Carolyn Sargent

Medical anthropologist and former president of the Society for Medical Anthropology


Hosted by AAA President Virginia R. Dominguez, “Inside the President’s Studio” features interviews with anthropologists about their ideas, research and passions. It is part of an ongoing effort to foster public, visible and active engagement with anthropologists. Become a part of the conversation by reading and listening to the interviews, adding your comments to the blog, and suggesting people or topics for future pieces.

This month’s guest is medical anthropologist and past SMA president Carolyn Sargent.  She discusses her efforts to bring the expertise of medical anthropologists to the national health care debate and a recent meeting she had with Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO) on the issue.  Listeners will also learn about Carolyn’s love for piano and detective fiction, her training in anthropology under Max Gluckman, her Peace Corps experience, academic life, and a number of other topics.

Carolyn’s written responses are copied below:

(1)What are you passionate about?
My lifelong passions are piano, detective fiction (female PI’s), and medicine–

(2) How long has this been a passion?
I have a photo of myself playing the piano at age 2, mysteries captured me as an adolescent, and medicine intrigued me in different ways at different ages (plagues and epidemics, tales of epidemiological detection as an adolescent, colonial medicine in college, maternal and child health in the Peace Corps).

(3) Do you remember how and when it first became a passion of yours?
My academic engagement with health and medical systems really took shape in the Peace Corps, when (although I was officially part of an animal traction project to train draft animals) I spent a lot of time at the provincial maternity clinic, hanging out with the government midwives. Their clients were primarily elite women, wives of government officials or wealthy traders. I had what I thought was a bright idea of doing neighborhood outreach, weighing babies around town. The midwives were totally opposed. This and two years worth of observations at the clinics culminated in my graduate school research on reproductive health. Over the years, my interests have expanded to include bioethics (ten years on two hospital ethics committees), immigrant health, and the national health debate in the U.S. I have a deeply personal engagement with the health insurance debate because I have a daughter with chronic health issues who has been an aspiring actor (now in graduate school, still having a hard time with health insurance!)

(4) What makes you mad?

(5) What makes you smile?
Dogs (especially my bichon Quasimodo who had an eating disorder, he ate walls, furniture, doorstops, earphones…)

(6) If you were Secretary General of the UN or President of the U.S. or Surgeon General of the U.S. or head of the World Health Organization, what would you especially want to achieve (or at least work on)?  Or… might such a position not appeal to you at all?
I have no desire to be President of the US or Secretary General of the UN. Head of WHO, on the other hand….I’d like to have the authority to prioritize integrated health projects,  relying on interdisciplinary teams, including local representation, and taking a broad perspective on a particular health issue (e.g. environmental, preventive, curative). I think of this because I recently listened to a report at our medical school (Wash U) by a physician who has received a multi-million $ grant to eradicate microfilarial diseases in West and Central Africa. The plan focuses only on medication, and the team is not interested at all in crumbling dams that lead to mosquito breeding sites, other mosquito-borne diseases that won’t respond to this medication, sleeping nets, local understandings of these diseases…. This is a huge and ambitious project in terms of financing and countries involved but regrettably narrow in scope. Now if I were in charge…..

(7) You have recently stepped down as President of the Society for Medical Anthropology.  Have you, in fact, ever thought of quitting the academy and running for public office?  If so, which office might actually appeal to you and why?
I have zero desire to run for public office. I am sure that I would hate campaigning and would be in a state of constant disappointment at having to compromise a great deal on positions of principle that matter a lot to me.  On the other hand, participating on the SMA Health Task Force that I started as SMA president /is /an enterprise that I really value. I hope that we can interest medical anthropologists as well as anthropologists from all fields, academic and practicing, to join our initiative. We’re currently exploring the feasibility of creating an infrastructure via which anthropologists could provide (collect, if necessary) data to policymakers in response to requests for information; another idea is to compile digests or abstracts of existing research to make these studies more accessible to legislators, among others.

(8) Is there a particular version of health care reform in the U.S. that you especially champion, and is it based on existing practices in some other country or region, or is it mostly an unrealized goal worth pursuing somewhere on our planet?
I champion a single-payer health care system for the U.S. similar to that in countries I have lived in (France, U.K.) where I have been a consumer of medical care. Every system has its flaws but I have been very impressed by the underlying values of the French system (the constitution guarantees the right to health care) and the extent to which social class is so much less a factor in access to care than in the U.S. Undocumented migrants have much less difficulty obtaining health care; women and children have extensive coverage. Also, health outcomes are among the best in the world. During ten years of research in France, I’ve been a “patient” several times, including once in an emergency. The costs were extremely reasonable and the care I received was excellent. And my French friends aren’t living in a panic about their children’s access to health care.

(9) What is something that only your closest friends and loved ones know about you?
Do I have to answer this? Too embarrassing.

(10) What did you think you’d be doing in your 40-50s when you were 17?  Does it make you smile to remember that? Sad? Inspired? Amused?
When I was 17, I can’t recall even imagining life at such an age–totally ancient. Looking back, I envision several of my great aunts, with arthritic fingers, playing bridge. I think I assumed, insofar as it crossed my mind, that eventually I would morph into such a person. Now it’s quite obvious that I’m never going to be a bridge player, I don’t have bejeweled fingers, & refuse to have blue hair.One of my best friends is 98 and in a study of the “old old” with remarkable cognitive capacities. She’s my vision of the over 50 set now!

(11) Do you ever feel like giving up and just accepting the status quo? Have you come close to doing so in the past?
Yes, I feel like giving up and accepting the status quo periodically. So far, though, I eventually get mad enough to keep arguing.

(12)  You and I worked together on the Eileen Basker Memorial Award Selection Committee over the past few years.  What surprised you the most about that work?  The books we read and considered for the prize?  the level of agreement among selection committee members?  the range of topics? absent books or topics? difficulties you experienced judging evidence of vision and courage? perhaps how easy you find it to determine those?
Working with the Basker Prize committee has been truly rewarding. We have the opportunity to read new and exciting works on topics that most interest me, and often most of us agree on the award recipient.I’m not sure we always consider courage as a factor in our selection, but “evidence of vision” is a priority and there, I’m impressed with how often we find this exemplified in the nominated works. For me, this committee has not been a chore, or controversial, but an opportunity to expand my thinking about research on gender & health.

(13) You recently moved from SMU to Washington University in St. Louis.  Has the move been eye-opening in some way?  If so, how?
Moving from SMU to Washington University in St. Louis has been more than eye-opening. My department at SMU is excellent but not well supported by the larger institution. I now find myself in a department with 32 faculty and an extraordinary student population. The undergraduates alone are spectacular (it was eye-opening to be told by a first-year student in my class that he thought we had an epistemological dilemma…) We have almost 300 majors and anthropology is a highly valued discipline and department on campus. We now have seven medical anthropologists, which is a great pleasure for me. AND in spite of the doubts of my friends who suspected St. Louis would be a dreary town (:what????you’re leaving DALLAS for St. LOUIS??) it is actually a culturally dynamic, architecturally intriguing, ethnically diverse city with great restaurants and a fabulous park. Plus I can walk to work!

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