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Chapter 9 Smallpox, Disability, and Survival in Nineteenth-Century France Rewriting Paradigms from a New Epidemic Script Catherine Kudlick Epidemics ordinarily exit with a whimper, not a bang. Susceptible individuals flee, die, or recover, and incidence of the disease gradually declines. It is a flat and ambiguous, yet inevitable sequence for a last act. —Charles Rosenberg, Explaining Epidemics Keywords: Centuries: eighteenth; nineteenth; Geographical Areas: Europe; Sources: Memoirs; Serials; Themes: bodies, medicine, and contested knowledge ; family, daily life, and community; culture; theory How would the eminent historian of medicine Charles Rosenberg’s script read if we placed survivors at the center of the epidemic story? Too long framed by the acutephasesofdiseaseandsubsequentmortality,outbreakssuchastuberculosis, typhoid, polio, syphilis, and AIDS offer an opportunity to explore our field’s key questions and the analytic possibilities for the future of disability history. Such an approach helps reframe the complex relationship between medicine, disease, anddisabilitythatcriticaldisabilitystudiesincreasinglycallsintoquestion.Italso opens up a greater conversation with historians of medicine and public health by providing new ways of understanding the social impact of epidemics in history. Put another way, perhaps Rosenberg’s final act of the epidemic drama would be less anticlimactic if disabled actors were allowed on the stage. Yetuntilrecentlydisabilityhistorianshavesomehowfailedtonoticethattheplay wasevenintown.Examplesofafullintegrationofdisabilityintotheepidemicscript Burch_text.indd 185 9/24/14 9:54 AM 186 • catherine kudlick have been few and far between.1 Even polio, which gave birth to a gifted generation of disability rights activists and scholars, has produced parallel histories: one that hasfocusedontheacute,dramaticphasesoftheepidemics,whichincludestherace for a cure, and another that has concentrated on the stories of survivors.2 A history that understood the feistiness of an Ed Roberts, the polio survivor who is widely considered the father of the early 1960s United States disability rights movement, and the drive of an Albert Sabin or a Jonas Salk, who competed to find a vaccine in the 1950s, as products of the same postwar era would offer new ways to write the narrativeofpolio.Thinkingofthesehistoriesandthepeopleinvolvedasmorealike than different invites us to expand the reach of disability history. To demonstrate the rich possibilities that exploring the complex relationship betweenepidemicsanddisabilityoffers,Iexaminesmallpox,theepidemicdisease that was most feared and widespread during the period when France was making its early nineteenth-century transition to modernity. If “history’s greatest killer” affectedasmanyas1in10ofthecountry’s35millionpeopleduringtheworstepidemicsoftheeighteenthcenturyandthediseasekilledapproximately30percentof itsvictims,ashasbeenclaimed,thentheremaining70percentcouldhaveincluded as many as 3 million people (many of them children) who lived with permanent facial scarring, 300,000 of whom also suffered from the corneal ulceration that causedblindness.3 Placingdisabilitybroadlydefinedatthecenteroftheepidemic story rather than burying it within a list of consequences, I want to understand why the histories have remained separate. But more, I seek to demonstrate how reintegrating them will allow us to rethink the impact of smallpox and explore disability during a key period of sociocultural transformation. When we assume that epidemics and disability inhabit the same conceptual cosmos, new opportunities open up for evaluating the life of someone such as Thérèse-AdèleHusson(1803–1831),thedaughterofartisansfromNancyineastern France. Blinded by smallpox at the age of nine months, Husson went on to become a prolific Parisian writer in the early nineteenth century.4 She specialized inmoralizingfictionforyoungadults,ahighlyemotionalmelodramaticgenrethat blended victimhood and survival. In one of the first memoirs written by a blind woman of the artisan class, Husson was quick to condemn social reactions and misunderstandingsmorethanthedisease,especiallywhenitcametoherdisability: I have just reached my twenty-second year, and I still don’t remember ever having formed a single regret concerning the loss of my eyes, a loss which seems to me to be of little importance, because people who see tell me: “You don’t have the slightestunderstandingoftreasuresyouhaveneverknown .”Iwouldliketobelieveinthe justice of this reasoning, which, however, does nothing to persuade me that I am unhappy; if anything, it’s the sad exclamations of people who see me that do that.5 Burch_text.indd 186 9/24/14 9:54 AM Smallpox, Disability, and Survival in Nineteenth-Century France • 187 Elsewhere, we have evidence that Husson suffered from at least one bout of depression (and perhaps more) brought on by frustration and isolation.6 Though not a direct response to a specific epidemic moment, such reactions nevertheless invite us to think of the longer-term impacts of diseases. Just as demographers pointtotheimpactofsmallpoxonsubsequentbirthratesandinheritancepractices, historiansofdisabilitycontributetothebroaderperspectivebyunderscoringhow survivorsfacedcourtshipandmarriageprospects.Here,appearancescometoplay an interesting role in defining the experience of disability; while “disfigurement” was not always understood to impede someone’s functioning in the same way as blindness, its social import was appreciated both by contemporaries and people today. Thanks to humanities scholars’ attention to “affect” in recent years, we mightcometohaveagreaterunderstandingofpersonalresponsestoepidemicdiseasesandtodisablingconditionshistorically .7 Unpackingtheemotionalresponses...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780252096693
Related ISBN
9780252038747
MARC Record
OCLC
897021526
Pages
448
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-24
Language
English
Open Access
No
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