Over 150 historians, scientists, health care providers and community activists gathered at the Yale Medical Historical Library to examine science, medicine and racial violence through a historical lens last weekend.
The Program in the History of Science and Medicine hosted these interdisciplinary conversations over the course of a two-day conference titled “Critical Histories and Activist Futures: Science, Medicine and Racial Violence.” The event was organized by graduate students Sarah Pickman GRD ’21, Tess Lanzarotta GRD ’18 and Marco Ramos GRD ’18 MED ’18 through the program’s History, Science and Justice Collective.
Samuel Roberts, a professor of history and sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, opened the weekend’s discussions with a keynote address that drew connections between drug policy, mass incarceration and social welfare policy. Following his presentation, the conference’s speaker sessions and panel discussions featured prominent academics, early-career scientists and practicing physicians affiliated with more than 15 different American universities. They discussed issues ranging from Cold War medical ethics in Latin America to promoting cultural awareness in future STEM professionals.
Pickman said she and her peers were inspired to organize “Critical Histories” by the discussions of race and social justice that rocked Yale’s campus in fall 2015. The graduate students were particularly inspired by undergraduate activists in the Next Yale coalition, Pickman said. She added that the History of Science and Medicine graduate students wanted to participate in addressing institutional histories of racism, as well as confronting issues of diversity and inclusion in their own field.
In his welcoming remarks, Ramos emphasized the importance of studying how perspectives from the past can inform present-day scholarship and activism.
“As historians of science and medicine, we study the power and violence tied to knowledge production in academic settings,” Ramos said. “We are concerned with how knowledge is produced, whose knowledge is considered authoritative or marginal and who is really served by the scientific and medical research produced in universities.”
Examining the history of science and medicine can help both physicians and academics understand the racial disparities present in health today, Ramos said, adding that these disparities are especially important to address in New Haven, “where the University is such a dominant force.”
Ramos pointed to the tens of thousands of dollars that the Yale School of Medicine spends on patients in Africa, but not on the health care of many New Haven residents. He added that many undocumented immigrants can only obtain primary health care from student-run weekend clinics as opposed to Yale’s world-class medical facilities.
Lanzarotta said that “Critical Histories” was the first conference she has attended that opened “a mutual dialogue” between scientific researchers and historians of science and medicine.
“We sort of had a radical vision that we could bring together health care providers and scientists and activists and historians and put them all in the same room,” Lanzarotta said. “By getting them to talk to each other about the issues that they care about, we hoped there might be opportunities to learn from one another.”
History of Science and Medicine professor Joanna Radin described the conference as “an overwhelming success,” noting that “Critical Histories” stood out even among other graduate student-organized conferences in the field for modeling a collaborative undertaking of knowledge.
Radin added that she hopes Yale can capitalize on its strengths in the humanities in its efforts to address problems in scientific and medical fields.
“I think we still operate under the assumption, whether it’s explicit or not, that science and the humanities are two cultures — two fundamentally different ways of being in the world,” Radin said. “The kind of work we see [at the conference] shows that that’s an illusion. We can abandon the illusion that bringing [science and the humanities together] does not diminish the power of either culture, but creates a stronger one.”
Conference attendees described the weekend’s discussions as eye-opening. Sahana Kribakaran GRD ’24 MED ’24 said that, as someone who comes from a basic science background, “Critical Histories” was the first academic humanities conference she has attended.
“As a medical student, it’s really critical to understand the framework that constructs our system of medicine,” Kribakaran said. “It was powerful to talk to people from all areas of the country, and I was able to learn an incredible amount about these histories and how they relate to the future of activism and tie into racial violence.”
History of Science and Medicine conferences often only draw scholars in history disciplines, Pickman said. However, she added that she was pleased to see undergraduates and students from the schools of Medicine, Nursing, Public Health and Forestry & Environmental Studies attend.
The Yale Program in the History of Science and Medicine currently has 10 faculty members and 25 graduate students.