Member of the Week: George Aumoithe

Aumoithe headshotGeorge Aumoithe

Princeton University

Department of History and Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

My current research delves into the post-1970s history of federal, state, and local efforts to cut general in-patient beds in the United States, particularly in public facilities commonly referred to as “safety-net” hospitals. My book project is a national story of hospitals told through the particular case of New York City’s Health and Hospitals Corporation, the nation’s largest municipal hospital system. In particular, I was curious as to how public health and social welfare policy and politics interacted and separated in the lead up to the dismal early response to the AIDS epidemic. I began to wonder about whether the structural issues of lack of access to health education, testing, palliative care, and long-term community-based care had deeper roots than the 1980s. I began to find my answers in the hospital cost containment drives that began in the Nixon administration and peaked with the Carter administration during the ever-present inflation crisis of the 1970s. At the same time, I was surprised just how robust localities like New York City were in pushing for hospital bed cuts, relocation, or outright closure in the early 1970s, before the federal government called for it.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I am currently developing a class entitled “Law, Social Difference, and the Sustenance of Health” that seeks to merge approaches from the history of medicine and legal history into thinking about the overall architecture of public health law in the United States as a series of overlapping states of exception. This class builds off a conference I organized: “Law, Difference, and Healthcare: Making Sense of Structural Racism in Medico-Legal History.” It’s no surprise that public health is intimately linked with state police power. Beyond this empirical point, there is also the methodological one, which is that there are curious parallels–and important differences–between legal cases and medical cases. Both rely on an earlier corpus of text to think about a fair remedy to present problems. One finds precedent sacrosanct whereas the other more regularly dispenses with it to solve the challenges of novel problems like an understudied infectious disease. I am interested in thinking about how inequality coexists with rule of law. What insidious dynamic has colorblind ideology created in the increasingly constrained–and dare I say ahistorical–civil rights jurisprudence that has developed since the 1980s into the present?

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I am really excited to be putting the finishing touches on an article presently in the review process with our home journal. I have another article on how colorblind ideology enabled by a shift from disparate adverse impact to discriminatory intent theory in district and appellate courts from the mid- to late-1970s enabled municipalities to sidestep claims of discrimination in the shift of specialty care and hospitals away from poor inner-cities and into commuter suburbs. This second article is also thinking about how socio-legal shifts also shaped the distribution of care within cities like New York, which could not avoid similar rationing and cost-cutting drives.

There is a lot of really exciting work bubbling in the new histories of AIDS. My colleagues Dan Royles and Emily K. Hobson are currently hard at work assembling a special issue collection on the topic for Radical History Review. Another group of colleagues at the German Historical Institute is currently working on a special issue related to histories of transatlantic biomedicine since the 1970s. This is a good time to be working in a global context, revisiting the assumptions of prior scholarship, and thinking big!

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

Read widely and, if possible, join multiple organizations and working groups. One incidental benefit of the current crisis is how many hard-to-access groups are opening their proceedings to the public or to virtual visitors online. Ask good friends to forward Zoom meeting links and get on listservs. The large H-Net groups are a great source of information (though toggle the digest feature on so you’re not inundated with e-mail!).

Urban studies is inherently reliant upon an interdisciplinary mix. The best work emerges out of praxis rather than disciplinary constriction or mere theorization. If you have the opportunity to teach a course, start to bring some of your manuscript questions into the classroom. Design assignments so that students are encouraged to map their local neighborhoods, conduct basic newspaper research on important local institutions, and perhaps share their findings with those institutions to build community ties to your college or university. You’d be surprised how much your students and your colleagues can help you generate novel connections or sharpen emergent research questions. You’d also more likely than not relish the chance to break down walls between the university and the community that surrounds and sustains it.

We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and you’re a historian of public health and health policy! Indubitably there have been some interesting intersections between your work and world events at this moment. Describe the emotions that have surfaced for you throughout this experience. Have you felt steady as a rock or wobbly as a see-saw in a hurricane? Inspired or paralyzed?  

I have felt the gamut. Sheer terror to excitement. Extreme agitation to complete calm. Engaging in frantic bouts of writing to mimic some false sense of control to allowing myself to accept reality and be. Spending so much time at home and being indoors really lends itself to introspection. I’ve accepted this time as a call to meditate and I love finding videos on YouTube. I make it a practice to turn inward before sleep and right upon waking up. As a historian of public health, I’ve found myself wishing my doctorate extended to the realm of medicine. While it decidedly does not, I have found peace in volunteering as part of the NYC COVID Worker Care Network, which provides mutual aid on-demand emotional support for our exhausted medical workers. Limiting news consumption is also super important. I tend to listen to Amy Goodman’s headlines on Democracy Now! as I get ready in the mornings and read news more in-depth after I’ve finished the day’s work. (I’ll admit that the days do tend towards the longer end. Self-isolation has paradoxically led to longer days!)

That all said, this is a perfectly acceptable time to stop the ceaseless stream of information or never-ending push for productivity. We all deserve as much time to rest, regroup, and gather ourselves as we deal with the enormity of the present moment. It is okay to pause and check in with the sum of yourself. Our work will always be there, but our priority has to be the taking care of our community, loved ones, and ourselves. Stay home!

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