Sarah Vowell: Land Grant Universities and Measles

Sarah Vowell describes how measles, vaccines, and land grant universities are intertwined.


Sarah Vowell is the New York Times’ bestselling author of seven nonfiction books on American history and culture. By examining the connections between the American past and present, she offers personal, often humorous accounts of American history as well as current events and politics. Her most recent book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, explores both the ideas and the battles of the American Revolution, especially the patriot founders’ alliance with France as personified by the teenage volunteer in George Washington’s army, the Marquis de Lafayette.


I was at the National Museum of the American Indian in DC. And there’s this map of the Americas. I don’t know if it’s still there and it’s, um, I don’t know if it’s a video screen or what, but the whole of north and south America on this map, it just continually just turns red with blood, you know, and talks about how it’s possible that 90% of the inhabitants of the Americas were killed just by disease. And it’s hard. It’s it’s that the disease is just it’s it’s um, it’s like slavery. It’s just one of those fundamentals to the story. And then, I mean, here in Bozeman, uh, I mean the story and the measles. It’s also the story of land grant universities. It’s also the story because you know the beauty of the land grant university and caveat, I don’t I’m sure. I don’t know if some people have seen this it’s worth looking at at, High Country News did this whole project on — they called them land grabbing universities and how much the land grant universities revolved around stolen Native land that was used to fund these universities. So it is very complicated, but in terms of measles, uh, during the depression in Montana, there was this kid. In mile city out in Eastern Montana. And he lived on a chicken farm and it was the depression. He was graduating from high school and he had a job lined up at the JC Penny’s in Billings. And that was a good job in the depression. But this kid’s brother, this kid was named Maurice Hilleman and his, his older brother came home and he was like, you know, Marie’s, there’s that college in both. Maybe you should go there. And he looked into it and they gave him a scholarship. And Maurice Hilleman went to Montana state university here in Bozeman and graduated and went on to the university of Chicago. I mean, he created the measles vaccine, which if you are Dr. Fowchee over the last year or so talking about the possibility of a COVID vaccine, he always referred to that as the gold standard, the measles vaccine and Maurice Hillman, not only developed that vaccine, but also like, I think he developed eight of the 14, most common vaccines on earth and he probably saved more lives in the 20th century. Then we’re lost in all the 20th century genocides. And so the whole story of the land grant university is that it was the first time in the history of the world that a country decided to educate. The working class and, um, people like Maurice people like me, uh, just the riff raff of the earth, you know?

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