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Higher Education

About the Module   |   Class 1 | Class 2 | Class 3 | Class 4 | Class 5 | Class 6   |   Projects & Bibliography

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About the Module


Margaret Humphreys received her Ph.D. in the History of Science (1983) and M.D. (1987) from Harvard University. She teaches the history of medicine, public health, and biology at Duke University, where she also edits the Journal of the History of Medicine. She is the author of Yellow Fever and the South (Rutgers University Press, 1992) and Malaria: Poverty, Race and Public Health in the United States (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), books that explore the tropical disease environment of the American South, and its role in the national public health effort. Her current research concerns the impact of the Civil War on American medicine. The first book to emerge from that project, Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War (The Johns Hopkins University Press), appeared in 2008. Her next book, working title The Civil War and American Medicine, will be published by 2012.

Suggested Use:

The Obstacles and Opportunities module can be used in support of classes that approach American history from a variety of angles. Courses on the history of African Americans in the nineteenth-century United States can use this module as one example of how the war opened opportunities for black people beyond the immediate effect of ending slavery. Teachers focusing on the American Civil War will learn about the importance of medicine to the conflict, and the role of caregivers, including African Americans, to the effectiveness of the fighting force. History of medicine classes (both for undergraduates and medical students) can use these class materials to explore the ways in which war changes medical practice and recruits new caregivers into medicine at a time of emergency. The bibliography offers further readings on a variety of topics for the interested student or teacher, as well as background sources for the suggested projects and paper topics.


At the conclusion of a unit or an entire module, students are expected to

  • understand how healers in mid-nineteenth century America understood the cause and treatment of diseases and the management of trauma.

  • learn about the professionalization of physicians and nurses in this era, including the role of education, licensing, and public recognition in determining who had the right and opportunity to claim expertise in these fields.

  • appreciate that that nineteenth-century medical care had many facets beyond the top layer of physicians treating patients, just as it does today.

  • recognize the American Civil War as a medical emergency, requiring the organization of resources and people to meet unprecedented medical needs.

  • discover that one aspect of the American Civil War was an acute labor shortage, as so many men were pulled from their usual occupations; this led to the recruitment of women and blacks to perform work in hospitals to a degree novel in American history.

  • become aware of how African Americans "leveraged" their medical roles in order to gain greater respect and civil rights in the maelstrom of the Civil War, abolitionism, and reconstruction (and the limitations of their success in this endeavor).

  • identify the ways in which historical stories can buttress group identity and pride, and explore the challenges to objectivity that such usage can create.