Presentism, Poxes, and Pap Smears
Today’s post tries to bring together a bunch of issues that have come up in my various listserv and blog reading. First, the issue of presentism came up on Christopher Green’s blog, Advances in the History of Psychology. I don’t usually read this blog, but Chris advertised this exchange on Cheiron’s listserv. Chris is concerned about edits to his history of psychology entry in Wikipedia, about 6,000 words of which Chris wrote himself. Chris objects to a contributor named “Jagged 85″ who has been inserting material on medieval Islamic psychology. Because part of what Jagged 85 writes argues that the Islamic world pioneered in the treatment of mentally ill individuals, including building the first mental asylums, I asked the question, “It seems to me that a related question is what “counts” as the history of psychology. Much of the Islamic section seems concerned with treatment of mentally ill patients, i.e. clinical psychiatry. Isn’t this part of the history of psychology? If not, why not?” So far, no one has addressed this point. I should note that a certain kind of presentism is at work in Chris’ blog in that he starts from the point of view of what “counts” as psychology today, and then works backward to the field’s roots in 18th century laboratory science.
Another kind of presentism appears on in a post on Historiann. regarding the new vaccine for HPV. She ties the current controversy regarding Guardasil to earlier debates about smallpox inoculation. Since I’m currently teaching about Cotton Mather and the inoculation debate in early 18th-century Boston in my history methods class, I wrote that in Mather’s time inoculation was a risky procedure — there was no certainty that the patient would not develop a full-blown case of smallpox, the patient could still transmit smallpox to others, and because inoculation consisted of introducing pus or scabs under the skin, the risk of infection at the inoculation site was not insignificant. So, we should be careful about attributing opposition to Mather solely to ignorance — there were legitimate concerns about the safety of the procedure which were raised by physicians and laypersons alike. For more on this issue, see Maxine VandeWetering, “A Reconsideration of the Inoculation Controversy.” New England Quarterly 58/1 (1985): 46-67.
Now on to pap smears. I recently submitted a proposal for a conference on “Cancer Vaccines for Girls? The Science, Ethics, and Cultural Politics of HPV Prevention,” which is going to be held at Rutgers University in May. My plan is to relate this debate back to my earlier work on the history of gynecological exams for girls. I’d also like to comment on Karen Houppert’s article in the Nation. Although I think Houppert raises some good points, I that the term “strange bedfellows” that lumps together religious conservatives, anti-vaccine libertarians, Big Pharma critics, and “and a smattering of women’s health advocates” too easily dismisses attempts by feminist health activists to craft a nuanced reaction to this new technology. I think she is particular unfair to Amy Allina at the National Women’s Health Network. My thoughts on the issue, thus far, are that by focusing on individual attitudes and choice, and emphasizing what Allan Brandt calls the “moral valence of individual risk,” the push for universal vaccination overlooks larger public health issues such as socioeconomic status and access to health care services. Until there is a greater social commitment to meeting the health needs of uninsured and underinsured women, a disproportionate number of whom are from racial minorities, these women will lack the routine preventive care more privileged women take for granted.