From Cholera to COVID

By Desiree Holz '23, June 15, 2021
Team-taught course takes a historical look at public health crises.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Ithaca College professors Stewart Auyash and Jonathan Ablard created a course to help students put the COVID-19 pandemic into a broader historical context.

The course, “Cholera to COVID: A History of Public Health,'” explored the human response to pandemics in history. Ablard, who is a professor of history, and Auyash, who is an associate professor of health promotion and physical education, combined their areas of expertise to shed light on disease and pandemics throughout global history, and how it relates to the current global health crisis.

In the class, Ablard and Auyash explored the human response to pandemics starting with how humans dealt with disease in both ancient and medieval times —such as the Black Death — while working their way to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Much of the course focused on how disease interfaces with human populations, the way humans try to make sense of and solve disease, and how communities respond to disease.

“This class helped put our current events into perspective and helped me understand how what we’re doing now compares to how the world dealt with previous pandemics.”

Tristan Berlet ’22

“We emphasized repeatedly that COVID has had a disproportionate impact on African American and Latinx communities in the United States and that is consistent with the social history of medicine and public health,” said Ablard, “So for us the biology is important, but the biology is not destiny. We’re interested in how human communities and organizations and institutions impacts disease. We really hoped that students came away from this with some kind of historical and humanistic understanding of what COVID’s impact is.”

The students in the course appreciated the broad scope of the discussions.

“My favorite aspect was the sheer variety of subjects we read about and discussed,” said Tristan Berlet 22. “This class helped put our current events into perspective and helped me understand how what we’re doing now compares to how the world dealt with previous pandemics.”

“Learning from experts in both public health and history enabled us to truly see the full spectrum of the issues we are studying from multiple points of view. It also enabled us to access the full resources of two departments in two different schools.”

Tristan Berlet

The unique aspect of having the course co-taught by professors from different schools was also a highlight.

“Learning from experts in both public health and history enabled us to truly see the full spectrum of the issues we are studying from multiple points of view,” said Berlet. “It also enabled us to access the full resources of two departments in two different schools.”

The professors plan to offer “Cholera to COVID: A History of Public Health” in future semesters and alter their curriculum as the COVID-19 pandemic progresses. But they enjoyed their first effort.

“Having a colleague who you can echo and get honest feedback from and critique is really a part of the professional life of faculty, we should all be so lucky,” said Auyash.  “That’s one of the reasons we got into academics, right? To have this kind of exchange of ideas and ultimately understand each other’s point of view.”