Some Thoughts on Enlightenment facing COVID-19

When Johns Hopkins University, the leading institution of today’s COVID-19 statistics, was founded in 1876, it was America’s first research university which combined research and teaching on the model of German universities, in particular the renowned University of Heidelberg. Intererestingly, both institutions nowadays play a crucial role in fighting COVID-19 and are combined with swarm intelligence based research tools such as Nextstrain or the online map developed by the University of Heidelberg that shows the global research activities on coronavirus. Let’s delve deeper an have a look at their historical origins.

Source: Genomic epidemiology of novel coronavirus – Global subsampling

While Heidelberg has a long tradition of medical research dating back to 1386, Johns Hopkins University is about 500 years younger, as it was founded in 1876. Based on the antique-medieval model of the “Septem Artes Liberales”, Heidelberg offered his students a common philosophical ground, which then led to specialization in one of the three faculties theology, jurisprudence, and medicine. On the contrary, the ethical foundations of Johns Hopkins can be found in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was pronounced by Thomas Jefferson, the later 3rd President of the United States.

The Declaration itself states that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Facing COVID-19 and the different situation considering health insurance systems in Europe and the United States, the question is, how can health care not be covered under Life and the pursuit of Happiness?

Source: National Archives, The Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson’s original approach in creation the Ideal University was to bring in European education to the United States that could break the chains of colonial intellectual oppression with the ideals of enlightenment based on the theories of Francis Bacon, John Locke, or David Hume. Jefferson himself sent his daughters to Paris, while some of his compatriots preferred Geneva for their boys’ education. In his vision, education was key in order to develop an independent nation that was capable to successfully persist against England:

Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty. Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States.

The 1819 established University of Virginia (UVA) stood at the end of Jefferson’s vision and the beginning of his goal of an Academical Village. The campus ground was based in Charlottesville and was not only revolutionary in the area of medical education but also offered the first college in the United States to teach economics. Jefferson’s primary mission was to prepare the republic’s leaders, and second, helping to establish a primary and secondary system in order to educate citizens. In the long run, UVA played an eminent role for developing medical research in the United States and was vital for the formation of Johns Hopkins University, too. Let’s hope that in the spirit of the Enlightenment, with all the research expertise in the United States, Europe and the rest of the world, we will defeat COVID-19 together: “The Free Spirit shall never die!”


For further reading: John A. Ragosta / Peter S. Onuf / Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy (Editors): The Founding of Thomas Jefferson’s University, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville / London 2019 (Jeffersonian America). Amazon

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