Jim Downs is the Gilder Lehrman-National Endowment for the Humanities Professor of Civil War Studies and History at Gettysburg College. His research interests include Civil War and Reconstruction; slavery and emancipation; medicine and public health; and gender and sexuality. His most recent book is on the origin of epidemiology, Maladies of Empire: How Colonialism, Slavery, and War Transformed Medicine (2021). Downs is also the author of Stand by Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (2016), a history of gay life in the 1970s, and Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction (2012), which examines the unexpected medical consequences of emancipation. In 2015-2017, he was awarded a multiyear Mellon New Directions fellowship and was a Visiting Fellow in medical anthropology at Harvard University. His research uncovered a smallpox epidemic which raged from 1862 to 1870 as well as the history of the Freedmen's Hospitals, the first system of federal health care. He is a coeditor, with Jennifer Brier and Jennifer Morgan, of Connexions: Histories of Race and Sex in North America (2016). Downs has published articles in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Slate, New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Washington Post, among other publications, and he serves as editor of Civil War History.
NEW IN 2021: Maladies of Empire: How Colonialism, Slavery, and War Transformed Medicine (Belknap, Harvard University Press)
Dying to Be Free: The Smallpox Epidemic during the Civil War and Reconstruction
Emancipated from slavery, former bondspeople entered into an environment in which more soldiers died from disease than from battle. This talk explores the high rate of illness and mortality that devastated formerly enslaved people during the Civil War and Reconstruction. In particular, it provides the first analysis of the smallpox epidemic that began in Washington, DC in 1862 and then spread to the Lower South in 1863 and Mississippi Valley in 1864-65. By 1865, the epidemic plagued the entire South and began to move west and infected Native Americans on reservations. Due to the unexpected and inordinate mortality, the federal government in an unprecedented move established the first-ever system of national health care in the South--establishing over 40 hospitals, employing over 120 physicians and treating well-over one million freedpeople.