Public Health and Disease in the American Century

Giles Scott-Smith's picture
October 20, 2021 to October 22, 2021
Subject Fields: 
American History / Studies, Cultural History / Studies, Diplomacy and International Relations, History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, Social History / Studies

On 20-22 October 2021, the Roosevelt Institute for American Studies (Middelburg, The Netherlands) will host a major academic conference on public health and disease in the American century. The event will be held online to ensure the participation of US colleagues.


The impact of the COVID-19 crisis has been multifaceted, global, and immense in its scale and ramifications. For the United States, the experience has been especially confrontational. The US has among the highest rates of infection and the highest number of deaths of any country on the planet. The virus (and the measures taken to contain it) has disrupted almost every aspect of American life, revealed and exacerbated social, economic, racial and political fault lines, and raised major constitutional issues concerning the role of federal and state authorities in maintaining social well-being.


Historically, this is a pivotal moment. The arrival of the ‘American century’ at the end of the Second World War (for which the seventy-fifth anniversary celebrations in 2020 were disrupted by the pandemic) also heralded the end of global disease – a view exemplified by Secretary of State George Marshall’s 1948 prediction that the majority of infectious diseases would be eradicated within the twentieth century. Advancements in medical science, harnessed to US economic and military power, produced significant achievements in global public health, from the invention of the polio vaccine to the eradication of smallpox and the utilization of the calorie as a basic unit of nutrition. Yet the prospect of an epidemic-free world has proved illusory. Indeed, disease has made a comeback since the 1970s, as previously unknown afflictions, from HIV to Ebola and COVID-19, moved to exploit the connections, as well as the inequities, of a globalizing world.


This conference seeks to interrogate the American Century through the lens of the US government’s responsibility for improving public health and fighting disease. It takes a broad, parabolic view of the 20th century, book-ending both domestic (the local responses to containing the Spanish flu outbreaks in 1918-1920 and the federal-state contest for control in 2020) and international developments (the Wilsonian blueprint for world order after WWI and the Trumpian abandonment of the WHO in 2020). 


The conference is broadly framed around two central questions:


How did public health present an opportunity for the expansion of US power, through state or private means, both domestically and internationally, during the American Century?


How did disease present a threat to the ideals, values, and capacities of the American Century?


Each presentation will receive feedback from a designated commentator. The ambition is to turn the conference papers into a unique volume exploring the meaning and influence of public health and disease on our understanding of the American Century.


Keynote Speaker


Naomi Rogers (Yale University)




Jonathan Chilcote (Florida College) 

Beyond Control of Local Authorities: The Spanish Influenza Epidemic and Federal Supervision of Public Health


Kerri Culhane (Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL) and Stefano Morello (Graduate Center, CUNY) 

From the “Lung Block” to the “China Virus”: Public Health, Xenophobia, and US Identity Formation over the American Century


Gaetano di Tommaso (SciencesPo) 

Oil, American Ascendancy, and Public Health in the 1920s


Yifei Li (UCL) 

A carefully constructed unintended consequence: Development of Medicare as a patchwork system¨1965-1997


Sarah B. Snyder (American University)

Brother’s Brother Foundation: A Case Study in Public-Private Partnerships and Global Health in the American Century


Olga Thierbach-McLean (University of Hamburg) 

“Real Men Wear Masks”: COVID-19 and the Crisis of American Masculinity


Emma Day (Oxford University) 

A Place in the World: The HIV Immigration Ban and the United States’ Role in the Global Fight Against HIV-AIDS 


Thomas Zimmer (University of Freiburg)

World Health and Pax AmericanaThe United States, the World Health Organization, and the global fight against disease since 1945


Richard Mizelle (University of Houston)

Diabetes, Race, and the American Century


Nancy Bristow (University of Puget Sound)

Inequities of a Century: Comparing the impact of the Spanish Flu and Covid-19


Bob Reinhardt (Boise State University)

American Liberalism and Smallpox Eradication: Pursuing Humanitarian and Foreign Policy Objectives




Erez Manela (Harvard University)

Nina Mackert (University of Leipzig)

Simon Toner (University of Sheffield)

Manon Parry (University of Amsterdam)

Robert Vitalis (University of Pennsylvania)

Nancy Mykoff (Utrecht University)

Andrea Flynn (Insight Center for Community Economic Development