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Professor Dan Wilson’s students don’t just read about history; they learn from those who lived it.

Wilson, author of Living with Polio: The Epidemic and Its Survivors and Polio: Biography of a Disease, is considered a national expert on disability history, which focuses on disability as a category of analysis similar to race, ethnicity or gender.

He realizes that medicine, like history, is an evolving discipline. Evolving technology provides his students access to primary research, including personal letters, documents and articles from individuals in the midst of historic epidemics. Authors of the materials often present conflicting viewpoints of the outbreaks, such as letters from clergy and reports from medical doctors.

His students study outbreaks such as the 1721 smallpox epidemic in Boston. They’re invited to draw parallels between the events of the past and those of today, including inoculation controversies that ring familiar with those concerned with pandemic influenza today.

It’s not just history majors that enroll in the course. Pre-health and pre-medicine students are often working by their side; Wilson emphasizes the practicality of knowing the past of a chosen profession.

A few students enrolled in Epidemic America engaged in a short trip off-campus to the Allentown Fairgrounds, home of Camp Crane during World War I. The site functioned as an infirmary during the deadly 1918 influenza epidemic. Wilson encourages students to look at historic photos and stand in the same fields and grandstands where army cots once held those recovering from influenza.

“More and more primary records from the past are now accessible thanks to the wide scope of the Internet,” says Wilson. “It’s a great opportunity for our students to do more than just learn about history; they live it.”

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