Fifty percent of the population of Florence was wiped out by the Black Death in the 14th century — so what better time and place to teach a class about the science and medicine during the Renaissance?
Two Stanford Health Policy professors spent the Fall quarter teaching Stanford undergrads in the Bing Overseas Studies Program in Florence and Paris — just after the COVID-19 delta variant had washed over Europe and North America, and heightening awareness of how pandemics affect history.
“Living through the COVID pandemic definitely gave the students more insights in the horrific legacy of the Black Death and other plagues that affected Europe profoundly,” said Mark Hlatky, a professor of health policy. He taught the course, “Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Scientific Revolution in Italy,” designed to take advantage of the setting in Florence and dispel the notion that art was the only vital legacy of the Renaissance.
“The quarantine was actually invented in Italy because of the Black Death — Venice kept ships offshore for 40 days, or quaranta giorni in Italian," said Hlatky, who is also a professor of cardiovascular medicine. "In my class we definitely discussed how the plague affected Florence and the rest of Europe, and how doctors wore plague suits to ward off infections. We also discussed how to evaluate evidence about which treatments work, and tied that directly to current management of COVID with vaccinations and treatments such as steroids. It underscored how science worked, then and now, to identify effective management."
The Florence program was down to six students due to the pandemic. One tested positive on arrival, and four were quarantined as a result. But with weekly testing, masking in the teaching facilities, and precautions by students, faculty, and staff, the program went smoothly for the rest of autumn quarter.
“Even though COVID continued to circulate, there was a great esprit des corps in the small group, perhaps bonded by shared adversity,” Hlatky said. “On the plus side, there was a distinct lack of tourists, so Florence was remarkably quiet and uncrowded. It’s hard to imagine walking across the Ponte Vecchio without another soul around — but it happened. It was great for all of us to being living and working in the city, not just being tourists, and truly experience the fabric of that great city.”
The class visited such sites as the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, which opened in the 13th century, and cared for plague victims and was the site where Leonardo performed some human dissections. They saw some of Galileo’s original telescope and scientific instruments, as visited the villa where Galileo spent the last years of his life under house arrest after his trial for heresy by the Catholic Church and promoting his belief that the Earth revolves around the sun.
Heading Up to Paris
Loren Baker, a professor of health policy and the Bing Professor of Human Biology, spent the fall quarter in Paris teaching a course on health-care systems in the Europe and the United States. Baker’s course “Health Policy and Health Care System Design” took a particular look at the health-care system in France and the UK, reflecting two approaches to providing health care quite different from the U.S. system. The students looked at topics including health insurance, the roles of doctors and hospitals, and pharmaceutical products and prices.
“There are certainly things that the U.S. can learn from European systems,” said Baker, “and some things that the European systems can learn from us. It was fun to explore that with the students.”
“The pandemic certainly gave students a novel opportunity to see health-care systems and health policy in a new light,” Baker said. France had elaborate public health measures in place to encourage testing and vaccination, particularly in response to major stresses on their health-care system from high case levels early in the pandemic. “Seeing those measures around us on a day-to-day basis helped make the challenges of effectively running health-care systems easy to appreciate.”
Thirteen students attended the Paris program in the fall, down from the typically much higher numbers, but the program ran smoothly, with many health precautions, despite a surge in Covid cases in Paris toward the end of the quarter.
“Even with COVID, Paris offered a wealth of enriching opportunities for all of us to experience and appreciate a wonderful city in a deeper way,” Baker said.