better doctors. But such research has not been done for many topics in medical school curricula, such as anatomy or genomics, because the usefulness of these topics seems obvious. We argue that the usefulness of history in medical education should be just as obvious.
Making the case for the essential role of history in medical education has the unfortunate effect of making the basic problem — of trying to cram ever more material into the curricula — even worse. Perhaps not every school has yet recruited faculty suited to teach the full range of potential lessons that history offers. But many schools do, and in others much can be done with thoughtful curriculum design. Just as medical school faculty work constantly to find room for new scientific discoveries, they can make space for the lessons of history, today.