Campus & Community

Thinking disease:

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Charles Rosenberg looks at changing perceptions of illness

Professor of the History of Science Charles Rosenberg is working on a book examining the changing perception of disease since 1800. He is perhaps best known for his 1962 book “The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849 and 1866,” which is credited with influencing a generation of scientific historians to take a broader view and examine not just a disease and its victims, but society’s response to it, through politics, laws and the social mores of the times. (Staff photo by Kris Snibbe)

By any account, the 19th century cholera epidemics were horrible. Rumor and ignorance fed fear of a disease that could strike in the afternoon and kill by bedtime. In Charles Rosenberg’s eyes, though, the epidemics are also a lens through which to view American society.

Rosenberg, considered by many to be the nation’s pre-eminent medical historian, was recently named Professor of the History of Science at Harvard.

In profile: Charles Rosenberg

  • Born: Nov. 11, 1936 
  • Education:
    B.A. University of Wisconsin (1956); M.A. Columbia University (1957); Ph.D. Columbia (1961) 
  • Career highlights:
    1961-1963 University of Wisconsin (lecturer, 1961-1962; research assistant professor, 1962-1963); 1963-2000 University of Pennsylvania (assistant professor, 1963-1965; associate professor, 1965-1968; professor, 1968-1988; Janice and Julian Bers Professor of the History and Sociology of Science, 1988-2000; chair, Department of History, 1947-1975, 1979-1983; chair, Department of History and Sociology of Science, 1991-1995) 
  • Selected publications: “The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866” (The University of Chicago Press, 1962); “The Trial of the Assassin Guiteau: Psychiatry and Law in the Gilded Age” (The University of Chicago Press, 1968); “No Other Gods: On Science and American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1976); “The Care of Strangers: The Rise of America’s Hospital System (Basic Books, 1987); “Explaining Epidemics and other studies in the History of Medicine” (Cambridge University Press, 1992)

Though many of Rosenberg’s works are well known, he is perhaps best known for his 1962 book, “The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849 and 1866.” The book is credited with influencing a generation of scientific historians to take a broader view and examine not just a disease and its victims, but society’s response to it, through politics, laws, and the social mores of the time.

In his introduction to “The Cholera Years,” Rosenberg describes how looking at the three epidemics affords a view of three Americas. The different responses to the cholera outbreaks reflects the transition from a moralistic society that saw the disease as a judgment passed on society’s lowest elements to one more recognizable today, where the causes of the disease were better understood and talk was of the need for public sanitation and proper health care.

“‘The Cholera Years’ began the social construction of disease. It was really a pioneering work in that sense. It started a movement,” says Gerald Grob, a professor of history at Rutgers University who has known Rosenberg for more than three decades. “He is the premier person in the U.S. if not internationally [in his field]. When I read him, I wish I could write like him.”

Though “The Cholera Years” is often cited as Rosenberg’s most influential work, close on its heels is “The Care of Strangers: The Rise of the American Hospital System,” published in 1987. The book, which traces the development of the hospital system in the United States, was a finalist for the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in History.

Throughout the course of his career, Rosenberg has examined many different aspects of medical history, from the prominence of psychiatry in the trial of President James Garfield’s assassin to evolving medical ethics.

Today, Rosenberg is working on a book examining the changing perceptions of disease since 1800, looking at the treatment of alcoholism, for example, which was for generations considered a character flaw rather than a condition with physiological roots. Likewise, society’s image of depression has changed, from thinking of it as a purely psychological condition to one that today can be treated with drugs.

“It’s something that’s interested me for a very long time,” Rosenberg says. “I want to make it accessible to the everyday reader.”

He expects to finish the book sometime this year. Rosenberg began to study the history of science by accident. Stuck in large freshman lectures at the University of Wisconsin as a chemistry major, he and a friend decided to seek out a smaller class at the medical school, where undergraduates were allowed to take classes. The class was the “History and Geography of Science and Disease.”

“I was fascinated by it,” Rosenberg says.

From there, he received master’s and doctoral degrees from Columbia University, in 1957 and 1961, respectively. “The Cholera Years,” published in 1962, was his doctoral dissertation.

“‘The Cholera Years’ was remarkably influential. Written at an early stage in his career, it remains a sign of the book’s significance that it is still so widely read,” says Allan Brandt, Kass Professor of the History of Medicine and chair of Harvard’s Department of the History of Science. “It was really just the beginning of an exceptionally impressive and innovative set of studies.”

Brandt said Rosenberg enriches a department already strong in medical history.

“[Rosenberg’s appointment] really sustains our department’s commitment to the intensive study of the history of medicine,” Brandt says. “For more than a generation, Rosenberg has been a pivotal figure in historical studies of medicine, health, and disease.”

Before coming to Harvard, Rosenberg spent much of his career at the University of Pennsylvania, where he chaired – at different times – the history department and the history and sociology of science department.

It took several attempts, but Harvard was finally able to lure Rosenberg and his wife, Drew Gilpin Faust, to Cambridge with simultaneous appointments. Faust, herself a respected historian, is the new dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Rosenberg has a reputation as a stellar teacher, and several colleagues praised his skill at inspiring graduate students to excellence.

“He’s had some terrific graduate students, some of whom we’ve had here on the faculty,” says Gert Brieger, Welch Professor at Johns Hopkins University and chair of the university’s department of the history of science, medicine and technology.

In teaching, Rosenberg says he tries to emphasize two things: first, how to read a text critically, and, second, how to write clearly.

“If you’re going to be successful, you have to write something somebody else has to read,” Rosenberg says. “You can’t write straight if you can’t think straight. You can’t think straight if you don’t write straight.”

It helps, he adds, that the field tends to attract motivated students.

“In today’s academic environment there’s no guarantees of security and success,” Rosenberg says. “On the other hand, the challenges of contemporary medicine attract people with a very strong motivation to study its history as well as its current contemporary aspects.”