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)

Inventing Caribbean Climates

Notes, Summaries & Reviews, Thesis Research

Mark Carey, “Inventing Caribbean Climates: How Science, Medicine and Tourism Changed Tropical Weather from Deadly to Healthy,” Osiris 26, no. 1 (2011): 129-141.

In this piece, Carey traces changing European and North American perceptions of Caribbean climates from 1750-1950. He argues that these understandings were not shaped only by the climactic science; rather, they were constructed around multiple considerations, including “…environmental conditions, knowledge systems, social relations, politics, and economics.” (129) Carey understands these ideas, then, to be culturally constructed and argues, in line with most recent studies on climate, for the cultural construction of climate.

Airs, Waters, Places

Notes, Summaries & Reviews

W. F. Bynum in Science and the Practice of Medicine in the Nineteenth Century traces early ideas about the social ecology of diseases to this important piece within the Hippocratic corpus. Of its importance to the history of community health, he says: “…the Hippocratic authors of this work (there were undoubtedly at least two) yoked together medicine, physical geography, and ethnology so persuasively that subsequent medical speculations on why epidemics occurred, and why certain diseases were prevalent in particular regions, made frequent reference to features such as wind, climate, temperature, soil, and humidity.” (59) Reading it today in preparation for Aparna’s History of Public Health class, I’m inclined to agree with this assessment.

I can see a basic proto-epidemiological approach; the authors are trying to understand the prevalence of certain kinds of diseases among particular populations in distinct locations. They take into account many potential “determinants”: climate, winds, water source and quality, habits, and base constitutions. Sudden changes in anything — temperature, humidity, air flow, etc. — are understood as unhealthful. Climates that vary tend to breed ecologies that are also varied, which in turn breeds unbalanced flora, fauna, and humans. In this sense, the theories in Airs, Waters, Places are incredibly ecologically deterministic.

The authors also discuss “distribution.” An example will clarify this assertion. Part 22 deals with Scythians and attempts to explain the high number of eunuchs in their ranks. They are a nomadic tribe in which horse-riding is the primary method of movement, and wealthier citizens are more likely to be able to afford a horse. A higher proportion of eunuchs are wealthy. From this information, the authors deduce that it is the frequent horse-riding that is the root determinant; it causes inflammation of the joints, which is treated via bloodletting behind the ears, which, according the authors, causes impotence. Realizing that they can no longer perform sexually, these men don the clothes and social roles of women, becoming eunuchs. After establishing an abnormal incidence rate in a population and subsequently combining culture-specific behaviors with the physiological effects they have, the authors come up with an environmental explanation for a disease.

This does feel a bit whiggish — looking to the past and cherry-picking methods that look familiar to modern-day epidemiology — but if we are looking for the history of basic public health strategies, I can see why historians have understood this work to be of importance. I’m hoping we discuss how its ideas were or were not used contemporaneously and whether or not it was read and followed by later individuals concerned with community health.

Another interesting bit — the authors’ thoughts on the supernatural character of diseases are of note. Though not ready to throw the possibility of divine will completely out, they were certainly sure that the cause of illness was natural and knowable;

"...no one disease is either more divine or more human than another,
but that all are alike divine, for that each has its own nature, and
that no one arises without a natural cause." (Part 22)

Health & Water in the Middle Ages

Papers

Health and Water in the Middle Ages: A Historiographical Survey

            As a requirement for life, water has enjoyed an interactive relationship with humanity through the ages, and this is no less true of the medieval era this survey will cover from about the ninth-century to the fifteenth AD. Because of its cleansing properties, symbolic associations, and the importance it is given in the Hippocratic and Galenic corpus, water has also often been associated with health — both as a healing agent itself and as a factor in the maintenance of the all-important equilibrium of the living body. It should come as a surprise, then, that the Anglophonic scholarship surrounding water and its role in medieval health can be best characterized as embryonic and fragmented, and certainly as lacking a developed methodological discourse or unity of approach.[1] Although calls have been made since the early twentieth-century for a more systematic analysis of medieval cleanliness, usage of and beliefs about water, and relationship with bathing and bathhouses, most scholars continue to focus on the early modern and modern periods.[2]