For Dr. Madeleine Mant, an anthropology lecturer at UTM, “the world is a stage and everyday Halloween.” By lecturing in elaborate and educational costumes in her ANT341: Anthropology of Infectious Diseases class, Mant integrates her passions for health, anthropology, and theatre.
Over the last few weeks, Mant has dressed up as a seventeenth-century plague doctor, a 1918 influenza nurse, and a Pittsburgh mom who signed her child up for Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine trials in 1954. Her aim was to highlight “individuals that were involved or trying to make a difference in some way.”
Plague doctors—most of whom were not actually physicians—accepted serious risks to help the sick. Similarly, the Canadian nursing sisters during the influenza epidemic included “women who volunteered, many who went to the Western front, and some who actually died in service.” During polio outbreaks, parents helped fight the disease by signing their children up for clinical trials despite possible unknown dangers of the vaccine. Without their participation, we may not have had a successful polio vaccine today.
Beyond representing these impactful individuals, Mant believes costumes are an “effective way to bring people into the tangible nature” of history. Her class covers thousands of years of history, and by dressing up she “make[s history] seem immediate.” Mant’s costumes also push her students beyond the physiological and pathological aspects of disease to foster discussions of stigma, blame, risk, and the personal nature of illness.
Mant’s interest in dressing up began during her undergraduate degree when she worked as a costumed historical interpreter. “All my summers were spent dressing up, living like people lived in the past, and interpreting history,” she relates.
Even as a high school student, Mant was fascinated by history, museums, and skeletons which inspired her to pursue anthropology. She was motivated by “the idea that [she] could actually study something that allowed [her] to combine these different forms of evidences.” Moreover, she aimed to focus on “the voices that we haven’t heard—not because they haven’t said anything interesting, but just because we haven’t had the chance to amplify them in a long time.”
Through her ANT341 and ANT220: Anthropology of Health classes, Mant hopes to teach students to “place [themselves] reflexively in the shoes of people” from the past and to understand in depth how individuals in the past tackled disease. To the modern eye, some historical practices or approaches may seem bizarre and incomprehensible; however, Mant emphasizes that “people were doing the best they could with the knowledge and tools of the time.”
Mant’s research ranges from working with real skeletal remains to analyzing archival health records. She delves into the health histories and experiences of vulnerable people, especially within institutions such as hospitals or prisons. Mant recently wrapped up a project looking at seafarers and their interactions with port cities as they pertains to health.
During her Ph.D. at McMaster University, Mant compared skeletal remains and hospital admission records during the eighteenth century in London, UK. With this research, Mant realized that “the reasons for admissions to hospitals were not lining up clearly with skeletal results. People were injuring themselves in various different ways and they weren’t necessarily seeking hospital treatment for those reasons.” This finding raised more questions about who had access to healthcare in the past and whether we still see similar trends today.
Before returning to UTM this year, Mant completed her Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship at Memorial University to study the health experiences of inmates at a prison in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Currently, she is transcribing surgeons’ weekly journals from the nineteenth century. To date, these journals have revealed that people “suffer[ed] from various sicknesses almost every week, both infectious and chronic.” Mant is excited to continue with this project and learn about “the surgeon’s attitudes towards the patients.”
Mant hopes to “bring more and more knowledge forward of vulnerable people in the past” and discuss how we can use that information to influence health policy today. She plans to continue with similar research, balancing her time between hands-on work such as analyzing skeletons and looking at archives, while keeping her passion for theatre alive with her creative costumes and entertaining lectures.