When seeking to compile a history of the first 100 years of Mount Saint Mary’s University, who better to call on than the Mount’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, who is also a historian? Robert Perrins, PhD, or Bob as everyone on campus calls him, is an expert in the histories of modern East Asia, as well as the history of medicine and disease. In April of this year, he kept an audience of more than 300 people captivated during his hour-long virtual illustrated presentation for the University’s Lifelong Virtual Events Series, titled, “Reflecting on a Past Pandemic: The Bubonic Plague in California, 1900-1904.” (Note: View Perrins' presentation on the bubonic plague, as well as many of our other virtual events, online.)
One of the audience members at Perrins’ talk was James Chan, a San Francisco-based filmmaker who is currently producing a two-hour documentary on the history of bubonic plague outbreaks in California for the American Experience series on PBS television. Chan contacted Perrins immediately following the presentation and the two compared research notes. With archives and libraries nationwide closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chan’s documentary team had been unable to access many of the materials that Perrins had used in his talk — materials that he had digitized more than a decade ago during a research trip to the National Archives in Washington, DC.
Perrins has frequently used these materials in his classes on the history of medicine, both those he had previously taught at Acadia University in Canada and, since 2016, here at the Mount. In fact, for the past two years, Bob had assigned these digitized documents and a related book on the topic as the basis for the major course research project in his medical history classes. Perrins happily sent a USB drive to Chan with copies of more than 3,000 digitized telegrams, photographs, maps, handwritten notes, U.S. public health reports and assorted correspondence. Many of these images will now be appearing in the upcoming documentary that will be broadcast on PBS in May 2022.
Since giving his Lifelong Learning series talk on the San Francisco plague, Perrins was notified that his article, “Giving Clio a Helping Hand: Researching the Bubonic Plague Outbreak in San Francisco During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” had been accepted by the peer-reviewed Journal for the Social History of Medicine and Health (Chinese Social Sciences Press). He has also been awarded a visiting research professorship for the 2021-2022 academic year at Shanghai University. Perrins will present a series of virtual workshops for Shanghai University this fall on the history of plague and other pandemics, historical epidemiology and the global impacts of modern disease outbreaks.
This past May, Perrins wove a historical narrative into his Commencement address. While drafting his speech for this year’s ceremonies, Perrins wondered what had been said to assemblies of graduating students and their families in the spring of 1919 during the last great global pandemic — the misnamed “Spanish flu” that killed approximately 675,000 people in this country and between 50 and 100 million people worldwide. In the course of his research, Perrins read more than 20 graduation addresses that had been delivered at U.S. colleges and universities in May 1919 and was amazed to find that none of them even mentioned the pandemic. Not one, despite the tremendous social, economic and psychological impacts that the influenza pandemic had had on communities and individuals around the world.
“We have a rich history at the Mount that needs to be documented and celebrated.”
– Robert Perrins, PhD, provost and vice president for academic affairs
Given his penchant for searching for elusive information and tying it together into a story, it makes perfect sense that Perrins is helping to put together a book to chronicle the first 100 years of Mount Saint Mary’s as part of the University’s upcoming Centennial celebration. In 1975, Sister Germaine, who taught Latin for 30 years and was the first dean of the graduate program, had undertaken a similar project for the school’s first 50 years, and a decade later produced a tome that would rival the New York City phone book. Vicky McCargar, the Mount’s archivist, who will be collaborating with Perrins, says that the published 50-year history of the Mount is an excellent reference for everything that happened at the Mount, down to minutes from board meetings, but isn’t presented as a story, which is more of what this version will be looking to do.
“We have a rich history at the Mount that needs to be documented and celebrated,” says Perrins. “While there are many common threads linking the generations of students who have come to our campuses, we are evolving with the times and should record the forces and events that spur change and how we’ve reacted as an institution and community.”