Modern Airs, Waters, Places

Notes, Summaries & Reviews, Thesis Research

The Bulletin of the History of Medicine put out a special issue in the winter of 2012 that focused on the resilience and evolution of the “airs, waters, places tradition.” (It was edited by Alison Bashford and Sarah Tracey — the latter is on my MA committee!!!)

Though the contributors are for the most part concerned with the 20th century, the introduction to the issue contains some historiographical information about studies on climate that are incredibly helpful for getting my feet wet.

First off, it looks like historians studying climatology have been arguing for some time that the traditional signposts of modern medicine — germ theory and bacteriology — did not alter the way that laypeople, physicians, or scientists understood wellness and disease. Rather, “…microorganisms continued to be understood in relation to an environmentally shaped human physiology…[and]…[m]edical men continued to gather and assess meteorological data in minute detail long after microorganisms were known to be necessary and sufficient to cause disease.” (504)

"There is still, I think, not enough recognition by teachers of the fact that the desire to think — which is fundamentally a moral problem — must be induced before the power is developed. Most people, whether men or women, wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process…"

— Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth (1933)

Uncategorized

Science of the Marginalized: Women in the Age of Scientific Authority

Papers

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have witnessed a transformation in the status of scientific authority. With authority comes power, and with power comes the ability to dictate what is inside the realm of value and acceptability and what lies outside of that constructed space. When scientific disciplines and the respected members of those disciplines began to gain cohesion and recognizable authority, they began to make distinctions between what and who was and was not a part of their research programs and acceptable practices. Members of the scientific community especially susceptible to exclusion were (and are) those who had historically been viewed as outsiders — the most studied groups being women and people of color.[1] In this essay, I will examine how this systematic marginalization at various points in science’s ascension to greater and greater political, cultural, and intellectual authority has changed the way that women have practiced science, paying special attention to how the subjects of study and questions asked by female scientists are centered around different issues than their male colleagues. A similar study on African American science would be equally valuable but would extend the breadth of this essay beyond what I can reasonably discuss.

Mechanism and Holism in Modernity

Papers

A Holistic Approach to Making Sense of the Modern World

            While science has been an important avenue through which humans have attempted to explore and understand their surroundings since the time of the Greeks, it was not until the late nineteenth-century that its methods, across the increasingly specialized and defined scientific disciplines, began to take on a single, well-defined appearance. The mechanical worldview — I use the world worldview here because, as this essay will examine, its basic components began to appear in more and more aspects of human life — is characterized by attempts to reduce and simplify the universe into quantitative units, and then to analyze and use those units to understand and manipulate nature (and later, people) in ways previously impossible. The method’s success in the “harder” sciences in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — physics, chemistry, and some aspects of biology — led many scientists to attempt to apply it also to other areas of human inquiry. As the twenty first-century approached, however, the mechanistic outlook’s inability to deal with the complex problems of the life and social sciences became increasingly apparent.

In this essay, I want to examine the mechanistic methodology’s entrance into the softer sciences, and I want to discuss the problems inherent in such a reductionist approach to the complicated questions life and social sciences attempt to answer. How did it influence the types of questions that scientists asked, and what would alternative questions (with a more holistic basis) have looked like? And finally, I want to end with a brief discussion of how humanity is still firmly in the grip of the mechanistic worldview, and how it continues to shape the way we understand our surroundings and ourselves. The questions that scientists ask, I want to argue, are influenced by the methods (and philosophical understandings of those methods) to which they ascribe, and the implications of this association for the kind of science being done affects far more than just the scientific community.

Nuclear Energy

Summaries & Reviews

Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade, Gabrielle Hecht

            Gabrielle Hecht’s unconventional approach to a history of the global uranium trade — centered around a traditionally forgotten player, Africa — offers new insight into the effects of the post-World War II technopolitical atmosphere. Hecht introduces the term “nuclearity” to describe the degree of association of various places and things with “nuclear exceptionalism,” a category that placed entities in a position in which they would be regulated according to their perceived risks as nuclear things. The nuclearity of different places and things was renegotiated in various places and times, Hecht argues, often due to changing political and technological climates. The author traces the development of the nuclear market, an action made possible by politically motivated nations’ reclassifying uranium as a marketable commodity not associated with its nuclear qualities in Part I, and goes on in Part II to examine the struggle to assign nuclearity again to African uranium mines in order to ascertain the presence and severity of health issues associated with radon exposure. Notable in her narrative is Hecht’s inclusion of the underpriviledged workers and communities that the fluctuating definition of nuclearity often subjugated to the economic and political interests of those in power.[1]

I was fascinated by Hecht’s work in Part II on nuclearity’s effect on organizations’ and governments’ handling of the occupational health issues of uranium miners. In her narrative, retold through many examples throughout the book, workers and organizations concerned with workers’ health had a very difficult time making the medical consequences of radon exposure visible. One reason for this, Hecht argues, is that the infrastructure required to create knowledge about uranium’s health effects was not present. An association between the work performed by the miners and the (often long-term and delayed) illnesses from which they suffered proved difficult to ascertain with certainty — especially when the economic consequences of such an association were of such importance. I wonder why knowledge created elsewhere — in studies conducted on uranium mines in the United States or France, for instance — was not transferrable. Why should the same study need to be conducted in every individual uranium mine? Could nuclearity, either through its political or economic interpretations, have had an effect on how mobile knowledge about radon exposure was? Technopolitical and economic motivations, it seems, have direct implications for knowledge mobility.

