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Research Spotlight: Julia Irwin

TAMPA, Fla. -- Julia Irwin knows what it’s like to face the dilemma of having to choose between two loves and came up with the perfect solution. Simply choose them both and see what happens. In her case the love of history and science led to an exciting blending of the two.

By doing what she loves, and doing it well, the University of South Florida assistant professor of history has been awarded the 2011 Betty M. Unterberger Prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.

The Unterberger Prize recognizes and encourages distinguished research and writing in the field of diplomatic history. How does a scholar get from medicine and history to diplomatic history without sacrificing science? She found a way and her path makes perfect sense, in retrospect.

Irwin’s interests in both medicine and history beckoned when she began attending Oberlin College, but becoming a physician was not the way to go, she decided. Still that didn’t mean giving up medicine. She kept taking courses in biology and neuroscience and began studying the history of medicine and science.

“I realized it was something that would allow me to explore all of my interests,” Irwin said.

By the time graduate school rolled around, her interests morphed once again without losing a beat.

“I intended to study American medicine and public health,” Irwin said. “However, I soon became captivated by the field of U.S. foreign relations.”

Her master’s and doctoral degrees from Yale University concentrated on the history of medicine and science but she found a way to weave this new strand into her emerging area of specialization. The subject became the focus of her dissertation -- "Humanitarian Occupations: Foreign Relief and Assistance in the Formation of American International Identities, 1898-1928." The Unterberger Prize-winning dissertation -- which also won the Edwin W. Small Prize for an outstanding dissertation in American history -- is being worked into a forthcoming book, “Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation’s Humanitarian Awakening”, to be published by Oxford University Press at the end of the year.

The book examines how and why both government officials and private citizens began to support foreign aid during the first World War era.

“The way the United States government came to realize the value of overseas aid as a tool of statecraft is truly fascinating,” she said. “At the same time, individual Americans used foreign aid to define their nation's new role and responsibilities in relation to the international community, also fascinating. These were novel forms of international participation for America; most novel of all was the development of the quasi-private, quasi-state organization that is the American Red Cross.”

What she’s learned and wants to impart to her readers and her students is that, “humanitarian aid and assistance is a form of politics, it is a form of diplomacy; we need to think about it as such,” Irwin said. “We also need to recognize that the people who are the agents of foreign policy can be everyday people like ourselves. Whenever we interact with the world outside our borders -- whether as humanitarians, as tourists, or even if we are just reading about it -- we are part of foreign relations.”

This conclusion became evident through research that has taken her all around the country. Most of her research was at the National Archives in College Park, Md., and at the Hoover Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., where she spent months. Irwin also pored over documents at Columbia University in New York, the American Red Cross archives in Lorton, Va., and this summer in West Branch, Iowa at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.

After visiting a dozen archives, Irwin’s excitement at what she found matches that of some of that history’s witnesses whose lives provided her with a wealth of material.

“I think perhaps the most exciting things I’ve found have been photo albums and diaries,” she said. “Many of the people I’m studying were volunteers abroad during World War I -- they were nurses, doctors, social workers and everyday folks. Many of them had never been abroad before they volunteered with the American Red Cross, so in addition to helping to ameliorate suffering, they were also seeing Europe for the first time. Many had never left their home state, let alone the country, before the war started. They were tourists, as much as volunteers.”

Irwin explained that in their downtime, many took pictures as souvenirs and for their families. Some of them made albums.

“Thumbing through these and thinking about what it must have been like to have been so far away from home, during a war, with no Internet or telephone… it’s pretty incredible,” Irwin said. “The pictures really help me to visualize what it must have been like to see a war zone, or to see the city of Paris for the first time, or to be in Siberia in the middle of winter.

“Some of the most amazing diaries were written by women who volunteered as nurses in Siberia during the middle of the Russian Civil War. They write about the weather being 40 below zero, about guns firing outside their windows -- it’s pretty surreal to imagine women younger than me experiencing all that. Getting to read their experiences firsthand is really remarkable.”

The period she chose to study for her dissertation and the subsequent book -- primarily World War I, from 1914 to 1918 -- has great significance.

“The early 20th Century was the period in which the United States first became a major player on the world stage,” she said. “It was a period of radical change for U.S. relations with the world. However, I was also interested in studying the lead-up to that war and its aftermath.

“I started in 1898 because that was the year the United States won the Spanish American War and took control of a number of territories throughout the world. I stopped my dissertation in 1928 because it was the eve of the Great Depression, a period when a lot began to change in U.S. history. In my book, however, I go through the end of World War II, in order to compare it to the First World War.”

The story of the early history of U.S. foreign assistance is made up of many points of view and comes to life through the way Irwin tells it. She said studying and recounting the lives and experiences of doctors, nurses, other volunteers and people in other walks of life has made her aware of their varied perspectives as well as people’s inherent similarities.

“Being a good historian requires looking at the same issue from the perspectives of many different people in the past” she said. “I read the words of everyone from U.S. presidents to everyday folk and the stories of people in the United States, in Italy, in France, and in Russia, all responding to the same events in very different ways.”

While her research has provided many answers for Irwin, she’s still diagnosing foreign aid.

“I suppose my research has made me think more critically about the politics and ethics of humanitarian aid and now I think I have even more questions,” she exclaimed. “What does it mean for the United States to give money to solve foreign problems -- or not to give? Is a military intervention based on humanitarian objectives ethical? Why or why not? What responsibility does the United States have to share material and intellectual resources with the world?

"Questions like these continuously come to my mind when I look at foreign relations and foreign assistance now -- not only in history, but in the present day. I am constantly reminded how incredibly complicated and complex our world is.”

By tracing the aid work of American Red Cross workers throughout Europe, Central America and Asia, Irwin is showing the important role doctors, nurses, and other volunteers have played in formal and informal diplomacy. But does that take care of her interest in science as she teaches courses on “the United States and the World,” “the United States and Latin America,” and “U.S. Empire and Internationalism,” -- seemingly very far away from the sciences?

She’s staying connected through her writing and upcoming plans. Her article “Nurses Without Borders: The History of Nursing as U.S. International History,” came out this year in the journal Nursing History Review. She also contributed an article, “Nation Building and Rebuilding: The American Red Cross In Italy During the Great War,” to The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in 2009.

"In my work, I call attention to the ways that physicians, nurses and everyday volunteers administered civilian assistance during war and periods of natural disaster. These Americans were interacting with the world, its people and its problems. In so doing, they were involving the United States with the world in very important ways,” Irwin said. “With my research I hope to challenge the idea that the world of foreign relations is simply the purview of the military and the State Department. I am also planning on teaching courses on the history of medicine, health and disease from a global perspective.”

She has another book project in mind, too. At this point it looks like it will be about the history of American responses to international natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes.

“Certainly, there is a lot of medical relief involved there as well,” Irwin said.


Filed under:Arts and Sciences School of Humanities History Research  
Author: Barbara Melendez