The Teach311.org + COVID-19 collective and the History of Science ON CALL project are pleased to co-present this 4-part interview with Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, a Professor of the History of Science in the departments of Biology and History at the University of Florida. We asked the award-winning teacher-scholar about her course HIS 3495/ZOO 4926: The History and Evolution of Infectious Disease, which she taught in the Spring 2020 semester while the pandemic began to unfold in the United States. In Part I, she talks about the formation of her intellectual curiosities, research on the history of the evolutionary synthesis, and what role infectious diseases might play in it. This interview originally took place on 4 May 2020. Due to the events surrounding the unjust murder of George Floyd, we decided to delay this publication in order to afford more space for reflection about the problem of systemic racism and the disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths among Black people in the U.S.A. as well as in other countries around the world.
Question: You teach a class at the University of Florida titled “The History and Evolution of Infectious Disease.” How did you get the idea for that course and how does it work with your research interests?
My interest in the history and evolution of infectious disease, and this course, grew out of a longstanding interest in evolution and especially the evolutionary synthesis, the historical event of the 1930s-1940s that led to the fusion of the newer Mendelian genetics with the older Darwinian selection theory. I was finishing the last chapter of Unifying Biology: The Evolutionary Synthesis and Evolutionary Biology (Princeton University Press: 1996) which argued that evolutionary biology as an integrative discipline had emerged at that time, and thinking about the next discipline to become part of the synthesis, when I began to read some of the literature on emerging viruses. I was especially intrigued in the general topic after reading Paul Ewald’s pathbreaking book titled the Evolution of Infectious Disease (Oxford University Press: 1993). I wrote to him, and asked if I could use the illustration of Charles Darwin holding a virus particle from his book. Darwin, of course, had zero knowledge of their existence, and microbial evolution had very little to do with the evolutionary synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s, but this made microbiology and the synthesis all the more interesting, as well as important especially given some of my earlier training as an undergraduate.
I had studied microbiology pretty heavily at the University of Western Ontario, and even took advanced courses in virology (the things had captured my imagination since my first year of high school when I read Michael Crichton’s 1969 sci-fi thriller The Andromeda Strain and then saw the 1971 movie). I’ve actually worked with virus particles and imaged them in electron microscopy; that is how I got interested in plants, and eventually the history of the botanical sciences, because microbiology was taught out of the plant science department there. I was especially interested in plant pathology, the study of plant disease, because of its importance in human history, as well as the extraordinary properties pathogens displayed biologically.
At one point, I spent several summers working in Agriculture Canada Research Stations as a young scientist-in-training studying various diseases of agricultural crops from soybeans, to corn to grapes, but also doing a lot of extension work, some of which was bizarre. I took to calling myself a plant doctor because people would bring me sick plants to diagnose; sometimes I’d have to do house calls to examine sick trees, and would find that the sickness was not due to some microbial pathogen, but because someone was actually poisoning the things because they were in the way of some swimming pool, or near a house. So, I gained an appreciation of the elaborate and sometimes surprising interaction between microbe-plant-human as a result of all this work and constantly saw parallels between plant disease and human disease. I remember being especially struck by the use of Koch’s postulates in plant pathology because I thought of him as one of the great figures in the history of germ theory, which I associated with human medicine. Who could imagine that Koch’s name would be evoked as part of the diagnostic criteria for diseased cucumbers?
So, I had this background training in thinking about disease broadly, and in terms of host-pathogen relations, as well as having an appreciation of microbes as powerful agents in human history—and this was before people like Bruno Latour began to talk about microbes in what became actor-network theory in the 1980s. It was pretty obvious if you had studied some basic microbial evolution and ecology that they mattered greatly, often in unexpected ways. And even when I began to turn to the historical study of evolution in the early 1980s while a graduate student at Cornell University, I still continued to think about the evolution and ecology of disease, because I was part of the generation that was confronted by AIDS on top of toxic shock syndrome and Legionnaire’s disease. I followed scientific developments in these new and surprising diseases very closely, especially in the pages of Science and realized that they were linked to particular groups and social practices; and then it got personal, when AIDS took the life of a close friend of mine. That convinced me that my generation had been lulled into a false sense of security, when we were taught that antibiotics and vaccination campaigns had put an end to infectious disease—that whole late 1970s, early 1980s period was actually very eventful scientifically, as well as to me personally in terms of contagious illnesses. That is now how I begin the class: I make reference to the United States Surgeon General’s Stewart’s ill-fated assertion of 1967 that the era of infectious disease was over and that epidemiology had become a dead science. He obviously wasn’t aware that some of the microbes were already evolving antibiotic resistant strains and that new pathogens were on their way.
HIS 3945 Evolution of Infectious Diseases
Emergence of new infectious diseases in a historical and cultural context. Emphasizes the history of well-documented infectious diseases such as leprosy, bubonic plague, cholera, smallpox, yellow fever, tuberculosis, influenza, polio, venereal disease and AIDS, as well as the more recent Ebola viral-type.