Osiris — Global Power Knowledge: Science and Technology in International Affairs

Osiris’s special issue on “Global Power Knowledge” offers a broader perspective of one of the key issues that underlies Being Nuclear — that of science and technology’s changing relationship with politics after World War II and its importance in understanding international affairs in the Cold War and modern era. Articles, roughly divided into temporal sections, deal with multiple themes. One such topic is the technopolitical race for sovereignty and supremacy; decolonization ushered in a new era where international power hierarchies were based upon scientific and technological adeptness, and nuclear technologies played only a part in this discourse. Another important line of inquiry is the effect state patronage (and thus, at varied extents, state motivations) has had on the kinds of knowledge produced, its mobility between nationalized centers of production, and the institutions and frameworks that sponsored it. The last theme, globalization, underlies articles that discuss the relationship between science and technology’s increasingly important role in politics in the modern era. The rise in significance of NGO’s and their influence on scientific work, collaboration, and funding has changed the technopolitical atmosphere in which researchers conduct studies. While far from exhaustive, this summary offers the main ideas that run through the many more specific articles that make up the collection.

I was taken aback by something after reading Being Nuclear and browsing through Osiris’s “Global Power and Knowledge” special addition: the degree of integration of technology into politics and the many effects this has had. If I had a nickel for every time the term “technopolitical” came up in the readings this week, I would be a very rich woman, and for good reason — it seems that the twentieth century witnessed an unprecedented increase in the integration of scientists, engineers, and their technologies into the political realm. The rise and attempted control of nuclear power sources exemplifies this transition. Hecht’s work discusses how the political implications of nuclear power resonated in many different spheres, and one example she articulates in particular resonated with me. The value of uranium to African countries attempting to solidify their sovereignty was paramount due to the (however well-hidden in the development of the “banal” uranium market) political implications of a nuclear research program in the international community. This had direct ramifications for those working in African uranium mines; the radon particles poisoning workers’ lungs was, although known to some extent, underplayed and understudied. Politics, in this instance, dictated not only what would and would not be scientifically studied in regards to the development of an atomic industry; it harmed an entire group of underprivileged people in a very real way. Technology and politics, I think, are two entities that should be very carefully monitored if allowed to join their power and motivations at all.

This led me into further reflection about something we have discussed many times in class — the line between history and social and political commentary. While I still find “purer” histories more to my intellectual taste, the value of histories that address modern-day implications is difficult to contest. In the case of Being Nuclear, there are still workers subjected to dangerous levels of radiation in uranium mines; how could a researcher not include this in her study? And how could a reader, whether or not the language used by the researcher implies it or not, not feel moved to action by such facts? Perhaps what I am getting at here is that a book does not need to be written politically to have political implications for its readers. If there truly is an injustice at hand, honest research and fact presentation should produce a result in reader activism just as readily as a polemic-ridden commentary on a perceived transgression would.

[1] Sorry for the nineteenth century paragraph, but this book was long, the arguments many, and the subject matter complicated.

Dying in the City of Blues

Summaries & Reviews

Dying in the City of Blues: Sickle Cell Anemia and the Politics of Race and Health, Keith Wailoo

Through the lens of a controversial disease, sickle cell anemia, author Keith Wailoo traces important developments in mid-twentieth century American health, in race relations, and in state and federal politics. He shows how diseases can take on varied meanings in different political, cultural, and medical environments, and he analyzes how these meanings affect the people closest to the disease — the sufferers and their families. Especially prominently featured are the ways in which the disease influenced (and was influenced by) the turbulent racial politics of Memphis, Tennessee from 1940s through the 1990s — from a disease under the radar, overshadowed by malaria, to an embodiment of African American suffering and disadvantage, to a condition that evoked suspicion and anger, sickle cell anemia, like those it afflicted, was directly affected by the cultural and political environment in which it was situated.

