About Sarah W. Tracy

I am an historian of medicine whose research extends into the related disciplines of food studies, medical sociology, and biography. My research is focused on how the foods, drinks, and drugs that we consume affect our long-term health, particularly with regard to chronic disease in the United States between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries.

Degrees in History and Sociology of Science

  • A.B., Harvard University, 1985
  • M.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1987
  • Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, 1992

I earned my A.B. with honors in History and Science from the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. My undergraduate honors thesis explored how the politics and spirituality of British naturalist and evolutionary theorist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) shaped his scientific theories about human evolution. Wallace is best known as the co-founder with Darwin of the theory of natural selection.

Sarah W. Tracy in Pioppi, Italy

Sarah W. Tracy in Pioppi, Italy

Download SWT Resume (pdf)

Writing a Biography of Ancel Keys

I am currently writing a biography of nutritional physiologist and cardiovascular epidemiologist Ancel Keys (1904-2004). Keys is best known as a stalwart champion of the diet-heart hypothesis as an explanation for the development of cardiovascular disease. Yet Keys was a prolific scientist. He also led the International High Altitude Expedition to Chile in 1935; developed the U.S. Army’s K-Ration; and conducted the (in)famous Minnesota Starvation Experiment.

I continued my studies in the history of science at the University of Pennsylvania; there I specialized in the history of medicine, the sociology of science, and American social history. My M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Penn are in the History and Sociology of Science. My dissertation has a long title:  “The Foxborough Experiment: Medicalizing Inebriety at the Massachusetts Hospital for Dipsomaniacs and Inebriates, 1833-1919.” It was an historical case study of the medicalization of alcoholism.

My book was essentially a nationally oriented study of the same topic, comparing what took place in Massachusetts with the experience of several other states. While at Penn, I also developed a research interest in holism in twentieth-century biomedicine. As a graduate student I published my first article,  “George Draper and American Constitutional Medicine, 1916-1946—Re-Inventing the Sick Man,” in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine.

What do historians of medicine do?
Historians of medicine help health care practitioners, patients, and anyone interested in health and disease understand medicine’s changing place in society.

History of medicine offers us insight into the ways social values, political priorities, spiritual beliefs, and economic realities impact medical care and affect the choices we make to stay well and fight disease. At the same time, historians of medicine reveal the ways medicine and public health, as evolving fields, have influenced our society and our environment at the local, national, and global levels.

A participant in I.Q. psychologist Lewis Terman’s longitudinal study of 1500 “gifted” children, Keys felt the weight of high expectations throughout his life. As the nephew of silent screen star Lon Chaney, Keys also filmed all of his scientific work and was a first-rate publicist, frequently writing for popular audiences.

In 1959, he and his wife Margaret Chaney Keys published a best-selling cookbook, Eat Well and Stay Well. This volume was revised and re-published as Eat Well and Stay Well the Mediterranean Way in 1975 and was among the first books to popularize the health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet. My biography is tentatively titled Health Revolutionary: Ancel Keys and the Making of the American Diet. It is on schedule for completion in 2014. Read more about Ancel Keys and my biographical project.

Fellowships and Grants

I have been the fortunate recipient of a variety of fellowships and grants. These have helped me pursue my research in graduate school and as a full-time faculty member.

Some of the agencies that have funded my work are

  • the National Endowment for the Humanities
  • the National Library of Medicine
  • the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
  • the National Science Foundation
  • the National Institute for Mental Health
  • the New York Academy of Medicine
  • the Center for the History of Medicine at the Countway Medical Library of Harvard Medical School
  • the American Association of University Women

I am a former council member of the American Association for the History of Medicine, and currently sit on the association’s annual meeting committee. I also served as chair of the Association of American Medical Colleges Group on Combined Baccalaureate-MD Programs between 2007 and 2009.

University of Oklahoma


Before arriving at the University of Oklahoma Honors College in 1999, I taught at the Universities of Delaware, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Yale. At OU, I teach courses on historical and ethical issues in American medicine and public health, the history of alcohol and drug use in the United States, the sociology of science, biography as a genre in American science and American history, food in American culture, and the evolution of global food systems.

In 2008, I was a visiting professor in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University, where I led a seminar on the politics of human taxonomies (from I.Q. to body typing and fingerprinting) and taught a lecture course on the history of psychoactive substance use.

I regularly teach elective courses in the medical humanities—seminars in the history of medicine and women in medicine—for first-, second-, and fourth-year medical students at OU College of Medicine. I have also taught the introductory history of medicine lecture course for medical students at Yale School of Medicine.

I serve on a variety of MA and PhD committees for students in both the History and the History of Science departments at the University of Oklahoma.

More about the current courses

Medical Humanities Program

In 1999, I began to build a medical humanities program at the University of Oklahoma. Working with physician and narrative medicine scholar Jerry Vannatta, who was then the dean of the OU College of Medicine, I created the Medical Humanities Program. Dr. Vannatta manages “humanities in medicine” electives for medical students, while I supervise approximately 20 Medical Humanities Scholars (BA-MD students) during their undergraduate years. I help them prepare for careers as physicians by encouraging them to see the “big picture” in medicine through individually tailored courses of study. Dr. Carolyn Morgan, a sociologist and former associate dean at the Honors College, assists me in running this program. Medical Humanities Scholars pursue study in the history of medicine, literature in medicine, medical anthropology, health care policy, and bioethics. Their classroom experience is supplemented with “mini-internships” with physicians and other health care providers in the greater Norman-Oklahoma City Metro area. Sometimes they travel far afield to Asia, Latin America, or Africa, and are able to pursue special internships in these places as well.

Although Medical Humanities Scholars enter the BA-MD program directly from high school, many college students want to understand the evolving nature of health, disease, and medical care across societies. Some are interested in policy issues, others are curious about bioethics. For all honors-eligible students at OU, we have the Medical Humanities Minor. Currently, I direct approximately 50 additional students who are pursuing an MH minor at OU. These students complete an 18-credit-hours in the medical humanities, while pursuing their B.A. or B.S. degrees in any field of study.

More on the Medical Humanities at the University of Oklahoma