Elizabeth Fee was a professor, historian, and major figure in the history of science, medicine, and public health in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Over the last six months, while delving into the tangible remnants of her life and work, I have also learned that she was an attentive mentor, an uplifter, a self-advocate, and a deep thinker. She had a dynamic life, travelling widely, and she balanced a truly baffling workload with an ardent commitment to her personal and professional relationships. I have come to find her to be an incredible woman who did incredible work and, now, I would like to share her story as I’ve learned it through the Elizabeth Fee papers.
Elizabeth Fee was born on December 11, 1946 in Northern Ireland. At just five weeks old, her family relocated to Civil War-era China. At this time, Fee lost hearing in one ear due to an untreated bout of scarlet fever.
Thanks to her father, John Fee’s career as a Methodist missionary, Elizabeth moved frequently as a child, mostly bouncing around countries in Asia until John’s work overseas ended in 1957. The Fee family lived in China, Malaya, India, Egypt, and throughout Europe and Great Britain before making their way back to Northern Ireland.
In these early years, Elizabeth was exposed to a variety of people and ways of life. Her extensive travel was carefully documented in her mother Deirdre Fee’s art. Deirdre wrote and illustrated books and journals detailing the Fee family travels through Elizabeth’s experiences. The travel journals in the Elizabeth Fee papers recount the family’s life in China and Malaya as well as their travels in Ireland and Scotland.
As she grew out of her international childhood and into adolescence, Elizabeth bounced around counties and schools in Northern Ireland as the family continued to follow John’s work. Her teenage years were filled with academic excellence and a robust social life. From 1963 to 1965 she was pursued by a gaggle of adoring young men – Charles, Chris, Chuck, Donald – the list goes on. These pining young men sent many a letter to Elizabeth, including one of the most amusing letters I have ever encountered in which Donald goes above and beyond sharing his new haircut, supplying “before” and “after” …locks of hair?
While I was delighted by the cache of letters from the lovelorn young suitors, the academic excellence during this period of her life is more representative of who Elizabeth was as a person. At age 11, Dr. Woodman, the headmaster of Portadown College, called Fee into his office to tell her that she should consider being a doctor or a university professor. Inspired by the encouragement, and fueled by academic ambition, she became fixated on becoming a professor.
Following this ambition, Elizabeth went on to attend the University of Cambridge where she earned First Class Honors in Biochemistry and in History and Philosophy of Science in 1968. She additionally earned an MA in History and Philosophy of Science from Cambridge University in 1975.
In 1968, Fee went to Princeton University on a Fulbright Scholarship to study with Thomas Kuhn, who she described as being “very uncomfortable with women.” (Benchimol, 2006) In fact, she joined Princeton University before it had even become coeducational in 1969. She was only able to study there with special permission in 1968 because there was no other university in the country where she could study the history and philosophy of science. While Elizabeth enjoyed her time at Princeton, she said, “the undergraduate men were very opposed to women. I had to walk past a dormitory on the way to the library every morning, and they would come with a bucket of water and pour it out the window.” (Benchimol, 2006)
During her post-graduate education, Fee wrote extensively. One colleague, in response to one of her papers on craniology and the study of the female brain, wrote, “I liked it; I really liked it. The material is fascinating, funny, absorbing. And your style is at worst highly readable and at best truly superb. If you’re not careful, you’ll have a best-seller on your hands and that is, as you know, definitely not the way to get a PhD.” This lighthearted praise is typical of people’s responses to Fee’s writings and scholarship. Throughout her career, her writing and approach to history is described as being both highly developed and widely approachable. She maintains an absence of pretension without sacrificing her integrity as a serious academic.
During this time, Elizabeth also met and married her first spouse, Michael Wallace in 1973. They were divorced in 1985.
Fee ultimately earned a master’s in History and Philosophy of Science (1971) and a PhD in the History of Philosophy and Science (1978) from Princeton. She also taught classes at Princeton during her studies, before moving on to the State University of New York at Binghamton (SUNY Binghamton).
At SUNY Binghamton, Elizabeth began her teaching career in earnest, leading classes in science, medical history, and human sexuality. She quickly moved on to a professorship at Johns Hopkins University, where she worked from 1974 to 1995 and first met her future wife, Mary Garofalo. Over the years, she taught health humanities, international health, and health policy. During her tenure at Hopkins, Fee researched and wrote Disease and Discovery: A History of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, 1916-1939 in 1987. She continued at Hopkins as a part-time professor of History of Medicine and Adjunct Professor of History and Health Policy following her 1995 move to the National Library of Medicine.
In addition to her busy teaching schedule, Elizabeth found time to publish extensively, including her foundational works on AIDS. One of the professors, Bert Hansen, seen in the above sketches of Elizabeth and her colleagues made by Deirdre Fee during a visit to Princeton in the early 1970s, was the catalyst for Fee’s notable book on AIDS, AIDS: The Burden of History (1988), co-edited with Daniel Fox. Hansen organized a panel on AIDS at the American Historical Association conference in 1986, papers from which were compiled and ultimately became this paramount work. Fee and Fox went on to edit an additional volume, AIDS: The Making of a Chronic Disease, in 1992.
From 1984 to 1987, Fee travelled to Peru, India, Nepal, China, Cuba, and Haiti under the auspices of the Kellogg Fellowship with the goal of examining the social determinants of health. She additionally travelled to the USSR in 1987 as a part of the US Delegate to the World Congress of Women in Moscow.