Wailoo’s method — using a disease to elucidate the politics of a time period, and showing how diseases are active political players — is almost identical to that of Leslie J. Reagans’ in Dangerous Pregnancies. Both authors spend a lot of time discussing the political and cultural context in which their diseases arise, and they go on to explain how their chosen diseases stimulate conversations that end in major alterations in cultural values and, more concretely, in changes in medical law. Wailoo briefly discusses the commodification of the disease, which he defines as; “the process by which bodily experiences such as pain are assigned value (monetary and otherwise) by physicians, patients, insurance companies, and others.”[1] This method of analysis is reminiscent of Warwick Anderson’s in Collectors of Lost Souls, where brains are commodified in the international scientific community studying Kuru. Wailoo’s focus is more on domestic commodification in the form of sick bodies as “clinical material” for learning medical students, but both authors address the propensity for scientists to objectify the sick body and use it to their financial or reputational ends. Both studies focus on the twentieth century; I wonder if body commodification is a relatively new phenomenon, perhaps linked to the rise of the clinic in early nineteenth century Paris, or if it existed in different capacities much earlier (as objects of anatomical specimens, for example).

The conclusion, like that of Dangerous Pregnancies, offered up “lessons” that could be learned from the history of sickle cell anemia. I have noticed that some historical works’ final chapter (the conclusion, coda, etc.) often contain similar content. The historian takes what he or she has gathered from their study and applies it to more modern-day problems; sickle cell anemia, for instance, has taught us (hopefully) that eradication is not a simple process, and that when diseases take on cultural meaning, institutional methods of treatment/cure are not always viewed as beneficial by those afflicted by the illness. In the future, therefore, we should be careful when dealing with culturally-affected disease. I think this is a valuable lesson, but it led me to reflect on what exactly a historian’s job is. Is it within our realm of practice to take the arguments we make and extend them to encompass contemporary issues? Should it not be left up to our readers to decide how to apply our insights to their lives? I think this tendency to proselytize based on what an author felt he or she learned by conducting the research tends to bring in contemporary biases, and I feel including it takes away from a book’s merit.

[1] 18

Dangerous Pregnancies

Summaries & Reviews

Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America, Leslie J. Reagan

                        Adding to the literature on epidemics and their propensity to highlight, challenge, and even change cultural belief, Leslie Reagan’s work on the rubella virus tells the story of the disease’s discovery, society’s reaction to it, the media’s interpretation of it, and its eventual eradication via a heroic vaccination campaign. Along the way, Reagan discusses the issues rubella, contemporarily known as “German measles,” brought to the forefront of American thought: abortion and more extensively women’s reproductive and medical rights, doctors’ rights, the perception and treatment of disabled individuals, the medical field’s susceptibility to national and state law, religious issues surrounding women’s health, and the racial and class distinctions evident in medical treatment. Most importantly, Reagan discusses how prenatal care became a woman’s issue and then a family issue. Reproduction and the health of a new generation of Americans became a matter of interest in every family and for the nation as a whole, and this concern manifested itself in the squabbling over abortion law and through the many pamphlets and distributable information and advice so popular in the period (mid-twentieth century America).

Francesca Bray (in Technology and Gender) and Leslie Reagan’s approaches are similar in that both work within the realm of gender history. The authors attempt to understand the ways in which women were expected to act within and contribute to their societies, who their authorities were, and the many ways in which women worked within the frameworks they were forced into. The differences in technique lie in what instrument the historians use to tell their story. Reagan analyzes a single event, or entity, the German measles epidemics. She describes the way in which this specific happening affected women’s political and moral control over their own bodies and those of their unborn children. Bray, in a disparate approach, evaluates the “technologies” of homebuilding, weaving, and reproduction, and the way that these instruments of social control created the societal structure in which women lived and worked. While Reagan’s is a history of change, Bray’s is one of relative stability. Reagan’s work focuses primarily on changing women’s health in twentieth century America, while Bray’s broader study of women’s experience in Imperial China highlights many different aspects of the women’s roles, as defined by neo-Confusion dogma concerning the proper hierarchy of the home (and state). Both approaches have their merit, and both emphasize different, but arguably equally important aspects of the historical female experience.

I have read very few historical works that address disability, and I was fascinated by the eugenicist rhetoric coating many responses, from the medical establishment and the media, to the rubella epidemics and their ramifications. Rubella provided an impetus for a national discussion about the criminality abortion, which was quite progressive, but it did so by bringing attention to the undesirability and embarrassment associated with disabled persons and the right for parents to eradicate these “catastrophes” from their families. Additionally, by framing these individuals as pathetic, in need of assistance, and even rendering them useful in the form of test subjects, reformers were able to draw enough attention to CRS victims’ plight to enact major changes in disability aid and education from the state. Like the doctor who made a circus show of premature infants in order to pay for their care, proponents of CRS victims used the perception of the disabled body as horrible and unfortunate to garner support for the very individuals they objectified. This is a frightening trend that I think says a lot about human nature, especially as pertains to the abnormal.