Mark Eberle, a professor of biological sciences at Central Oregon Community College, credits a lot of his academic success to a costume.
Eberle is a medical entomologist, studying the impact of insects and arthropods on human health. While a doctoral student at the University of California-Davis, Eberle studied human body lice, but a passion for the plague led him to inhabit the role of a 17th century public health worker for the benefit of his students. The costume he wears to illustrate the plague’s history is complete with a mask, hat and robe, a getup that ironically protected workers from fleas, which were actually not a known vector of the disease until 1900.
“Every time I applied for a teaching position, I always made sure to send a picture of myself in costume,” Eberle said. “If I didn’t have this costume, I wouldn’t have gotten here.”
Eberle estimates he gives about a dozen lectures a year in costume as a means to better engage his students. His first mask was made by a theater design student at UC-Davis, but a few years ago, his colleagues at COCC gifted him a new one, which he keeps in an ominous-looking black chest in his office.
“This one’s a bit more steampunk and doesn’t really look like what they had back then,” Eberle said. “But it sure is neat.”
Eberle’s act has gotten so popular that he often gives presentations out of the classroom. Once while giving a talk in Prineville, Eberle drew the attention of a neighboring conference room.
“Les Schwab was having a big meeting, and I had to sneak by to get into my room, and Mr. Schwab himself saw me and just froze,” Eberle said. “I don’t think I’ll ever know what he was thinking.”
The costume helps Eberle communicate not only his knowledge — what it was like to live with the plague — but his passion for science.
“I think a lot of what happens in the classroom is that I share my emotions so that when we’re talking about a disease, students can see the importance of what it was like to really live through them,” he said. “It’s important to know the science, but I want to give them more than that. These forces changed history, after all.”
Eberle’s passion for understanding the lived experience of the plague has taken him into the back rooms of Italian museums in search of paintings that illustrate the disease.
In 1978, Eberle made the trip with a borrowed Nikon to take photographs of 17th century paintings he had seen as low-quality reproductions in books.
“When I went, I just made a list of all the paintings I thought I could find,” Eberle said. “They show these really interesting stories. In one, you see a man killing a dog because they thought that fur contained plague particles.”
Many of the paintings are still hard to find outside of Eberle’s photograph collection, which he has shared online. At the time, he found one of the works spread out on a desk in an administrative office. Now Eberle uses the paintings in his lectures, wearing his costume while discussing a painting where health workers clear bodies from public spaces.
“The paintings show something I could never tell with just words,” Eberle said. “It’s just a different way to study the disease, a sort of reminder of how it was. And, if you know where to look, there are lots of other reminders of the plague in Europe.”
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