As I noted above, throughout all her various roles and obligations, many of which took her to the far corners of the world, Elizabeth managed to find time to write. In 1991, she published A History of Education in Public Health: Health that Mocks the Doctor’s Rules, which she co-authored with Roy Acheson. I will preface what I am about to share by saying that Fee maintained long-standing, warm, and loyal relationships with many of her colleagues and collaborators. However, she was not a pushover and was willing to stand up for herself, as is abundantly clear in a 1990 letter to her co-author. In it she writes,
“you have now exhausted my considerable supplies of patience. In the course of working on this book, you have insulted and offended my friends and colleagues; you have insulted and offended me. You have caused endless hours of general turmoil and forced upon me completely unnecessary hours of undoing damage created by you. You have changed authors’ papers without consulting them and without either consulting or informing me; I have had to spend my time cleaning up behind you – both emotionally and intellectually. I have managed, for the most part, to retain my good humor in the belief that the ultimate goal of finishing the book required me to be steadfast and loyal no matter what the aggravations. You have worn me out. / I look forward to the day when we have finished our book and we need have no further dealings with each other. In the meantime, I hope you can behave like a responsible adult for long enough to cope with a few remaining details.”
A professor, world-traveling academic, and frequently-published author by no means covers the full range of Fee’s concurrent professional activities. In 1990, she became the editor for the American Journal of Public Health’s historical section and helped found the Sigerist Circle and the Spirit of 1848 Caucus of the American Public Health Association. During her later years at Hopkins, Elizabeth also worked as a guest curator and consultant on numerous projects, including the New York Public Library’s 1994-1995 exhibition, Garbage! The History and Politics of Trash in New York City and the Brooklyn Historical Society’s 1993-1994 exhibition, AIDS/Brooklyn.
In 1995, Elizabeth began working for the National Library of Medicine (NLM), as Senior Historian and Chief of the History of Medicine Division, a position she held for 22 years, until her retirement in 2018. During this time, Fee is credited with restructuring and reinvigorating the department, in addition to managing the day-to-day operations and curating numerous exhibitions, including Against the Odds, An Iconography of Contagion, Dream Anatomy, Emotions and Disease, and Frankenstein. She also wrote for the NLM blog, Circulating Now, led many collaborative projects, and organized and attended numerous conferences.
Elizabeth’s tendency to take on an enormous workload continued during her time at the NLM. In the early 2000s, she was invited by the Rockefeller Foundation and the World Health Organization (WHO) to co-chair the history working group of the Joint Learning Initiative, which endeavored to analyze the successes and failures of 20th century international public health initiatives. In a similar vein, she was a founding member of the Global Health Histories initiative of WHO’s Department of Knowledge Management & Sharing. Fee’s work with WHO informed her work with Marcos Cueto and Ted Brown on a series of articles and a monograph, The World Health Organization: A History, examining global health and WHO’s historic role in it. Fee worked on the book until the end of her life, and it was published posthumously in 2019.
In 2005, Elizabeth married Mary Garofalo in a ceremony in Vancouver.
Elizabeth Fee died from complications of ALS on October 17, 2018.
In memorial tributes and sympathy letters from after her death, Fee was repeatedly credited with saving people and their careers. She took young professionals under her wing and paid attention to their work, found them professional opportunities, mentored and encouraged them, and gave them a foot in the door and a lifeline within the profession. This woman was unbelievably busy – she had a full-time leadership role at NLM, a part-time professorship at Hopkins, editorial duties at AJPH, leadership and heavy involvement in numerous professional organizations, an active publishing schedule, and a constant flow of review articles to write – yet she still found the time to attentively encourage and uplift the next generations of public health historians. One letter in the papers, written by a colleague after her passing, sums her impact up perfectly:
“Dr. Fee was indeed a wonderful mentor to junior historians of medicine and public health. She encouraged people to turn raw conference talks into papers and always had constructive things to say in informal exchanges. I remember meeting her…and feeling intimidated initially when I saw her in the audience for the first academic conference paper I ever gave. But the fear went away immediately once she came up to me afterwards and offered her thoughts on the presentation. She was really a generous, funny, politically engaged, and brilliant person – and also always wore cool hats.
This is not a unique story. Many junior people coming up the ranks [sic] had similar experiences.”
Elizabeth Fee papers, circa 1920-2018, Ms. Coll. 1471, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania. https://findingaids.library.upenn.edu/records/UPENN_RBML_PUSP.MS.COLL.1471
Benchimol, J., Wegner, L., Azevedo, N., Sá, M. R., & Martins, R. B. (2006, September). Elizabeth Fee: uma historiadora em busca de audiências mais amplas. História, Ciências, Saúde-Manguinhos, 13(3), 759–776. https://doi.org/10.1590/s0104-59702006000300011
Hansen, B. (2019b). Long Version of Memorial Note about Elizabeth Fee (1946-2018). Bert Hansen: Historian of Science and Medicine. Retrieved October 12, 2022, from https://www.berthansen.com/_files/ugd/3216f1_3092582375af4abcbb13ca36f7ee0e5c.pdf
Birn, A. E., & Brown, T. M. (2019, June). Elizabeth Fee (1946–2018). American Journal of Public Health, 109(6), 867–869. https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.2019.305065