2020 John Winthrop Student Fellows Caroline Johnson & Olivia Chickering: Researching the History of Boston’s Responses to Epidemics

by Olivia Chickering, Caroline Johnson, and Kate Melchior

Every year, the MHS selects one or more high school students for our John Winthrop Student Fellowship. This award encourages high school students to make use of the nationally significant documents of the MHS in a research project of their choosing. Students perform historical research and create a project (usually an assignment for class) using materials at the MHS, both in our archives or digitized online. This project can be something assigned in a class, a National History Day project, or something of the student’s invention! Both student and teacher receive $350 to support their research. Applications for the 2021 student fellowships are due on February 18, 2021. Learn more and apply!

This year, John Winthrop Student Fellows Olivia Chickering and Caroline Johnson, as well as their teacher Dan Ritchie of Marblehead High School, have been researching the evolution of Boston medical practices and the city’s response to epidemics throughout history.  Here they explain their plans for their research project and what they hope to find in the MHS archives.

John Winthrop Student Fellows Caroline Johnson and Olivia Chickering

Hello members of the historical community, we are Caroline and Olivia and we are honored to be one of the recipients of the John Winthrop Student Fellowship. The John Winthrop Fellowship offers students the opportunity to conduct research using historical documents found at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Before we begin explaining our topic of research, we’d like for you to get to know us a bit more! We are both rising seniors at Marblehead High School that share a passion for history. We are also intrigued by the development of medical practices over time. With both of these interests in mind, we decided to focus our research on the evolution of medical practices used in Boston throughout the centuries.

Today Boston is highly regarded as one of the best cities for medical care. Mass General and Boston Children’s Hospital are both top tier institutions that attract patients from all over the world. Initially, we intended to focus our research on how Boston’s history has contributed to its current position as a leading city in the medical field. However, this topic was far too broad as there are so many various types of doctors and medicine. This topic would have required extensive research in order to connect every single medical development and historical event. We decided to narrow our topic and focus our research on something more specific. The recent global outbreak of COVID-19 has led us to look more specifically at Boston’s response to pandemics and epidemics throughout history. The state of the world right now is one that many people are not acquainted with. Never before in our lives have we experienced a health crisis that has caused such drastic changes in all ways of life. Using our own experiences, recent sources, and the archives at the MHS, we will be able to research Boston’s response to the smallpox outbreak and the Spanish Flu of 1918. Then we will be comparing the city’s responses to these earlier pandemics to the current response to COVID-19.

The MHS has a wide selection of documents in their archives that we are very excited to use while conducting our research. Using ABIGAIL, the library catalog for the Massachusetts Historical Society, we have been able to select some sources that we would like to use. The first of which is an anonymous letter written by an individual living in Boston during the smallpox epidemic. This document will give us an idea of what epidemic life was like during the eighteenth century. Another source we’ll be exploring is a smallpox statistic for Boston to determine how many people were infected, and how many of those infected people died. We will also be using a medical advisory from a Health Commissioner on the prevention of the influenza virus, written during the 1918 outbreak. This source will allow us to compare the prevention methods used in 1918 to the methods used today to slow the spread of COVID-19.

While we will not be conducting this research exactly how we initially intended, we are looking forward to exploring the digitized archives and learning about pandemics while in the midst of one. Hopefully, we will be able to uncover information about how the outbreaks of the past shaped Boston’s response to the current health crisis.