Contributed Papers

Epidemics and Disasters

Presenter 1

Crescent City Crisis: Bubonic Plague in New Orleans, 1912-1921

Kevin George McQueeney

Georgetown University


This paper examines the outbreaks of bubonic plague in New Orleans in 1914 and 1919-1921, exploring how the disease reached the Crescent City; the factors led to its spread and return five years later; and the factors that led to relatively small number of cases and deaths. As this work demonstrates, while better than previous epidemics in Honolulu and San Francisco, the government's response was still problematic and repeatedly undercut by racism; the desire of civic leaders to downplay the seriousness of the problem in order to protect the city's business interests; and refusal of many to implement costly plague-prevention measures. While those involved in the response celebrated the disease's limited spread and mortality rate to "modern" measures and inter-governmental cooperation between the local, state, and federal governments, ultimately, environmental and climatological factors proved key in mitigating the epidemic's spread. Finally, this paper examines the unintended outcomes of the epidemic and the response, notably how the passage of municipal ordinances to curtail the outbreak led to significant improvements for New Orleans like the raising of buildings and civic improvements, and how other cities followed New Orleans's model of prevention efforts.


Presenter 2

Earthquake Narratives: Uses of Archival Documents in Historical Seismology

Kathryn Renton

Occidental College


This paper compares descriptions and commemorations of the destructive earthquake of 1693 in Sicily, which killed nearly 60,000 people, by scientific, religious, and political observers. The crucial difference between a "natural event" and a "natural disaster" is that a disaster is by its nature cultural and related to the human experience of the environment. An earthquake could not only wreak havoc but also be an intriguing punctuated event for the study of natural principles, recorded in scientific journals and in political responses to communal trauma. Narrative thus plays a crucial role in both studying the historical-cultural impact of earthquakes, as well as the history of the science of earthquakes. Indeed, the same archival sources are still closely relied on today in the specialty field of historical seismology - invaluable precisely because of the episodic nature of earthquakes and the long-durée timescale necessary for studying these phenomenon. In this paper, I argue that the use of historical archives in the science of seismology illustrates the cultural function of science in the aftermath of a natural disaster and the creation of a collective memory of trauma and meaning.


Presenter 3

From Outbreak to Pandemic: Making the Justinianic Plague a Global Catastrophe

Merle Eisenberg

National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), University of Maryland


Today, the Justinianic Plague (c. 541-750 C.E.) appears in academic and popular culture as the first great plague pandemic in human history, which was followed by the second plague pandemic (c. 1346-18th c.) and the third plague pandemic (c. 1855-1959). The first two pandemics are said to have completely changed human societies, from massive demographic death tolls to artistic output. The world before and after was not the same. This paper will demonstrate how the Justinianic Plague as a catastrophic pandemic was created at the turn of the 20th century and over the course of the ensuing century used to explain massive societal change. I will show that third pandemic scientists first classified these three great pandemics and used the Justinianic Plague to prove how the world might similarly be destroyed in the present until, by 1959, they claimed to have conquered plague. I then trace how this narrative of death and destruction was used by historians over the course of the 20th century without ever querying the evidence to build it. My paper will both offer insight into changing intellectual discourses about what infectious diseases are thought to do over the 20th century and suggest re-centering micro-histories as the best way forward to understand plague's impact for historians of disease.


Presenter 4

How Miscommunication Fostered Mistrust during the 1979 Accident at Three Mile Island

Hannah Elaine Pell

Independent Scholar


The 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant in Middletown, Pennsylvania has been called the "most serious accident in US commercial nuclear power plant operating history." Although the malfunctions at the plant were severe, the accident has since largely been attributed to human rather than technical errors. Metropolitan Edison ("Met-Ed"), the energy utility company who operated the plant, had no one on staff trained in public relations at the time, nor had prepared a plan for providing details to the general public and news media as the accident unfolded. Additionally, they failed to translate the complexity of nuclear jargon to an unnerved public, a local reporter at the time noting: "It was a lot of relying on people who couldn't explain it in plain language or just didn't know what was going on." Thousands of residents were forced to speculate about their own safety, and independently chose to evacuate from the region. Met-Ed's lack of reliable or consistent communication exacerbated feelings of fear and confusion already experienced by local residents during those five days, and consequently, fostered a deeper mistrust for the nuclear power industry and its officials -- a mistrust that, for some local residents, is still felt today.
In this paper, I examine the effects of mishandled communications by Met-Ed during the crisis at the TMI nuclear power plant, especially regarding how such widespread fear and uncertainty affected local residents in those five days in 1979, as well as the ways in which those effects are still felt today. The events at TMI remain an important case study for anyone in crisis communications and management, and demonstrate the need to take public perception and understanding of scientific endeavors very seriously.