Modern Airs, Waters, Places

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)

The introduction also observes the domination of tropical medicine and its links to colonialism and race over the scholarship on medical climatology. Tracy and Bashford admit that this is important and extensive work and that it has provided us with a firm basis of understanding when it comes to “…environmental determinism, and the specific science and politics to which it was put, especially over the colonial 19th and early 20th century..” The authors encourage us, however, to look “beyond the link between tropical medicine and colonialism, beyond temperate versus tropical, and beyond latitude to think of altitude.” (497)

There seems to be a much smaller bit of literature on the domestic/local manifestations of the “airs, waters, places tradition,” and what exists seems to be focused on the early modern period. (503) “One interpretive ambition in this context has been less to identify racial, imperial, or even national politics of human difference, and more to understand the logic and fortunes of ‘holism’ in the comprehension of disease and the pursuit of health.” (503)


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