In a previous year, Professor Barrett took his class into the chapel to meditate.

By Alexandra McLaughlin ’16

“We are all agents in healing, not just for ourselves or our family members, but for our communities and societies at large.”
—Ron Barrett

Imagine a pre-pandemic classroom. Dressed in a surgical gown, Professor Ron Barrett pulls “diseased things” from the body of a volunteer student lying on the table. Don’t worry—the procedure involves chicken gizzards and sleight of hand, with no actual incisions. Afterwards, Barrett asks if the student feels better. 

This “psychic surgery” is meant to shed light on religious healing, a topic covered in Barrett’s Medical Anthropology course. Barrett briefly describes medical anthropology as “social sciences meet public health.” The course draws upon anthropology, or the study of humankind, to understand health, illness, and healing. 

Another hands-on lesson tests the placebo effect. Barrett brings two containers of coffee labeled “A” and “B.” One is caffeinated, the other decaf. After tasting the mystery coffee, students complete a questionnaire about whether they feel the caffeine buzz. 

Barrett has taught the course for 18 years. While the pandemic currently forces some limitations on class activities, the real-world relevance of course material engages students just the same.

Real-world relevance 

“As the Derek Chauvin trial happened across the river in Minneapolis, we talked about the effects of systemic racism on the health of populations of color,” says Adele McLees ’22 (Atlanta). “Not to mention taking a health-oriented course during a global pandemic.”

Michelle Osiro ’24 (Nairobi, Kenya) agrees: “Everything we are learning about we have direct examples from what we’ve lived through.”

Students investigate how structural racism and social inequalities result in higher Covid-19 cases and deaths. They examine how vaccine hesitancy in some communities is rooted in unequal treatment and distrust. Discussing social stigma of diseases such as Ebola, the plague, and the 1918 flu sets the stage for examining current stigma towards Asian-Americans during Covid-19.

“The stigma of disease can sometimes be much worse than the disease itself,” says Barrett, who conducted his dissertation research with leprosy patients in India. 

“Dr. Ron’s anecdotes from his own personal experiences are most memorable,” says Vyen Hayag ’24 (Roscoe, Ill.). “Listening to someone who has experienced the topics helps visualize what we are learning about.” 

Before becoming an academic, Barrett worked as a registered nurse.

“He’s seen so much outside of the classroom and it’s really inspiring to sit in front of him now and learn from him,” says McLees. 

Columbus brought AIDS to the New World 

The class is organized by a series of puzzling propositions designed to develop critical thinking. For example, the week titled “Columbus Brought AIDS to the New World” examines critical medical anthropology. 

“We look at histories of European invasion in the Americas, the slavery and colonialism of Haiti, and how conditions of inequality lead people to circumstances where they are at high risk for disease transmission,” say Barrett.

That lesson especially resonated with McLees. “We talked about the case of a Haitian woman with metastatic breast cancer. Her illness advanced so far because she’d had little access to health care due to the poverty in Haiti, which has its roots in systemic violence perpetrated against Haiti for centuries by more powerful countries,” says McLees. “I’m super interested in the effects of colonialism, hegemony, and nation-level inequalities, so applying these ideas with a medical anthropology lens was fascinating.”

Another week’s proposition, “Exorcism can cure you,” focuses on the placebo effect and belief systems in traditional healing. 

Other propositions include: “There is no Paleo Diet;” “Racism is bad for our health;” “Stigma is deadlier than Ebola;” and “There is science in traditional medicines.” 

Barrett’s own scholarship enriches course readings. “One of the distinctive features of Macalester is that we have a teacher-scholar model,” says Barrett. “Most of the faculty are actively involved in publication and scholarship. We’re able to find some of the latest articles relevant to the topics we’re looking at.” 

Former students who have since published articles also appear on the reading list. And alumni working in medicine or public health often return as guest speakers.

“It gives students a sense of trajectory,” says Barrett. 

How have different countries responded to Covid?

The final project examines public health from a global perspective. In groups of four, students analyze a country’s response to Covid-19 and present their findings to the class. Osiro’s group looks at New Zealand, a country that has managed the pandemic quite well, Osiro explains, with economic and social life returning to normal. “It’s been really insightful to see things outside of my own context, whether in the U.S. or back home in Kenya,” she says.  

McLees’ group studies South Korea’s response. “It’s been fascinating to compare their methods of controlling the virus to the ones we’ve implemented here,” she says. “This has provided a really cool lens into the differences between American and South Korean cultures.”

Past groups have examined everything from shamanism and the use of psychedelics in healing to the role of doulas among Native Americans in the Twin Cities.

“We are all agents in healing” 

Over the years, Barrett has learned the value of communicating medical anthropology in an accessible way. 

“We learn first aid skills if we’re not medical professionals, and I think we can learn public health skills too,” says Barrett. “We are all agents in healing, not just for ourselves or our family members, but for our communities and societies at large.”

June 14 2021

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