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VGCC Seminar focuses on history of epidemic disease in South

With the nation battling influenza this fall, Vance-Granville Community College history instructor Joshua McKaughan presented a seminar to provide a historical perspective on how epidemic diseases have affected the South in the past. McKaughan’s presentation, held in the VGCC Civic Center on Oct. 21, was the second part of a three-part series of seminars on epidemics organized by the college’s Arts and Sciences instructors.

McKaughan explained that from the earliest English settlement in the South — around Chesapeake Bay — disease shaped the region’s history. Lacking natural immunity to the local illnesses, adult migrants to the Chesapeake lost about ten years from their English life expectancy. Up to 40 percent of new arrivals may have died in their first couple of years, commonly of a variety of ailments associated with malaria and intestinal disorders. “The South’s unique health history undoubtedly contributed to making the region a distinctive national subculture,” McKaughan said. “A reputation for poor health helped perpetuate a negative image of the South that retarded regional development by discouraging immigration and investment.” The region’s heat and high humidity promoted the development of the microbes and insects that spread yellow fever, malaria, and hookworm. “As a result, the ‘sickly’ South of the 19th century found itself drained by the diseases that carried away the region’s human resources, deterred capital investment and urbanization, and disrupted commerce and transportation during epidemics,” McKaughan said.

McKaughan went into detail regarding two diseases which were once widespread in the South: malaria and hookworm. The devastating effects of malaria epidemics in the early South led Englishmen to say, “They who want to die quickly, go to Carolina.” Hookworm disease often leads to anemia, slowed mental development and lack of energy. In the 20th century, it was discovered that this debilitating parasite was to blame for the unfair characterization of Southerners as “lazy” and for learning disabilities in many children.

VGCC’s series on epidemics began with a seminar in September on how environmental factors shape the spread of disease. The series concludes when English instructor James Powell conducts a seminar on the prevalence of epidemics in literature on Wednesday, Nov. 18 from 1 until 3 p.m. in the VGCC Civic Center on Main Campus. The seminar is open to the public, in addition to college students, faculty and staff. For more information, call Button Brady at (252) 738-3277.

Above: VGCC instructor Josh McKaughan speaks in the Civic Center during his Oct. 21 presentation on the history of how epidemic disease affected the South. (VGCC photo)