‘Constructing the Outbreak’ author Katherine Foss

Early last year, as it was dawning on Americans that their lives were about to change in some drastic but unknowable way, MTSU’s Katherine Foss got a phone call from The New York Times.

Thus began the steady influx of requests from newspapers, magazines, broadcasters, and podcasters wanting to talk to the woman who wrote the book on epidemics in the United States.

Foss, a professor of Media Studies, couldn’t answer the nation’s pressing epidemiological questions, like how this mysterious new virus spread or who was most vulnerable to it. But she could offer perspective—from comforting to cautionary—on our past public health crises and the narratives that shaped our responses to them.

Her 2020 book, Constructing the Outbreak: Epidemics in Media and Collective Memory, revisits scenes from seven inflection points in our country’s public health history: from 1721 in smallpox-ravaged Boston, where authorities debated whether to try inoculation, suggested by an enslaved man who had been inoculated in his home country in Africa; to turn-of-the-century New York City, where Irish immigrant “Typhoid” Mary Mallon was the victim of forced isolation and collective demonization; to 1952 in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, where overflowing polio wards reflected a terrifying virus at its peak, even as Dr. Jonas Salk was on the verge of developing a vaccine.

Back in 2016, when Foss decided to write the book, she couldn’t have anticipated that its publication four years later would align with the deadliest epidemic America had seen in more than a century. She says her sudden popularity with the media last year was “a curiosity.”

So was living through the kind of event she’d just finished writing about.

To read more, click here.


Categories: Faculty, Research

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