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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: When it comes to disease and freedom, Whitworth professor shows the past is prologue

Kari Nixon  (Courtesy)
Kari Nixon (Courtesy)

In the 1840s, a doctor at Vienna General Hospital became convinced that the reason for widespread deaths of mothers after childbirth was to be found on the hands of the doctors treating them.

This was well before the germ theory of disease transmission was commonly accepted. What Ignaz Semmelweis noticed, among other things, was that mothers in the wards overseen by midwives were not dying at the same high rates as those in wards overseen by the doctors – who also were treating patients all over the rest of the hospital.

Semmelweis recognized that the doctors were contaminating the patients, and became an aggressive, sometimes abrasive proponent of something that many people in his field simply could not accept: hand-washing.

Other physicians all over the world “published angry articles opposing Semmelweis’ ideas,” writes Kari Nixon, a Whitworth professor who studies social reactions to disease, in her new book on pandemics through history. “Many doctors suggested that Semmelweis was endangering women by encouraging them to indulge in worry and thus fear their doctors.”

It sounds nearly unbelievable to modern ears. But this simple practice that is now accepted universally as a key practice for disease prevention was resisted with great passion – a corollary, in some ways, to the vigorous debates over masking and other guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic.

What Nixon shows in her engaging, informative new book, “Quarantine Life From Cholera to COVID-19,” is that such resistance to public health measures is not unusual at all. It’s the norm whenever there’s a tension between personal freedom and public health, and when new ideas or practices challenge norms and traditions – from hand-washing to enforced quarantines to speed limits to wearing masks.

She said that, as she examined the history of disease outbreaks and social responses, she had wondered how often such conflicts might arise.

“Basically, the answer is every single one,” she said last week in an interview. “Every time. Always.”

Nixon’s book, which will be published by Tiller Press on June 15 and is now available for preorder, delves into the many ways that the human experience echoes throughout the history of pandemics, and what we can learn from that. Her academic specialty combines an expertise in Victorian literature and the tension between isolation and community during disease outbreaks, a field that produces some fascinating headlines for journal articles, such as: “Keep Bleeding: Hemmoraghic Sores, Trade and the Necessity of Leaky Boundaries in Defoe’s ‘Journal of the Plague Year.’ ”

But “Quarantine Life” is not aimed at an academic audience. It includes disease history and the lessons of past pandemics, depictions of pandemics in literature, personal observations about the pandemic politics of the moment, and takeaway lessons from past mistakes and successes. The chief merit of the book is its readability – it is never less than engaging, as Nixon shifts between subjects and styles.

Her sources are as likely to be her personal communications with a local pastor, plumber or artist – literally – as they are scholarly works on disease from the 1850s.

“I just really felt like this was my time to try to speak to more people,” she said. “I have a deep conviction that scholars should use their expertise to communicate with people outside the ivory tower.”

The book includes passages about past disease outbreaks, from cholera in the 1700s to the Spanish Flu in the early 1900s to Ebola in the 1990s, gleaning lessons from the mistakes and success of the past.

A key theme is the conflict between personal freedom and social responsibility, and the ways in which that conflict has been a part of every effort to contain the spread of disease. Nixon’s book shows that this isn’t a coronavirus issue – or one that reflects a unique character of the current moment – so much as a condition of being human.

“It’s easy to think of somebody who lived in 1720 as living in some completely different reality than us, and in many ways, of course, they did,” she said. “But what I see is, people are people.”

She urges people consider the fact that everyone is acting out of their own experience and a set of deep beliefs or habits. In trying to encourage measures to protect the public health, she writes, finding a point of common understanding and empathy will help produce better, more effective arguments than scolding.

“I’m not calling for plain old ‘niceness,’ ” she writes. “What I’m calling for is effectiveness. … (A)rguing about masks in particular, and health recommendations most generally, may go further if we don’t personally see the opposition as our enemy.”

Which brings us back to Semmelweis. The Viennese doctor who was so far ahead of his colleagues on the importance of hand-washing was infuriated by the resistance to his ideas. As Nixon writes, he was “kind of a jerk about the hand-washing thing.”

He could be haughty, self-righteous and self-aggrandizing. Can any of us on the pro-mask team relate? He attacked those who disagreed with him and called one dissenter a “murderer.”

As a result, his legacy is twofold: He landed on a crucial idea about disease transmission and a simple way to prevent it – and he failed to help that prevention take hold, perhaps because of his approach.

“He may have been right,” Nixon wrote, “but he wasn’t particularly effective during his lifetime.”

Contact the writer at or (509) 459-5431.

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