AHA Member Spotlight: Beth Linker
Beth Linker is an associate professor in the History and Sociology of Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania. She lives just outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and has been a member since 2004.
Alma mater: PhD, Yale University, 2006
Fields of interest: medicine, science, disability, gender, US health policy, the body
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today? My career path has been unusual. I got a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy, and worked in various clinics throughout the United States for five years before embarking on graduate study. While working full time as a therapist in the late 1990s, I began taking graduate classes at Michigan State University in bioethics, English, and history. I came to love the history of science and medicine, and I realized that with my clinical background I had a unique perspective to bring to the table. My scholarship has been deeply informed by my clinical experience, which also sparked my interest in understanding the history of disability.
What do you like the most about where you live and work? Philadelphia is a historian’s playground. My favorite historical site is the surgical amphitheater (constructed in 1804) at the Pennsylvania Hospital. Every year that I teach my undergraduate seminar, Snip and Tuck: A History of American Surgery, I extend our classroom experience to the amphitheater. I have the students file into the bleachers, like the medical students of the 19th century would have done, and then I give a lecture on early 19th-century surgery from the sunken stage. My students also have some of their first archival experiences at the Pennsylvania Hospital, thanks to the help of head archivist Stacey Peeples.
What projects are you currently working on? I am currently at work on my second book, Slouch: The Forgotten History of America’s Poor Posture Epidemic. The project has been funded, in just this last year, by the ACLS, the NEH, and the NIH.
As a work of history, the book explores the rise and fall of the poor posture epidemic in 20th-century America with the broader goal of explaining how, over the last century, the very notion of what constituted an epidemic changed and expanded to include a whole host of conditions that previously would have fallen outside of medicine’s purview. For centuries, human posture was a matter of etiquette and social mores. Not until the 19th century did posture become something to be measured, standardized, and pathologized. By the early 20th century, many posture experts believed that the nation was living through a poor posture epidemic that affected 80 percent of the population. Such findings fueled a widespread anti-slouching campaign, made manifest in federal public health initiatives, school- and military-based physical exams, workplace efficiency programs, and new markets for commercial products (seating systems, clothing, and undergarments) that claimed to keep the body from slumping. Not until the 1970s, when university students refused to be subjected to posture photo exams, did the anti-slouching initiative decline precipitously, bringing about the closure of many posture laboratories.
What is striking about the history of the poor posture epidemic is that it gained legitimacy and public support without evidence of a contagion, during an era of increasing “germ panic.” The slouching epidemic thus deviated in crucially important ways from the conventional definition and dramaturgy of contagious epidemics that had been in place since the time of Hippocrates. My book investigates how and why this new kind of epidemic came about in the early 20th century, and how it can inform our understanding of other noncontagious epidemics (obesity, diabetes, depression, for example) today. By framing the history of posture in this way, I intend to bring the history epidemics—often focused solely on communicable and deadly diseases—into conversation with critical disability studies.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research? When I was a doctoral student at Yale and conducting research for what would become my first book—War’s Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America—I remember sitting in the National Archives in College Park, opening up a box, and finding it filled with hundreds of pencil tracings of feet. I was so captivated by these tracings, that I went on to publish an article about how flat feet became designated as a disability during the First World War, and how physicians established “flat foot” boot camps in order to remedy the condition. Flat feet is no longer a condition that precludes one from service.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members? If you want to read smart and snappy blogs on the history of medicine and women’s health, check out NursingClio. For entertainment, I can not stop raving about the German television series Babylon Berlin. It feels true to the Weimar Era, it is smart, suspenseful, and a real work of artistry. As for an article or book: Can I plug my own?
What do you value most about the history discipline? I find that with ever deeper historical knowledge comes humility, a virtue that seems very much lacking in public discourse and especially in our current presidential administration.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you? The AHA welcomes all historians, no matter the region, time period, or topic of study. This is essential in order to promote dialogue across all the various subspecialties.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.
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