As a first-generation college student from northeast Missouri, I completed a BA in Philosophy and Religion from Truman State University in Kirksville, MO. My initial plan had been to major in English (I was and still am infatuated with Walt Whitman’s poetry) and pursue a career as a high school teacher but a study abroad trip to the Middle East (Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank) vividly impressed upon me the complexity and importance of religion.
After completing a master’s degree at the University of Chicago Divinity School, I transitioned into the doctoral program, specifically in the Theology area. From the beginning, my research has been oriented around the study of leprosy, or Hansen’s disease. I’m fascinated by the veritable obsession with this disease displayed by Christianity over the centuries: from contradictory Biblical passages (Miriam, Leviticus, Naaman, Lazarus, etc.) to leprosy’s prevalence in the Lives of the Saints. Our own country has a little-known, tragic history with leprosy in that thousands of sufferers of the disease were the victims of legalized, mandatory quarantine. Owing more to fear and misunderstanding (not to mention xenophobia) than medical knowledge, leprosy sufferers were expelled to Molokai, Hawaii or Carville, Louisiana until the late 1960’s. Although they were also similar settlements at Culion in the Philippines, as well as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. I believe that the historical theologizing around leprosy, especially in the Middle Ages, can afford fresh insights into how stigmatic illness, such as HIV/AIDS, mental illness, or neglected tropical diseases is understood in our present context.
Understandably, my interests cross the traditional disciplinary boundaries of historical theology, medical history, and medical ethics. But historically, especially where leprosy was concerned, there was little separation between theological assumptions, religious practice, and public health paradigms. In my assessment, this perplexing imbrication has not been as widely recognized as it should be. My work proposes a methodological marriage between the fields of historical theology and medical history as a corrective in an effort to present a more nuanced scholarly and theological profile of leprosy throughout history. This is ultimately in an effort to better inform how medical ethics responds to and addresses contemporary stigmatic illness.
I have been grateful to have more practical outlets for some of my academic interests. In recent years, this included being the inaugural “wellness chair” for the Divinity School Student Association where I worked to raise awareness around and promote mental health and wellness at the Divinity School. I was also the Divinity School Representative to the University of Chicago Student Health Advisory Board for five years. But when I’m not occupying a disproportionate amount of my time thinking and talking about leprosy, I’m busy spending time with my family or my trusty Miniature Schnauzer, Finnegan. Plus, Chicago is an incredible city with great parks, fantastic concert venues, and even better museums (the International Museum of Surgical Science is a personal favorite).
Featured image: Swift Hall, University of Chicago Divinity School (taken by author)
Home page image: Portico altar from Church of Saint Philomena in Kalawao, made by Father Damien, along with Damien’s ciborium, paten, ampullas, ampulla dish, and prayer boards for the Mass (taken by author)