We are thrilled to host writer and historian Simon Schama this Thursday night, November 16th, as he talks about his new book, “Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines, and the Health of Nations.” To attend this event, please register for a free ticket on the Library webpage devoted to this event.
Schama is perhaps best known as a historian of art but his imagination ranges wide. He is one of the few writers we can call a “public intellectual.” He is University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University. Schama’s books include “Scribble, Scribble, Scribble,” “The American Future: A History,” “Rough Crossings,” “The Power of Art,” “Rembrandt’s Eyes,” and the “History of Britain” trilogy, among many other titles. He has starred in 40 TV documentaries for the BBC, PBS, and the History Channel.
Joining Schama onstage is Dr. Atul Gawande, the Assistant Administrator for Global Health at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Prior to joining the Biden-Harris Administration, he was a practicing surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He was founder and chair of Ariadne Labs, a joint center for health systems innovation, and of Lifebox, a nonprofit making surgery safer globally. From 2018-2020, he was also CEO of Haven, the Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan Chase healthcare venture. In addition, Atul was a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, and he has also written four books: “Complications,” “Better,” “The Checklist Manifesto” and “Being Mortal.”
I asked Schama to answer a few questions before his event on Thursday. We hope you enjoy this preview and join us for this fascinating conversation!
Clay Smith: You wrote this book during the Covid pandemic. What was that like? Did writing about pandemics during a pandemic help your writing process in any way?
Simon Schama: “Foreign Bodies” came out of my exploring the origins of the World Health Organization in 1948—the first specialized agency of the United Nations—but as a chapter in a book I thought I was writing on nationalism: the WHO struck me as one modern moment when national self-interest yielded to international cooperation. (A naïve view.) The WHO web site led me to the International Sanitary Conferences of the 19th century (I’d never heard of them) and to Adrien Proust—which had me sit up and smell a story. After that, the back and forth between the Covid pandemic and the histories I was researching was constant and powerful—the politics of public health; acceptance or resistance to vaccines; the intrusion or exclusion of state; the unsettling nature of new scientific knowledge; the challenges of persuasion. A big echo chamber, then, but aside from the opening and closing chapters I didn’t want to billboard the similarities too much. But yes, I was constantly affected by watching the Covid-struck world—especially when the disease hit Asia.
CS: Waldemar Haffkine is the hero of this book—how did you first come across his story?
SS: Haffkine gets mentioned, usually in passing, in the many books written about the challenges in public health in the 19th century, especially in India—but I wondered why he never seemed to get his own story—the appearance of a Ukrainian Jew, Pasteur-trained, in the Indian Raj—struck me as itself astonishing; I was led to a slight biography (much of which is inaccurate) and then to the startling history of his time as a radical gun-toting student in Odesa . . . what historian could resist that? Haffkine’s story also struck a chord because of my interest in the perils historically attached to Jewish medics regarded at once as having some sort of unique knowledge but also dangerous, for that very reason.
CS: Historians and biographers sometimes say that it is easier to write about deceased people than living ones—is that true for you?
SS: Writing history is always a kind of literary necromancy, breathing life back into the dead. The extraordinary photographs of Haffkine—and then the archive of his personal papers—gave me the necessary sense of what it was like to be in his company—possibly an illusion—but a necessary one for historians, I think. So I know how it would be to go for a walk with him; sit opposite him at dinner; visit him in his lab . . . or think I do.