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A white doctor injecting a black research subject at Tuskegee

Evelynn Hammonds, who chairs Harvard’s department of the history of science, has spent her career studying the intersection of race and disease. She wrote a history of New York City’s attempt, a century ago, to control diphtheria, and is currently at work on a book of essays on the history of race, from Jefferson to genomics. Hammonds’s area of expertise is especially relevant today: while the data is incomplete, at this point in time, African-Americans represent nearly a third of U.S. deaths from the coronavirus pandemic and thirty per cent of covid-19 cases, despite making up only about thirteen per cent of the population. Hammonds noted recently, “This new development of what has happened with the pandemic with respect to African-American communities” is “perhaps an old development.”

I spoke by phone with Hammonds, who is currently hosting a series of Webinars with academics and experts at Harvard on African-Americans and epidemics in American history, from the eighteenth century to the present day. As she stated in one of the sessions, “I can’t imagine saying that we have to... see more