“Freedom through knowledge” was one of the slogans of Planned Parenthood’s first national campaign in 1942.1 Publishing pamphlets, posters, and testimonials under the headline “Planned Parenthood in Wartime,” the organization related contraception to the need for women workers in the war industries, the urgency of high maternal death rates, and the superiority of American democracy over totalitarianism. This was the organization’s first campaign since changing its name from the Birth Control Federation of America to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The campaign and the new name marked a shift in focus from promoting birth control, that is the use of contraceptives once there were too many children in a family, to advocating child spacing, the idea that couples should consciously plan the arrival of their children from the beginning of their marriage.
Soon after the global SARS outbreaks in 2003, and many years before the current novel coronavirus pandemic led to a historically unique shutdown of global air traffic, health experts anticipated the vital role air connections would play in the likely event of a worldwide zoonotic pandemic. In 2006, for example, the chief doctor at Frankfurt Airport observed, “In the context of globalization, we in Europe must assume that infection outbreaks on other continents will within 14–24 hours pose a considerable threat to our German population.”1 For medical and global historians, past relations between air traffic, plagues, and health policies present a promising, still largely unexplored research topic.2 Stranded last spring due to a COVID-19 flight ban myself, I started wondering how experts in epidemiology and sanitary control reacted to the rise of mass air travel. How did health experts cope with the breakthrough of the jet age in the 1960s and what were their strategies against the spread of contagious diseases by airplanes?
As historian of science Lorraine Daston recently remarked, COVID-19 has thrown us back into a state of “ground-zero empiricism.” The manifold manifestations of COVID-19 and the many unknowns involved are provoking scientific speculation that is often based on nothing more than chance observations and personal anecdotes. The radical uncertainty of the current situation, writes Daston, has catapulted us back to the seventeenth century, with almost everything up for grabs, “just as it was for the members of the earliest scientific societies—and everyone else—circa 1660.”1
In August 2019, the city of Bielefeld, home to about 340,000 people in northwest Germany, launched a new marketing campaign based on an old internet joke. In 1994, Achim Held, a computer science student at the University of Kiel, had jokingly spread the rumor that Bielefeld did not actually exist.1 Twenty-five years later, the city’s marketing agency put a new spin on the so-called Bielefeld conspiracy by offering a reward of €1 million for proof that Bielefeld, indeed, did not exist. For once, German humor—quite surprisingly to some—attracted attention far beyond national borders: Entries arrived from participants as far away as China, India, and Australia. Their purported proofs used arguments from such diverse fields as history, physics, and mathematics. In order to make sense of the more complex contributions, the marketing agency’s jury even consulted researchers at Bielefeld’s university and archives. Somewhat less surprisingly, none of the competitors ended up taking home the prize money.2 Proof of nonexistence, apparently, can be quite a nut to crack.
We are all historians of the present. At least we should be. Many fellow historians of knowledge are currently using a wide variety of media to share their experience and research in an effort to put the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic into context. Twitter is one medium where this conversation is especially lively, as Eileen Sperry has noted on Nursing Clio, a wonderful group blog that is also active on Twitter. One can find these parts of Twitter by searching for the relevant hashtags, for example, #histmed (history of medicine) and the much more generic #twitterstorians (historians on twitter).
The Bolshevik Revolution strove to create a “new man,” a morally and psychologically superior human being. This new man required a complete physical and mental renewal, including, among other measures, the hygienic literacy of the masses. A wide range of media were employed for the Revolution’s ends, including not only various forms of print but also mobile cinemas and theatrical productions. A theater movement aimed at instructing the masses gained strength in the early years of the Revolution, and many theatrical performances addressed prevailing problems in public health. The hygienic awareness of the population was especially crucial during World War I and the Russian Civil War that followed, when diseases flourished in conditions of hunger and claimed millions of lives. In the 1920s, the performances came to local clubhouses and reached even the kolkhoz fields to entertain and educate workers and farmers. Beginning in 1925, theatrical hygiene propaganda was centrally managed by the newly founded Moscow Theater for Sanitary Culture (1924–1947).
In August 1939, the newly formed Jamaica Birth Control League opened the island’s first birth control clinic in Kingston to distribute diaphragms at cost or free to working-class women. To advertise their services, the League published a small, discreet notice in the “Wanted” section of the Daily Gleaner, the island’s main newspaper. Within a year, some 500 women had written passionate letters to the League from across the island; thousands more would show up at the clinic’s doorstep, eager to seize on new methods for controlling reproduction.