I’ve had an interest in the subject of infectious disease in my formal training and also in my personal experience, well before I read Ewald and began to think about the next area that would be part of the evolutionary synthesis. And there were a number of other books, many of which were popular and semi-popular coming out, along with more rigorous scientific books by people like Ewald. There was Richard Preston’s sensationalist Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus (Random House: 1994), and Laurie Garrett’s more comprehensive but perhaps more alarming The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; 1994), and the synthesis between evolution and medicine got a lot of attention with the appearance of Randolph Nesse’s and G.C. Williams’s Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine (Vintage Books: 1994). That whole turn to “emerging” pathogens or diseases was obviously an outcome of an evolutionary and ecological perspective, but it gained a new kind of urgency when seen as an outcome of a human-mediated reshaping of the natural world; one could see that human social behavior, human-animal encounters, and the stunning alteration of the land by humans over a very long period of human history was being accompanied by historically devastating outbreaks. And again, for me, the parallels between plant disease and animal disease were striking: pathogens were often opportunistic and exploited particular circumstances that were often contingent. They were constantly adapting to changing social practices such as travel, or colonization, or industrialization, or urbanization, and so on. With others gaining an appreciation of biodiversity as a concept, or an idea in the late 1980s or so, I grew increasingly alarmed at rainforest destruction, habitat loss, and the extinction of species on an unprecedented scale—I could see that it was going to have devastating consequences in terms of spillover events, precipitating new and destructive zoonotic epidemics on a planetary scale.
I also think it helped that many of us in history departments were beginning to think in terms of a broader and more inclusive environmental history at around this time, one that made it possible to give a central role to non-human agents. We of course had older books like Bill McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples (Anchor Books: 1976), Hans Zinsser’s classic Rats, Lice and History (Little, Brown and Company: 1935), but we also had the growing corpus of work by people like Alfred Crosby, which includes The Columbian Exchange: Biological Consequences of 1492 (Greenwood: 1972), America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (Cambridge: 1989), and especially Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1000, which appeared in 1986 with Cambridge University Press. That 1986 book was a real game-changer, especially for people like me who got professorships in large American history departments that weren’t always friendly to the history of science. I got in the habit of using Crosby and McNeill as a way of legitimating the history of biology with my colleagues in the history department, who were mostly social or political historians and had zero interest in, or even understanding of, the history of the biological sciences or why biology might actually play a role in human history.
Thus, about 1994–1995, as I was thinking my way through the evolutionary synthesis, and mapping out the next areas of interest, I decided that it was the perfect time to design a course that would enable me to pull all these interests together in the way that I had been cultivating them, but also to draw on some of the new books that were coming out. It also seemed especially timely given the emergence of pathogens like Marburg virus or Ebola Zaire (Ebolavirus) that were starting to garner international headlines as well as the public imagination (I’m thinking of films like Outbreak in 1995 as an example).
The truth is that I’ve always seen myself as a teacher-scholar, someone who just can’t easily separate what I’m thinking about from what I’m teaching. I do believe that some of my most creative and original work has been in course design when I’m working my way through some problem or some new literature, or trying out a new approach. I can get pretty daring in my teaching life when a topic is exciting, important, and timely, and I do think my unorthodox Cornell doctoral training, and teaching in multiple disciplines, emboldened me to pull unusual courses like this together. Well, at least it seemed unusual in 1996 or so when I first taught it. I first offered it under a variable rubric, meaning it was a “soft” course, a kind of pilot for a permanent course, and only had about 9-10 students the first time around. Most of them didn’t know what to expect because I think they were more interested in doing a course with me, instead of engaging with the topic, but I do think it made an impression on them then, because two of those original students wrote to me after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared to thank me for the course. Since 1996 it has become very popular, and it is usually over-enrolled with a number of different majors from many colleges. I usually teach it to 45-60 students, but I’ve also taught it at class sizes of about 110-120.
Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis is Professor of the History of Science in the Department of Biology and the Department of History at the University of Florida. She has been the recipient of six teaching awards at the department, college and university levels, including the UF “teacher of the year” in 1997, the Distinguished Alumni Professorship in 2009-2011, the Elizabeth Wood Dunlevie Professorship in the Honors Program in 2014, and the UF Term Professorship in 2017-2020, which recognized distinguished teacher-scholars at UF. She has also served as Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar to nine American colleges and universities in 2008-2009, and in 2012 she was awarded the History of Science Society’s Joseph H. Hazen Education Prize.
The Teach311 + COVID-19 Collective began in 2011 as a joint project of the Forum for the History of Science in Asia and the Society for the History of Technology Asia Network and is currently expanded in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Artifacts, Action, Knowledge) and Nanyang Technological University-Singapore.