James Downs is an associate professor of history at Connecticut College. 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 interests include Civil War and Reconstruction; slavery and emancipation; medicine and public health; and gender and sexuality. He is 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. 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 blogs for the Huffington Post and his articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Lancet, among other publications. He is currently working on a history of epidemiology with a focus on the nineteenth-century international cholera epidemics.
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.