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Simon Schama & Atul Gawande in Conversation This Thursday

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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.

Simon Schama. Photo: Elinor Williams/Hay Festival

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.

Photo of Atul Gawande.
Dr. Atul Gawande. Photo: Haven Healthcare

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.



Comments (12)

  1. I wish this was a hybrid in-person and virtual on zoom. Many of us do not hear well enough to attend in person. Many of us are reluctant to travel and drive at night, or take metro at night. With the increasing concern of hijackings and car break-ins, more and more seniors, that I know are reluctant to drive into the District. Many people I still know, are reluctant to be in crowds. We have the technology for you to serve a larger community who are at home, and I am very disappointed that the library of Congress is not doing this now.

  2. Agree w Lisa. I had filled out the registration form before I realized this was only in-person. As an out-of-towner who loves LOC and its events, I would love to see more Zoom events. Thanks

  3. Another vote for making these talks hybrid in order to open them up to a larger audience, including those of us who can’t attend in person. Please consider this for future talks.

  4. I agree with the comments urging the LOC to make these programs available by Zoom. Watching the National Book Festival programs online has been such a treat and watching your ongoing programs would be a treat as well. I hope the LOC will implement hybrid programs asap!

  5. I agree a hybrid event would be great for this event.
    BTW on the announcement the Date is wrong It’s 16 November 2023.

  6. Yes, totally agree with Lisa and others. I work late and can’t always get into town and also have some issues with hearing talks in person. I like the option of being able to listen virtually.

  7. I agree with those who have said that they wished this was a hybrid event. Many of us would love to participate online. I think this would increase the overall value of these events, and the public’s knowledge of how valuable the Library of Congress is to all citizens.

  8. Agree with others commenting here: Please make these live virtual events (Zoom). Many of us are not in DC but very interested in these presentations.

    If you can’t do live, can you please video/film, and post online so we can watch afterwards (as you did with Louise Penney and others).

    Thank you.

  9. Just adding my vote for more hybrid events. Many folks are not in the immediate area and would like to have access to the Library’s programs.

  10. Hi everyone, thanks for your thoughts about this event, and other Library of Congress events, being hybrid. We do livestream selected events but this event will be recorded and posted on the Library site and our YouTube channel within a week or two after it happens. I will post here again with a link to the recording.

  11. I quite agree. While I would go to a noon talk at the LOC, I do not go out in the evening and therefore would welcome a Zoom program.

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