Bethany Johnson

Bethany Johnson

Department of History, University of South Carolina

Bethany Johnson’s dissertation, In the Aftermath of the ‘Lost’ Pandemic: Philadelphia, 1919-1923, reexamines the period following the catastrophic influenza wave in the fall of 1918.

Bethany’s focus on post-pandemic Philadelphia utilizes a range of historical subdisciplines (e.g., social, urban, environmental, and queer history) to reconstruct the experience of a diverse population. She employs overlooked or unexamined sources, such as city council records, post-pandemic surveys, records from children’s homes, and physician’s files describing post-pandemic health problems. This approach is central to understanding how pandemics end, how a community seizes opportunities for change after outbreaks and contextualizes responses to future pandemics and public health crises. One of her key findings is that influenza was not a great equalizer, as is so often claimed. Black and immigrant families and poor and working-class communities lost far more folks than white, middle-class, and upper-class families. Thousands of families institutionalized children or rehoused them in other family units; others left the city.

Bethany's dissertation project reflects her research focus, which is to examine how individuals and institutions have created, normalized, and reproduced science, medical technology, and public health discourses from the nineteenth century to the present.

In her public-facing work in media interviews and on podcasts, she uses historical events to ask difficult questions about the present. For example, in a society built on extractive labor, how will we include the millions of Americans now struggling with long-COVID in economic and social recovery? Her dissertation project offers critical complications for narratives questioning the effectiveness of masking, social distancing, layered testing, and other actions that protect the disabled and those who face a greater exposure risk through their work (e.g., bus and Lyft drivers).

Bethany received her B.A. in History from Nyack College, an MPhil in Development Studies from the Centre for Development Studies at the University of Glasgow, and an M.A. in Historical Studies from The New School for Social Research. She is the 2022-2023 Albert M. Greenfield Research Fellow for the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. Her 2019 book, co-authored with Dr. Margaret Quinlan, You’re Doing it Wrong! Mothering, Media and Medical Expertise is available through Rutgers University Press.

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