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Kathryn Olivarius

Kathryn Olivarius

Assistant Professor of History
Field: 
United States
DPhil., University of Oxford, 2017
M.St., University of Oxford, 2013
B.A., Yale University, 2011

I am an historian of nineteenth-century America, interested primarily in the antebellum South, Greater Caribbean, slavery, and disease. My research seeks to understand how epidemic yellow fever disrupted Deep Southern society. Nearly every summer, this mosquito-borne virus killed up to ten percent of the urban population. But it also generated culture and social norms in its fatal wake. Beyond the rigid structures of race and unfreedom in Deep Southern society, I argue there was alternate, if invisible, hierarchy at work, with “acclimated” (immune) people at the top and a great mass of “unacclimated” (non-immune) people awaiting their brush with yellow fever languishing in social and professional purgatory. About half of all people died in the acclimating process.

In New Orleans, alleged-imperviousness or vulnerability to epidemic disease evolved into an explanatory tool for success or failure in commodity capitalism, and a justification for a race- and ethnicity-based social hierarchy where certain people were decidedly less equal than others. Disease justified highly asymmetrical social and labor relations, produced politicians apathetic about the welfare of their poor or recently-immigrated constituents, and accentuated the population’s xenophobic, racist, pro-slavery, and individualist proclivities. Alongside skin color, acclimation-status, I argue, played a major role in determining a person’s position, success, and sense of belonging in antebellum New Orleans.

Most of all, disease provided the tacit justification for who did what work during cotton and sugar production, becoming the essence of an increasingly elaborate and tortuous justification for widespread and permanent black slavery. In the Deep Southern view, only enslaved black people could survive work like cane cutting, swamp clearing, and cotton picking. In fact, proslavery theorists argued, black slavery was positively naturaleven humanitarian, for it protected the health of whites—and thus the nation writ large—insulating them from diseased-labor and spaces that would kill them.

By fusing health with capitalism in my forthcoming book Immunocapital, I will present a new model—beyond the toxic fusion of white supremacy with the flows of global capitalism—for how power operated in Atlantic society.

I am also interested in historical notions of consent (sexual or otherwise); slave revolts in the United States and the Caribbean; anti- and pro-slavery thought; class and ethnicity in antebellum America; the history of life insurance and environmental risk; comparative slave systems; technology and slavery; the Haitian Revolution; and boosterism in the American West.

Born and raised in New York, Washington D.C., and London, I earned my BA in history (cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) from Yale University in 2011. I received an MSt in US History (with distinction) in 2013 and my DPhil in History in 2017 from the University of Oxford. Before joining the Stanford faculty, I was a Past and Present postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London.

I am accepting graduate students who are interested in all aspects of early/nineteenth-century United States history. More information on the department's graduate program in United States history, designed to answer most common questions about the application process and the current state of the program, can be found here.