Penn Libraries acquires the personal papers of historian and activist Elizabeth Fee

According to David Barnes, associate professor of the history and sociology of science, one scholar stands above the rest for her commitment to the principles that guide his work today: pioneering historian and health activist Elizabeth Fee. Fee died in 2018, and her personal papers were donated to the Penn Libraries earlier this year. The donation was made by Mary Garofalo, Fee’s surviving spouse, who gave additional funds to the Penn Libraries to support the hiring of an archivist who will process the collection. It joins the Walter Lear papers, an extensive collection that includes records from the Maternity Care Coalition, the Medical Committee for Human Rights, and the Physicians Forum, as part of the Libraries’ growing collection of materials charting the history of public health activism.

Two of Elizabeth Fee’s most influential books: “AIDS: The Burden of History” and “AIDS: The Making of a Chronic Disease.” (Image: Penn Libraries News)
“I can’t think of any historian who [paired activism and scholarship] better than Liz Fee,” says Barnes. “It came from her decades of involvement with various movements. She didn’t come in from the outside and say ‘I have a Ph.D. Let me tell you the meaning of what you’re doing.’ It was organic for her.”

As a leading scholar of the history of public health, Elizabeth Fee spent 21 years as a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and then worked as a historian at the National Library of Medicine from 1995 to 2018. She served as an editor at the American Journal of Public Health, curated a number of celebrated exhibits, and wrote or co-wrote 30 scholarly books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from the history of fighting malaria in China to the impact of lead paint on communities in mid-20th century Baltimore. According to Mary Garofalo, Fee was particularly proud of her work on lead paint, which was subsequently used by legal professionals in a series of court cases that sought to hold paint and pigment manufacturers accountable for lead poisoning around the world.

Fee is probably most known for her work documenting and analyzing the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Out of her work came two co-edited volumes: “AIDS: The Burden of History,” and “AIDS: The Making of a Chronic Disease.” Published in 1988 and 1992, respectively, the books serve as important examples of documenting history that’s still in progress in ways that are thoughtful, comprehensive, and nonexploitative. “AIDS is a good example of how Liz was able to connect scholarship and engagement,” says Barnes. “At the time of the epidemic, a lot of academics were posturing as ‘activist scholars,’ and their historical scholarship was shallow and really hasn’t stood the test of time. But a few scholars really did stick with it over the years and were able to place AIDS in a larger historical context. And Liz was one of them.”

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