Season 2 of Public Historians at Work Podcast

By: Claire Randall, CPH Graduate Assistant


Season 2 of the Center for Public History podcast Public Historians at Work is officially complete. In this podcast series, we speak with academics, writers, artists, and community members about what it means to do history and humanities work for and with the public. While the first season explored the roots of systemic racism in our city state and nation, the second season examines public history as it relates to medicine, health, and the wellbeing of our global community.

Episode 1 with Dr. Merlin Chowkwanyun, a historian of public health, discusses his work using collaboration between big data and humanities to help historians find a seat at the table of medical and health discussions. With a master of public health degree in hand, Chowkwanyun put his new skills understanding medical terminology to use by creating the site known as, Toxic Docs.

The Toxic Docs site is a dataset and website that contains millions of pages of once-secret corporate documents about the harmful substances knowingly used by companies. The site’s content includes company memos, unpublished studies, and PR campaigns that expose intercompany knowledge about the toxic nature of products that were covered up or ignored. Chowkwanyun hopes that Toxic Docs can bridge the gap between historical inquiry and the court room when legal evidence is needed to bring companies spreading harmful substances to justice.

 Listen to Episode 1 Here!

Episode 2 features a conversation with Dr. Ronit Stahl, an associate professor of history at University of California, Berkeley, about America’s healthcare system. Stahl discusses her work researching religious hospitals, the role of religion in the military, and the larger legal implications of religion and conscience in American corporations.

As a public historian, Stahl contends that this work is important because at some point in everyone’s life, religion in health care will directly impact them. Stahl points out that understanding the past helps people understand the present related to things like reproductive care, LGBTQ care, or end of life care for example, making the work meaningful to everyone.

Listen to Episode 2 here!

Episode 3 brings in local Houston history as Dr. Debbie Z. Harwell, instructional assistant professor of US History, speaks about her work training students in public history methods at the University of Houston. Harwell is the editor of Houston History, a full-color popular magazine published by the University of Houston Center for Public History. Students conduct oral histories and write and edit articles for the magazine dedicated to the under-told stories of one of the largest and most diverse metropolitan regions of the United States.

The podcast discussion focuses on an issue of Houston History about Houston’s San Jose Clinic that has provided medical, dental, pharmacy, and specialty services to low-income individuals in marginalized communities for over 100 years. Dr. Harwell discuss how the magazine has captured San Jose’s legacy as well as the process, challenges, and joys of working with undergraduates through this public-engaged medium.

Listen to Episode 3 here!

Episode 4 looks at the challenging roles of archivists in the world of medicine in a conversation with Javier Garza, senior library analyst and archivist at MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Historical Resources Center. With the medical institution’s mission to make cancer a relic of the past, the archivist’s role is to collect, preserve, and make that history available.

Garza has discovered that role of librarians and archivists involves much more than putting books on shelves; it includes digitizing items, describing and referencing them online, and advocating to shareholders that the resources and services they provide are important to the public.

Listen to Episode 4 here!

Episode 5 features a conversation with Dr. Stephen Vider, assistant professor of history at Cornell University, on the importance of capturing feeling when doing public history. Vider works to bring the history of HIV/AIDS patients and LGBTQ communities to the public takes many different forms.

His public history mediums include museum exhibits, short films, and publications in the New York Times. Vider hopes moving forward that there will be an increased awareness and interest in LGBTQ histories and also in the ethics of public history practice in regard to people’s privacy and emotions. He also stresses the importance of public facing history projects that keep feeling and humanity as central to the framework for historical narratives and community engagement. 

Listen to Episode 5 here!

Episode 6 examines what millennia-old plagues could have to do with the current COVID-19 pandemic. Drs. Merle Eisenberg, assistant professor of history, Oklahoma State University, and Lee Mordechai, senior lecturer at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, offer a unique collaboration based on their knowledge of past disease outbreaks discussed in their own podcast, Infectious Historians.

Drs. Eisenberg and Mordechai dissect their process and vision for the podcast, specifically how it serves as an interdisciplinary seminar and living archive for academic and public audiences alike. They discuss the bad historical comparisons for modern diseases that often spread throughout our culture, and the social responsibility of historians to correct these narratives. Most importantly, they emphasize the use of history to remind everyone that human beings matter in a pandemic.

Listen to Episode 6 here!

Episode 7 features a conversation with Dr. Cathy Kudlick, professor of history and director emeritus of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University, and Fran Osborne, freelance designer/museum consultant and lecturer in museum studies at San Francisco State University, on their public exhibit about the 504 Sit-in. The sit-in called for passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act making it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities in federally funded facilities and programs. First launched in 2015, the exhibit Patient No More: People with Disabilities Securing Civil Rights captures this pivotal historical moment and exemplifies innovative public history practice by making accessibility and community involvement integral to its design. 

Features such as a “braille-rail,” murals along a wheelchair ramp, and poetry based on viewing those murals written for those with vision disabilities were included. Both Dr. Kudlick and Osborn express their hope that this exhibit will help share the moving story of the 504 Sit-in and encourage other museums and exhibit designers to give more consideration to accessibility when designing exhibits.

Listen to Episode 7 here!

These seven episodes bring together public historians of different careers and backgrounds to give audiences a glimpse of the multitude of ways history is brought to the public. With health being of great importance to all, the ways in which the history of medicine, health care, and accessibility shape our lives are a valuable part of understanding the past and the present. Participants in this season of Public Historians at Work answers questions and demonstrate how public history can impact and inspire our everyday lives.

Visit the Public Historians at Work main site here!