Jim Clifford: Dr. Georgina Feldberg, 1956-2010





[Jim Clifford is a fifth-year PhD student in history at York University. He is interested in the social and environmental consequences of rapid urbanisation in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain. Jim’s dissertation is entitled “Suburban and Industrial Growth in the Lower Lea River Valley: An Environmental History of West Ham from 1855 to 1935.”]

The history community lost a great teacher, scholar and active historian this week. I had the pleasure of knowing Dr. Feldberg during my first year at York. She was one of the professors in a graduate course on the history of science, health and the environment. I learned a lot from her as a teacher and from her book, Disease and Class: Tuberculosis and the Shaping of Modern North American Society. A few weeks after I last met with her, I heard she had been diagnosed with cancer. This came as a big shock to all of us in the history of medicine field and particularly to a number of my friends who Feldberg supervised. Sadly, she finally lost her four year long battle with this disease, leaving behind her husband and daughter.

In reading about her death and listening to the kind words said about her at the funeral, it occurred to me that Dr. Feldberg’s work provides a model for active history. She wrote an award winning monograph about the social history of tuberculosis and a number of important articles on gender and health, but she also argued for the importance of engagement with current health policy development. A York article published after Feldberg, Kathryn McPherson, Molly Ladd-Taylor and Alison Li completed a major Wellcome Institute Grant, included her thoughts on the value of history in shaping current policy:

‘Medical history is a really important contributor to current health policy,’ says Feldberg. ‘If we want policy to be effective we need to know why it looks the way that it looks and how we can change it.’

For instance, if the federal government had looked to the past before it drafted its new reproductive legislation, it might not be proposing to make it a crime to pay egg donors and surrogate child bearers. ‘We know from the history of abortion that the Criminal Code has never served women well,’ says Feldberg. ‘It doesn’t stop practices, it only drives them underground and makes them unsafe.’

A few years earlier Feldberg wrote an op-ed for the York Gazette on the reemergence of infectious disease in the late twentieth century and the used her knowledge of the history of TB to contextualize the social response to AIDS and the return of TB. Here is the concluding paragraph:

The history of efforts to control TB and of attitudes toward the disease help to explain its resurgence and that of other infections. The historical parallels between TB and AIDS also challenge us to recognize the consequences of the interplay between disease, class, social policy and health policy. In the cases of both AIDS and TB, responses to patterns of infection must be examined from both scientific and social perspectives, and the socio-political determinants and consequences of health policies should be considered.

Feldberg also weighed into the Canadian health care debate in the 1990s and wrote an article in the Canadian Journal of Women and the Law on the use of medical evidence in rape trials. Together these few examples demonstrate Feldberg’s work to link historical research with current issues during her tragically short academic career. I hope her efforts to understand the past and contribute to the present will live on as people continue to read her book and articles.

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