Amy DiPierro '15, an honors history major from Park Ridge, N.J., recently presented at a national multidisciplinary conference on issues related to health, disease, and society and culture. The fourth annual Undergraduate Research Conference on Health and Society, which took place at Providence College in Rhode Island, featured a series of three-student panels in which participants were grouped according to similar public health issues. Students shared their findings in 15-minute presentations and answered questions from an audience in an open forum. After a national search, DiPierro was selected to present on a "Health & War" panel.
A reporter at the War News Radio, DiPierro examined how understanding the risks of smoking leads to unpredictable shifts in attitudes to smoking and policies, which have implications for the depiction of soldiers in popular culture. Her working paper explored how a 1990 advertisement sponsored by tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris featuring the image of a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War could be understood in multiple historical contexts. The advertisement never mentions cigarettes and instead reads like a public service announcement promoting the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights. Moreover, the advertisement, which includes a quote from a soldier reflecting on what freedom means to him, is one of the few since World War II that features a soldier.
"I wanted to know why the ad excluded the product it apparently promoted," she says, "and where this image of the soldier as a patriotic, pro-smoking and pro-freedom voice came from," DiPierro says. "I talked about how the military has a long history of supplying cigarettes to soldiers in their rations, how the cigarette industry closely aligned itself with the image of the soldier during and following WWII, and how the testimonials of veterans about smoking and about this advertisement explain why Philip Morris appropriated this soldier's patriotism and moral high ground at this moment so many decades after the Vietnam war."
DiPierro participated in the conference after taking classes with Associate Professor of History Diego Armus, including Disease, Culture and Society in the Modern World: Comparative Perspectives last fall. The course explores the ways scholars discuss certain diseases in specific places and periods, with an emphasis on Latin America. After taking the class, DiPierro found the theme of diseases particularly interesting and conceptualizes the topic beyond being biological.
"People create disease when they name common ailments, when they decide which problems should have medical solutions, and when they distinguish between people who are sick and people who are healthy," she says. "These categories aren't natural. They're choices people make in the context of changing medical knowledge and social or political orders."
This past spring, DiPierro participated in another of Armus' classes, Modern Addiction: Cigarette Smoking in the 20th Century, a seminar with an emphasis on research projects that examines the worldwide transformation of smoking into a medicalized and regulated practice. DiPierro began early research for this class and submitted an abstract for a working paper she would present as part of the class, which was accepted by the conference.
"This accumulative work put Amy in a very competitive position in order to be selected as one of the few presenters in this nationwide conference," Armus says. "Amy's presentation was the first result of her research." That research ultimately informed her paper, "How Sweet Freedom Can Be: Philip Morris, The Bill of Rights, and the Vietnam War Hero."
In DiPierro's opinion, research seminars are opportunities for students to try their hand at original historical research for the first time with a guiding structure that independent study lacks. DiPierro's classes enabled her to feel more confident in her ability to collect, interpret, and contextualize primary sources into a coherent narrative - skills that will prepare DiPierro to write an Honors history thesis.