William Johnston, the John E. Andrus Professor of History, is a historian who studies disease and medicine, with expertise in epidemics of infectious diseases. In this Q&A, Johnston discusses the novel coronavirus outbreak and what can be learned from the past.
Q: How and when did you start studying the history of disease and medicine?
A: About 30 years ago, I wrote my dissertation on the subject, which became my first book, The Modern Epidemic: A History of Tuberculosis in Japan. Around that time, people were starting to consider epidemics of infectious diseases a thing of the past that were no longer of concern to us, but then HIV took off. I’ve continued to study and teach on the history of disease and pandemics ever since.
Q: Please tell us about the course you teach.
A: It’s called Critical Approaches to the History of Disease and Epidemics. Ironically, almost every year I’ve taught it, the world has seen another major epidemic. I’m offering it again this semester, and our first day of class was January 23, just as the novel coronavirus was emerging as a serious threat in China. Seeing that this was coming down the pike, I adjusted the direction of the course to incorporate a combination of historical readings and articles from contemporary medical journals. For example, I gave students one reading on the plague and how it went pandemic in the Middle Ages—what it took for that to happen.
On Feb. 1, the Center for the Arts hosted a reception for A Body in Fukushima: Recent Work. The exhibition features photographs of dancer/performer Eiko Otake, the Menakka and Essel Bailey ’66 Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the College of the Environment, made by Bill Johnston, professor of history, professor of East Asian studies, professor of science in society and professor of environmental studies. On March 11, 2011, a tsunami and earthquake struck Japan causing three nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. More than 15,000 people died as a result of the natural disasters and 34 died while trying to evacuate following the release of radioactive materials.
Visiting Instructor in Dance Eiko Otake performed at Wesleyan’s Alsop House.
Building off research she did for her work “Body in Places” at Wesleyan in fall 2015, Visiting Instructor in Dance Eiko Otake will present a major platform at Danspace Project in New York City on March 11. The free talks include those by Wesleyan faculty members William Johnson, professor of history, professor of East Asian Studies, professor of science in society, professor of environmental studies, and Katja Kolcio, associate professor of dance, associate professor of environmental studies.
March 11 marks the fifth anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. A photo collective by Eiko and Johnston will be on display in the St. Mark’s Church sanctuary for 24 hours. Singers and poets will mark each hour with a song and poem.
Johnston will speak at 4 p.m., together with Marilyn Ivy of Columbia University. Kolcio will speak at 6 p.m. together with Yoshiko Chuma, artistic director and choreographer of The School of Hard Knocks and Daghdha Dance Company.
Admission is free, and attendees are encouraged to RSVP here.
Learn more about Eiko’s month-long, multi-disciplinary program here. Read recent coverage of the project in The New York Times here and here. (All photos by William Johnston).
Seventy years later, it is widely believed that President Harry S. Truman made a decision to authorize the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The truth, writes William Johnston in the Hartford Courant, is that he never did, at least not explicitly.
Johnston, professor of history, professor of East Asian Studies, examines in an op-ed how history has been rewritten surrounding the bombings. In fact, Truman’s first explicit decision about atomic bombs was to later order that their further use be stopped without his “express authority.” But in summer 1946, Johnston explains, the need arose to write an alternative narrative, as the bomb’s horrific effects on the people of Japan were revealed, and critics started asking whether the atomic bombings had been necessary, or even truly effective in ending the war.
The historian’s job is to explain the past using the most complete evidence available. That evidence shows both that Truman’s most substantial atomic decision was to demand his express authority for future bombings and that the bombings’ role in ending the war was ambiguous.
We may not like it when history is fuzzy, but that’s how it is.
It is more important now than ever that we understand history’s ambiguities, especially when it comes to the history of World War II and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Our country today faces many national security threats, from terrorism to global warming. A healthy democracy requires a well-educated populace, and history plays a major role in that education. Science, technology engineering and math cannot replace it.
The 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Japan is a good time to recall their history and meaning. We need to remember where we have been while keeping an eye on the future. It is hard for those who are blind to the past to have a clear vision for the future.
Johnston is also professor of Science in Society, and professor in the Environmental Studies Program.
On July 7, Miri Nakamura, associate professor of East Asian studies, read from a paper titled “Atomic Maids,” which focused on the role of Japanese housekeepers in mystery novels that were indirect criticisms of nuclear issues. On July 9, Bill Johnston, professor of history, professor of East Asian studies, professor of Science in Society, professor of environmental studies, spoke about the changing role of the environment in ideas about disease causation in 19th century Japan.
The conference is held every four years at venues around the world. Researchers from around the world came together to present and discuss their latest research relevant to the history of science, technology and medicine in East Asia from antiquity up to the present day. With 317 papers, about 200 of which were delivered as part of the 45 panels, this year’s conference was the largest ever held.
Eiko Otake, visiting instructor in dance, performed “Body in a Station” at the Amtrack’s 30th Street Station in Philadelphia on Oct. 8. Otake will participate in an exhibition titled “A Body in Fukushima,” at Wesleyan starting in February 2015. (Photo by William Johnston)
Japanese-born choreographer/dancer Eiko Otake, visiting instructor in dance, recently accepted a three-year appointment in the Dance Department and College of East Asian Studies. Otake has a 13-year performance history at the Center for the Arts, which began with a three-hour performance of “Offering,” Eiko & Koma’s response to 9/11, in the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery. Since then, Otake has visited campus many times as a Center for Creative Research Artist-in-Residence, and then as a Wesleyan University Creative Campus Fellow to teach, to offer workshops, to curate events, and to give lectures.
In the spring of 2015, Eiko Otake will teach an interdisciplinary seminar called “Delicious Movement: Time is Not Even, Space is Not Empty.” (Photo by Gregory Georges)
Since 1972, Otake has collaborated with Takashi Koma Otake in creating a unique theater of movement out of stillness, shape, light, sound, and time. Eiko & Koma have received two New York Dance and Performance Awards, or “Bessies,” as well as Guggenheim, MacArthur and United States Artists Fellowships.
This issue, we ask “5 Questions” of William Johnston, professor of history, professor of science in society, professor of East Asian Studies. One of his areas of specialty is the history of disease and epidemics.
Q: How did you become interested in the history of diseases, and more specifically, flu outbreaks?
A: While in graduate school I examined a number of different fields of history, but was drawn to the history of medicine in Japan because it was in that field that the Japanese first absorbed European scientific ideas and methods. My advisor suggested that I take courses in the History of Science Department, and one course I took was a history of tuberculosis in the Untied States. It was an eye-opener because it made me realize the ways in which societies interpret and respond to disease tells us a lot about their most basic values and fundamental structures. Sometimes people get very excited about relatively minor diseases while accepting major causes of illness and death as somehow “normal.”
Q: What are among the more notable outbreaks over the last, say, 100 or so years?
A: The most important outbreak of flu in the past century was, of course, the one that occurred between 1917 and 1920. For that matter it was one of the deadliest pandemics of all time, killing about 2.5 percent of all infected, with a total mortality estimated between 20 and 50 million worldwide. Some estimates go even higher. It possibly was a swine flu, although it could have been an avian strain that infected swine and then mutated to infect people; its exact origins