In October 2021, the RIAS hosted a major online academic conference on public health and disease in the “American century,” which brought together a number of prominent historians of medicine, US politics, society, and foreign relations from major universities across the United States and Europe.

The common goal was to place the COVID-19 pandemic in its broader historical context and to assess how the United States – while evolving into a global power – has coped with disease and public health challenges from the early twentieth century onward. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been multifaceted and immense in its scale and ramifications. For the US, the experience was especially consequential. The virus (and the measures taken to contain it) disrupted almost every aspect of American life, revealed and exacerbated social, economic, racial and political fault lines, and raised major issues concerning the ability (and willingness) of federal and state authorities to maintain social well-being.

This public health emergency also set in motion a set of consequences for the US’s position in the world. President Trump’s decision to withdraw funding from the WHO, for instance, represented not only an act to push back against Beijing’s controlling influence in that organization, but also a nationalist shift, where the former role of the US in bolstering world order through multilateral institutions was replaced by a boisterous chauvinism.

The conference participants critically examined the provision of health as a public good in the context of the American Century – conceived as the application of American power to achieve a democratic, just, and profitable US-led world order. Through a series of case-studies, the presenters expounded on the ways in which race, gender, and class have shaped attitudes to public and global health. By reconsidering the American Century through the lens of the political and social struggles surrounding public health, the conference provided a unique analysis of US political and social history.

The conference program can be downloaded here.

The conference papers, having received detailed feedback from a team of expert commentators during the event itself, will be published as Gaetano di Tommaso, Dario Fazzi, and Giles Scott-Smith (eds.), Public Health, Politics and the American Century  (Edinburgh University Press, 2024).