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Shannon Mattice ’19, a history major with a minor in women’s studies, has developed a dual-focus within the areas of medical history and women's history at SUNY Potsdam. Whether she's focused on the role of women in the New Netherlands for her Presidential Scholars project, or writing one of her many papers about smallpox, she likes to explore less mainstream historical topics. 

Mattice is fascinated with the history of diseases and how they have impacted civilizations throughout the ages—specifically smallpox, something that she has written about extensively. She jokes that her mom gets concerned every time she calls to talk about her projects. “All of my major projects have focused on diseases. It’s interesting to me because a lot of history is spent on wars or conflicts and they tend to stray away from diseases, even though they also impacted societies,” Mattice said.

Mattice is known as the medical history student within the Department of History. She has forged her own course of study within the framework of her history classes—writing one article about smallpox vaccines, another about smallpox as a biological weapon during the Seven Years’ War and then a 27-page senior seminar paper about medical commentary on smallpox in England during the 17th Century. Throughout the whole process, her professors have been very supportive.

“I’ve learned a lot! The professors are here for you no matter what. I’ve gone to Dr. Sheila McIntyre’s office hours countless times stressing out about things at the end of the semester and she just tells me, ‘you’re doing great, you’re going to be fine, you’re going to get through this.’ Dr. Christine Doran is the same way. They have a lot of faith in you. You’re really able to build relationships with the professors at SUNY Potsdam,” Mattice said.

“There are aspects of history that are not looked at as much, which is why I also like women’s history. Trying to write a paper on George Washington is beating a dead horse, it’s been done millions of times before.”

When Mattice first transferred to SUNY Potsdam from Clarkson University, she started pursuing a degree in education, but after taking American Revolution with McIntyre, she realized that she wanted to completely focus on history. “McIntyre is so knowledgeable about early American history and she’s so helpful. She’s easy to understand, even though I know she has a doctorate, she talks in a way that anyone can grasp what she’s saying. And if you have a question, she’s going to be able to explain it a lot easier. She uses more modern ways of teaching too. So, we watch videos and we listen to the Hamilton soundtrack—it’s accurate and it’s an easy way to connect the ideas to more reachable ways for students,” she said.

Mattice recently did some work at the Potsdam Public Museum, a paid position to help them launch their exhibit, China: Land of Silk and Dragons. She focused her efforts on the museum’s opium pipes. “I worked on text panels for a set of opium pipes. And I was just really intrigued by it and it was very interesting to see how museums come to be and how exhibits are put together,” she said. “Normally you just see the finished product, but I got to see the beginning stages to the end stages.”

Mattice’s text panels provided information about not just the pipes, but also the opium wars and effects of opium addiction on Chinese culture. “It really changed the way that society functioned. It was very much western driven from trade from England. China kind of outlawed opium but England decided that they weren’t going to listen and continued to bring the opium into China. There were mass addiction issues and then two wars broke out over it,” Mattice said.

After taking a Japanese history class with Dr. Shiho Imai, which also touched on Chinese history, Mattice had some knowledge coming into the museum. “Dr. Imai is just so knowledgeable and taught me so much,” she said.

Mattice also said that Dr. M. J. Heisey's “Practicing Public History” class gave her hands-on experience where students get to think about history as a service to the public. “Instead of a final exam, we have a final project where we all work on independent studies and it’s supposed to center around public history, which is basically museums and ways to get history to the public instead of just through academia. It shows history students that you don’t have to be a history teacher or get a Ph.D., there are other options out there,” she said.

Now that her work at the museum is over, Mattice is focused on wrapping up her Presidential Scholars project, something that she will present later this semester, which combines both her history major and women’s studies minor. “My Presidential Scholars project is on the role of Dutch women in the New Netherlands, with a specific look at Maria Van Rensselaer. She lived in the Albany area and the New Amsterdam area—I’m from there, so I thought it was very interesting. For early American history, we talk about New France and New England, but we don’t talk about the New Netherlands, even though they were a very different society. Women were able to hold land and inherit money from their parents and they also ran businesses in these places. I wanted to focus on something that I felt was close to me and was very different from what I had been taught previously,” she said.

Mattice said that women’s rights were stripped when New England took over the New Netherland colonies. “By the 1700s they had phased out all of the New Netherland laws and replaced them with the English laws, which limited the power that women were able to have. I’m also looking into the role of widows and how widowhood changed the role that the woman played in the relationship, in businesses especially,” Mattice said.

Mattice is looking at women’s rights through the lens of one woman’s life,  Maria Van Rensselaer. She has been examining letters, translated from 17th Century Dutch to English and accessible from the New York State library online archive. “She took over all of her husband’s businesses in the Rensselaer, Amsterdam and the Albany area. I’m looking at her letters and how they change after her husband dies. And then I’m comparing them to the research that’s already been done on English women and what happened to them,” Mattice explained.

Not only is Mattice a presidential scholar, but she is also an honors student and she recently restarted the historical association (history club) at SUNY Potsdam—heavily revising the club’s constitution to get it active again after it ceased to exist in 2013.

As she wraps up her last semester on campus, Mattice is also in the process of applying to graduate school. “I’m hopefully going to go on to get a master’s degree and then go on to a Ph.D. I’m solely looking at schools that offer women’s and gender history and medical history programs,” she said.

For more information about the Department of History, visit: www.potsdam.edu/academics/AAS/History

Article and photos by Jason Hunter