Professors and students redefine health activism

Professors and students came together this weekend to explore the definition of health activism.

About thirty academics from a range of disciplines shared their personal definitions on health activism at conference held at the School of Medicine Friday and Saturday. The conference, titled “Health Activism in the 20th Century” and co-hosted by the Section of the History of Medicine and the University of Manitoba’s Department of History, aimed to encourage both a broader cross-discipline understanding of the field and increased research collaboration. While some individuals went to the conference with preconceived notions about the definition of health activism, four professors interviewed said that the conference gave them fresh insight into the numerous definitions of this relatively new subsect of history.

“We are history pioneers,” associate history and medicine professor Naomi Rogers said in her opening speech. “Until recently the history of health activism had been largely overlooked.”

Researchers from five different countries presented fourteen papers over the conference’s two days. They discussed topics ranging from the history of the activist group Mothers Against Destructive Decisions to the role of abortion in South Africa and Yale alumni and faculty were a strong presence both in the audience and as presenters.

Todd Olszewski GRD ’08, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health, presented his paper Friday about the Institutes’ historical relationship with health activists, while Mandisa Mbali, a History of Medicine postdoctoral associate, spoke about human rights and medical innovation in South African AIDS Activism.

A central theme throughout the conference was the blurred definition of health activism and what the field meant to each person with respect to their own academic communities, several academics said.

“I think there’s a growing relationship among medicine, health activism, health messages, and messages in society that can complicate medical knowledge,” said Jonathan Metzel, a University of Michigan psychiatry and women’s studies professor. “This is an emerging area, not only for the History of Medicine, but also Public Policy, Politics, and Medicine and Society.”

Several professors interviewed said they enjoyed the chance to speak with other academics from different disciplines about health activism.

Lisa Rumiel, a post-doctoral fellow at McMaster University, said that this interdisciplinary dialogue was part of the reason why she decided to attend the conference.

She also said she wanted to discover how health activism relates to other topics and to help increase dialogue across different areas of research.

“I can think all I want, develop theories, and read secondary literature, but this was a really good opportunity to actually have conversations with people about things like what health activism means, how we measure successes, and failures, and what’s the value of doing that,” Rumiel said.

Susan Fitzpatrick, associate professor of History at the California State University at Northridge, said the conference gave new insight into the history of health activism.

“I was able to see the patterns of health activism in the US, which has evolved from a very different set of needs in different economic conditions,” Fitzpatrick said. “There’s been a tremendous overlap in terms of the way activism has evolved, where people appeal to different kinds of government organizations, what makes a movement successful, and why certain political activists can gain access to publicity versus others.”

The Section of the History of Medicine is a independent department in the School of Medicine.

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