WVU history faculty earn prestigious NEH fellowships

An unprecedented two scholars from West Virginia University have received the top fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Katherine Aaslestad and Tamba M’bayo, both professors in the Department of History, will each receive $60,000 for the 2019-2020 academic year to conduct research for their respective book projects.

“This research has the potential to reshape our understanding of the challenges faced by post-war societies and communities wracked by epidemics,” said Kate Staples, acting chair of the Department of History. “These are highly competitive fellowships, and the recognition of Aaslestad and M’bayo’s scholarship emphasizes the important humanities research undertaken at WVU.”

The costs of war

Aaslestad is studying the period of time after the Napoleonic wars in Germany and how society recovered.

“My work is about how wars end,” Aaslestad said. “How do societies transition from war to peace? How do they account for the costs of war, rebuild and commemorate the conflict and its victims?”

The first military veteran organizations formed after the wars in 1814 and 1815. As soldiers returned home, they met to support debilitated comrades and war widows and to bury and remember the dead. However, there was no state support to help veterans integrate into society.

Aaslestad is exploring these civic organizations and resources that emerged from the war to support war-distressed populations, including refugees, war invalids and orphans.

“My research and teaching unite in the message to tell the truth about war and its costs. In the past, as in our own time, states and societies tend to glorify and sanitize war,” Aaslestad said. “My comparative research on German states after 1814 explores how wars influence society long after combat ceases and critiques war’s romanticized legacy. Even the 200-year-old Napoleonic Wars provide us with lessons today, but to understand those lessons we must be honest about war experiences and their consequences.”

Overcoming an epidemic

M’bayo is examining the history of epidemics in his native Sierra Leone, which has been affected by outbreaks of diseases like malaria and yellow fever since the 18th century and, 2013, Ebola.

“My idea is to flesh out some of the distortions, contradictions and misconceptions about diseases in Sierra Leone’s colonial and post-colonial periods,” M’bayo said. “By looking at both periods, we can detect some continuities and changes.”

M’bayo will trace Sierra Leone’s epidemiological complexities through interviews and archival work to determine how various episodes of disease eruptions were addressed in society.

“Not much has been done in the way of medical humanities or medical history in west Africa. No historian studying Sierra Leone has attempted a book-length study on the history of diseases, and I’m fascinated that this is something that is going to be new and will contribute to understanding the diseases’ landscape in Sierra Leone,” M’bayo said. “You have to be able to look at the political, social, economic, cultural and environmental factors that contribute to disease outbreaks in places like Sierra Leone to address these issues of poverty and social injustice.”

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