Different contexts, similar missions: Dr. Sarah Naramore blends interests in biology and history through her academic expertise

Dr. Sarah Naramore in her office. Photo by Robert Mohr (C’21).

By Luke Gair
Executive Staff

For about three weeks of her undergraduate career, Visiting Assistant Professor of History Dr. Sarah Naramore intended to pursue veterinary medicine. Her history minor, which would eventually become her life’s work, was at first an attempt to stick out as an applicant to competitive veterinary schools. 

“I’m not proud of thinking that way, but it was true of me as an eighteen-year-old,” Naramore laughed. Biological and ecological research loomed at the forefront of her work in college but, as she became more attuned to her interests, she realized that the larger, “messier” questions she kept finding herself asking were more logically suited to the humanities instead. 

Rather than a traditional history class steering her toward academia, it was instead mycology that allowed her the revelation necessary to begin her present career path. After she was tasked to research claviceps purpurea, a fungus most notably known for its effects on cereal plants, her two seemingly disparate interests bloomed into a single field of study. In the midst of her research, it became strikingly clear just how braided the scientific and historical are with one another. Thus, the double major in history and biology was declared. 

“It was the first time I really thought how the biological world has impacted history,” she began. “I didn’t really know the history of medicine or science was a thing until I started putting it together in this class. It sort of clicked, and I thought ‘This is what I want to do, I want to see how this messy biological and ecological world has shaped human activities.’”

A career in veterinary medicine might be in the rear view mirror for Naramore, but an intersection between her past and present career paths is unyielding: “[History and biology] are inherently interested in how both are bringing high understanding of science into different contexts.” Rather than a separate entity, she sees doctors as comparable to engineers or scientists, ones who are trying to apply “basic science” to varying biological and social contexts. 

This philosophy greatly manifests in her forthcoming book entitled “Medical Independence: How Benjamin Rush Created Medicine, 1780 to 1813,” where she argues and explores how the practice of medicine, biological theory, and political theory converge in previously unrealized ways. The work derives from her doctoral dissertation, “I Sing the Body Republic: How Benjamin Rush Created American Medicine.” 

The clever, Whitman-inspired title was changed in the publishing process in order to reach “a broader audience [rather than]… a four-person thesis committee.”

Naramore defended her thesis in April of 2018 and then formally graduated as a PhD student from the University of Notre Dame in August of that same year. Less than a month later, she began teaching her first college classes. 

As an alumna of a liberal arts college herself, Naramore was already familiar with the core mechanics of the classroom at such institutions like smaller class sizes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that adaptation wasn’t needed. 

“The first semester of being here was a lot like being thrown in,” she noted. With three courses to plan and prepare for, things weren’t slowing down for the recently arrived professor any time soon. “It was great, but it was all at once.”

In classes where non-major students are enrolled, especially those introductory level courses, Naramore shared her enthusiasm in approaching those unfamiliar with the course material. “In a community like Sewanee where we’re trying to break down those silos between disciplines…,” she remarked, “there’s something to be said about getting fresh perspectives and talking out your ideas with students who are new to these ideas.” 

Naramore sees the classroom as grounds for conversation rather than simple lecturing, and she underlined such a belief through clarifying that studying history in higher education is less about memorization. Alternatively, it introduces students and scholars to nuanced disciplines and ways of thinking. With the internet at our fingertips, it’s crucial to understand and process the information we read, so studying history grants such critical thinking skills. 

“I’m interested in how we get from this expansive view to having these very narrow, professional boxes. I’m influenced by the idea of American medical exceptionalism,” she concluded. “I think there’s some resonance in understanding how Americans can of themselves as exceptional, and how an interpretation of biology can get us there.”

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