Historian Bridges Gap in Understanding Neglected Tropical Diseases

woman in a dark blazer in an office with a bright yellow and red decoration behind her

A historian of eastern Africa, Mari Webel teaches popular courses at Pitt such as Disease and Health in Modern Africa and History of Global Health.

And last month, she convened a workshop on Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) that drew the attendance of researchers from around the world, which was the culmination of her Global Studies Faculty Fellowship through the University Center for International Studies.

Her next endeavor: extensive training in infectious disease epidemiology, medical parasitology and disease control as Pitt’s first-ever Andrew W. Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellow — one of just 12 in the country. 

By acquiring a new toolkit of knowledge, she’s aiming to help change the perceptions of NTDs by engaging directly with researchers in public health and medicine.

NTDs, such as Dengue fever, leprosy and yaws, are often under-studied and mainly afflict the poorest people in the world. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they cause illness in more than 1 billion people globally.

“This experience will allow me to think about the history of NTDs better, differently, with greater sophistication,” said Webel. Ideally, she said the knowledge she gains will allow her to write a new history of the NTDs in global health and, later, to conduct ethnographic work on NTD elimination programs in eastern Africa.

A career of collaboration

Though she’s an assistant professor in the Department of History, rather than the health sciences, Webel is no stranger to the world of medicine.

She remembers childhood years in southern Illinois making rounds with her father, a nephrologist. Her mother is a nurse.

About the New Directions Fellowship

The Andrew W. Mellon New Directions Fellowship is intended to “assist faculty members in the humanities and humanistic social sciences who seek to acquire systematic training outside their own areas of special interest.”

Under the fellowship, over the next three years, Webel will enroll in courses and practicums at Pitt and another neighboring institution, in addition to completing two capstone intensive programs. Some of her courses include epidemiology of infectious diseases, biostatistics and medical parasitology.

“This experience will allow me to think about the history of NTDs better, differently, with greater sophistication,” said Webel. Ideally, she said the knowledge she gains will allow her to write a new history of the NTDs in global health and, later, to conduct ethnographic work on NTD elimination programs in eastern Africa.

The fellowship will also allow Webel to attend annual meetings of the American Society of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the WHO NTD Strategic and Technical Advisory Group to gain a sense of research priorities and how practitioners understand the NTDs as a global health problem.

“Coming from a medical family background, thinking about how people experience health and illness was always an intuitive way for me to think about wider problems in society. I understand doctors’ expertise, and I don’t think they’re wrong headed,” said Webel. “But, I do know there’s real room for collaboration.”

In the early 2000s, Webel was working at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., after obtaining a master’s degree concentrating on cultural history. 

Then, the mosquito-borne West Nile Virus hit Washington, putting the nation’s capital into somewhat of a panic mode, she said. Webel made a connection to her research.

“I remember thinking, this is not the first time D.C. had to deal with something like this; parts of D.C. were a malarial swamp in the 19th century. Our amnesia was so stark,” she said.

“I wanted to find a way to bring the history that I knew to be relevant into modern conversations about West Nile and other vector-borne diseases, so I decided to pursue a PhD focused on the history of tropical medicine.”  

Webel, who has been at Pitt since 2014, researched historical campaigns against new epidemics of sleeping sickness, a disease also known as human African trypanosomiasis, in eastern Africa — particularly from the 1890s through World War I. Her forthcoming book, “The Politics of Disease Control: Sleeping Sickness in Eastern Africa, 1890-1920,” is the result of that work. It explores how African populations shaped disease control interventions. 

In 2018, Webel applied her interest in multidisciplinary work on a project with colleagues Michael Dietrich, professor of Pitt’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science, and Matiangai Sirleaf, assistant professor at Pitt Law, to develop a database on NTD research and publication trends.

The goal of their Social Science Research Initiative-funded project is to better understand the rise of global health risks and answer big questions such as where did the idea of a “neglected tropical disease” come from, and what purpose has it served? What do the NTDs really mean in terms of research impact and political implications — and how are big decisions made?

“The questions she is asking are extraordinarily important for understanding contemporary developments and controversies in a field characterized by an ethos of ‘every disease for itself,’” said Peter Brown, professor in the Department of Anthropology at Emory University in Atlanta, where Webel completed postdoctoral research.

And in order for Webel to understand the crossover from lab research to policy implementation, to then contribute to global health practice, she had to continue to step outside her field.

“If I am going to engage with scientists and policymakers about the NTDs, particularly if I am going to have some impact on how they understand diverse problems affecting people in eastern Africa and help integrate historical understandings into current interventions … it can’t be ‘black-boxed’ for me anymore,” Webel said.

So, Webel decided to apply for the prestigious New Directions Fellowship, which will allow her to train outside her field of expertise — and make new collaborations. Webel is the first faculty member at Pitt to receive this honor.

“Mari’s recruitment to our department was so exciting precisely because she brings such a depth of expertise both in African history and in the history of medicine and science,” said Lara Putnam, chair of Pitt’s Department of History. “Those are two areas where we had seen lots of unmet student demand.”

“My favorite thing about the teaching I do is that I draw students from all across the majors,” Webel said. “Our conversations in class are really fascinating explorations of different knowledge bases.”