Monica Green, “Medieval Plague, Modern Ebola, Invisible Africa: Genetics and the Framing of Global Health History”

On Monday, November 7, Monica Green (Professor, History, Arizona State University) will present “Medieval Plague, Modern Ebola, Invisible Africa: Genetics and the Framing of Global Health History.” The talk will take place in 165 McGraw Hall at 4:30 p.m.

There is a long historiography about health and medicine in Africa in the modern colonial and post-colonial periods. But genetics is helping us see beyond the limit of colonial encounters and the written archives they created. Plague, it is currently believed, is in origin a Eurasian disease. Its entry into Africa—at least three separate times in the past 2500 years—can now be traced, not by any new archival discoveries, but by the genetic trail left by its causative organism, Yersinia pestis. Genetics is the story of life itself, and it can help decipher the narratives of migrations, ecological transitions, and social change in Africa that, in the current state of evidence, are otherwise invisible to us. It provides hints more than answers. But those hints allow us not only to bring Africa into narratives of the medieval Black Death, but also to show the relevance of “medieval” narratives to the present day. The same genetics analyses that have driven new work on plague’s histories also drove epidemiological understandings of the West African Ebola outbreak in 2013-15. As “the story of life,” genetics allows us to integrate Africa into more truly global histories of disease.

Monica H. Green is Professor of History at Arizona State University, where she teaches medieval European history and the history of medicine and global health. She has held fellowships from, among others, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, All Souls College, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and most recently, the American Academy of Berlin. She has published extensively on various aspects of medieval medical history and recently edited the volume Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death (2014). She is interested in bringing new work in genetics and bioarchaeology into dialogue with traditional historical work in documentary sources, and is now expanding her work into the field of global health history, which uses the narratives of infectious diseases from leprosy to HIV/AIDS to tell of common threats to health that humans have shared the world over.

This event is sponsored by the Department of History and the Medieval Studies program.