Université de Strasbourg

Meghan Roberts


Meghan Roberts

Meghan Roberts is an associate professor of history at Bowdoin College (United States). Her research and publications focus on the history of 18th-century France, especially cultural history, the history of science and medicine, and the history of women and gender. During her Fellowship, Meghan Roberts will be hosted by Professor Isabelle Laboulais in the research unit Societies, Stakeholders and Governments in Europe (SAGE), and will work on her second book, Health Wars: Making and Breaking Medical Authority in France, 1730-1820.

Professor Roberts holds a BA from the College of William and Mary and a PhD from Northwestern University (United States), where she won the prize for best dissertation in the department of history. She has taught at Bowdoin since earning her doctorate in 2011 and was promoted to associate professor with tenure in 2018. Her first book, Sentimental Savants: Philosophical Families in Enlightenment Press, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2016 and examines the rise of a new public figure: the savant whose seemingly idyllic family life enriched their intellectual work and facilitated scientific collaboration.

She has also published academic articles in French Historical Studies, The Journal of Women’s History, Eighteenth-Century Studies, and The Journal of Modern History as well as public-facing essays in Slate, Notches: (re)marks on the history of sexuality, the Harvard Contagion Project, and Age of Revolutions.

Her work has been supported by numerous grants and fellowships, including a multi-year Jacob K. Javits fellowship from the U.S. Department of Education, a Millstone Fellowship from the Western Society for French History, a Presidential Fellowship from the Northwestern Society of Fellows, and a Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society. 

Fellowship 2023

Dates - 01/09/2023-30/06/2024

Project summary


Eighteenth-century France is famous for its robust public sphere, with an increasingly confident and critical public reading a dizzying number of books and news sources. Medical practitioners jumped into this fray with zeal, using their teaching and publishing to reach a broad audience. Despite their efforts, they were often attacked, even accused of charlatanism. These battles over medical authority explain why medical authority is unstable and why efforts to influence public health are so often fraught.  

When practitioners attempted to wield their expertise in the public sphere, they stood on an unstable foundation. They had credentials and specialized knowledge, but that wasn’t enough: they also had to establish their authority and capture attention. Practitioners developed various strategies to navigate this dilemma. They styled themselves as heroes fighting against illness and ignorance. They tested cures such as smallpox vaccination on orphans and slaves to build data sets that would make their advice more persuasive to privileged patients. They published sensationalist stories to compete in a crowded print marketplace, even as they railed against those they deemed quacks. Some of these lurid stories pathologized blackness and implicitly valorized savants’ whiteness. Furthermore, practitioners experimented with different brands of masculinity: suave and worldly physicians, brave colonial practitioners who had suffered to acquire their knowledge, combative surgeons ever ready to defend their turf. Medical media engagement did not simply reflect changing ideas of race and gender; it actively shaped them.

Health Wars explores a series of interlocking case studies that stretch over the long 18th century and move from distinctly different settings of provincial towns to colonies - Rouen to Mauritius, Strasbourg to Saint-Domingue – and the French capital of Paris. Together, they demonstrate the central place of medicine in the 18th-century public sphere and the intertwined histories of Enlightenment and empire.

France 2030