MCEAS Fellow Profile: Meg Roberts


Meg Roberts is a Friends of the MCEAS Dissertation Fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. Meg's dissertation explores the lives, networks, and practices of caregivers during the American Revolutionary War, predominantly in Philadelphia and wider Pennsylvania. The project centers the precariously employed, indentured, and enslaved caregivers whose labor underpinned early American care networks, and examines the role of crisis and coercion in the Continental Army's demands for civilians' caregiving labor and household resources during the war.

Q: How did you become interested in your dissertation topic?

Roberts: Via disability history! I spent much of my undergraduate and master’s degrees writing about the relationship between labor and emerging ideas of disability in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Early American Disability is a close-knit but quickly expanding field and I was keen to ground my research in its critical frameworks. I was also influenced by the work of feminist historians such as Sarah Knott and Alex Shepard, who were reigniting scholarly discussions of motherhood and gender with a renewed focus on the labor involved in caregiving. Putting these ideas in conversation with early American disability history offered an intriguing vantage point from which to explore labor as an embodied experience. I never imagined focusing my research on a war, much less the Revolutionary War – it’s easily dismissed when you grow up in the UK! But once I’d started to think about it as a health crisis, when demand for caregiving labor is pushed to the extreme, the war’s potential for examining the dynamics involved in care networks became too fascinating to resist.

Q: What do you find most rewarding about the research process?

Roberts: Visiting archives, talking to archivists, and working with eighteenth-century manuscripts. I’m always looking for the caregivers in a document, or in the margins of a document, and find it extremely rewarding to find evidence of their lives and labor in unexpected places. I also love thinking about all the researchers who may have interacted with each archival document before me and knowing that we’ve all brought a different set of ideas, influences, and life experiences to our interpretation of the same item. I find historical study is most exciting when we acknowledge its dynamism and subjectivity and grapple with the implications of that.

Q: What is one of your most memorable experiences during your time as a fellow?

Roberts: I had a particularly memorable day last month! I had the opportunity to meet with a local collector and registered nurse, Chris Foard, when he visited the McNeil Center. Chris has been collecting rare manuscripts relating to the early history of American nursing for 35 years. His collection of Civil War nursing is now housed at the Library of Congress, but he has more recently turned his attention to Revolutionary War nurses. After hearing about my research and our shared interest in the history of nursing, Chris reached out and very generously offered to share these invaluable documents with me. Continental Army nurses play a major role in my dissertation, and manuscript sources about them are VERY few and far between, so Chris' collection is like gold dust. Seeing so many nursing pay vouchers, newspaper appeals for nurses, and hospital provision records set out on the table was extraordinary. It was also a real joy to get to chat to Chris about his many years as a registered nurse and the influence of his career on his collecting interests. I’m delighted that he was able to visit and am looking forward to continuing our discussions of all things nursing in the future.

Q: What are you most enjoying about your Fellowship at the McNeil Center?

Roberts: The other fellows, for sure. I’ve been blown away by the immense talent and generosity in the McNeil community this year. I have never been surrounded by so many early American scholars before and I could not have imagined a more rewarding experience. I’ve learned so much from our seminars, workshops and chats over tea in the office, in large part because the other fellows and McNeil staff have been so generous with their time, knowledge, and encouragement. Talking through ideas and workshopping writing with the other fellows has benefitted my own scholarship immeasurably, and I have spent many lunchtimes trying to absorb as much of their vast and diverse expertise as possible. The friendships I have made here have also powered me through the highs and lows of moving to a new country and writing a dissertation. The McNeil Center is a deeply enriching intellectual community, but above all I have adored sharing nine months and an office space with such remarkable people.


Meg Roberts is a Friends of the MCEAS Dissertation Fellow and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge. Read more on Meg’s bio page.