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)


"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)

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

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.

Maria Mitchell’s successful career as an astronomer spanned the middle third of the nineteenth century and provides an excellent point of departure. Born in 1818, her training and early work took place in the context of a scientific community still quite fragmented; the big names that would contribute to science’s nineteenth century prestige — Charles Darwin, James Clark Maxwell, Michael Faraday, Louis Pasteur — were a development of mid-century. As her biographer Renée Bergland argues, Mitchell established herself as a scientist at a time when “studying science was ‘womanly,’ safely outside the potentially dangerous ideological realms of law or history or theology.”[2]

Lack of ideological authority placed science in a space that, at the time, was acceptable for females to interact within, and Mitchell’s science reflected her acceptance into the community. Like her male colleagues, she scanned the night sky for comets and made her entrance into the astronomical discourse with her discovery of one in 1847.[3] She was given credit for it and felt that she could become “a woman scientist… who could chart out her own course of research,” unlike her heroine Caroline Herschel who constantly diverted credit to her brother.[4] She acquired a job as the computer of Venus and published her astronomical work in various journals.[5] Mitchell was thus a scientist in her own rite, asking her own questions that reflected her relatively secure position within the discipline of astronomy. She needed neither to justify her participation in knowledge-production nor rely on a man’s help to solidify her position in the community.

Major changes were soon to alter the situation for women in science, however. Around the 1860s, America was professionalizing on many fronts, and science too felt this pull. With their newfound authority, professional scientists began to relocate the practice of science to the university — an institution from which women were usually excluded.[6] They also began to construct a view of the scientist that was uniquely male in order to further assert their professional authority. Women practitioners, they thought, would weaken their professional image.[7] Authority, institutionalization, and increased disciplinary cohesion (brought on by advances in theory and methodology) thus gave a particular class of scientist — advantaged by their social and economic position — the power to create spaces of exclusion that left whole sections of the community outside of scientific discourse. This would have profound implications for female scientists and their work in the twentieth century.

One such scientist was Helen Thompson Woolley. Born in 1874, she would face a far different scientific environment than Maria Mitchell. She graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago before beginning her research on sex differences; her thesis “compared the performance of 25 men and 25 women on motor, sensory and intellectual tests,” and her subsequent research and reviews centered on the same issues surrounding gender differentials in mental capacities.[8] Her frustration with contemporary scholarship on sex differences is evident in Psychological Literature: A Review of the Recent Literature on the Psychology of Sex, where she reviews recent work and, in a powerful and convincing conclusion, repudiates scientifically many of the arguments made by male scientists for why females do not belong in their profession. “There is perhaps no field aspiring to be scientific where flagrant personal bias, logic martyred in the cause of supporting prejudice, unfounded assertions, and even sentimental rot and drivel, have run riot to such an extent as here,” she states in a particularly ardent passage.

Woolley was fighting against the current that was sweeping many of her female colleagues out of science and into domesticity, and her research reflects her tenuous position. She chose to pursue issues related to her gender’s capacity to reason, and by extent to participate in knowledge-creation. Instead of engaging with other lines of inquiry in her field at the time, Woolley chose to hone in on one in which she had a vested interest; the scientific community’s consensus on whether females were intellectually on par with men would have a direct effect on Woolley’s ability to assert her own authority within her discipline. Therefore, because of the authoritative exclusion of her gender from science, Woolley’s research took on a very particular identity — one connected to her identification as a marginalized professional scientist and one based on legitimizing her participation in scientific discourse.

We have now seen how two female scientists’ work differed before and after the marked rise of scientific authority. Maria Mitchell pursued her own interests, relatively unaffected by her role as a female scientist. Helen Thompson Woolley, on the other hand, pursued a research program that attempted to authorize her participation in science; her identity as a woman in science played a central role in her research interests. As the twentieth century wore on, the situation for women in science improved only marginally. Two more scientists’ work will now elucidate how scientific authority has continued to marginalize women and thus inform their research agendas.

Margaret W. Conkey and Janet D. Spector founded a new field in archaeology — the archeology of gender — in 1984 with a groundbreaking article. In it, they highlighted the propensity for archeologists to make gendered assumptions about past populations. Conkey and Spector found that archeologists maintained gender biases when interpreting symbolism and explaining divisions of labor and social hierarchies, and their solution was to begin “a systematic program of feminist research on questions about women and gender.”[9] While it took seven years for anyone to act on their criticism, conferences began to proliferate in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Alison Wylie links the increasing interest in feminist archeology to “a parallel, and, in most areas, antecedent interest in questions about the roles, status, and contributions of women in archeology.”[10]
In this late twentieth century scenario, female archeologists drew attention to the gender biases rampant in their field. This kind of research was different from Helen Woolley’s in that it did not attempt to legitimize the female in general as a potential authority within a discipline; while female archeologists still suffer from unequal treatment in academia, they had at least affirmed their right to be there (more or less) by the 1980s. Conkey and Spector did, however, wage war against the gender biases still inherent in archeological analytical techniques, pointing out that contemporary methodologies were problematic. Perhaps they pursued these research interests because, as women within a scientific framework that was still masculinized in method, they remained outsiders. The authority of male archeologists, so ingrained in the profession, was still implicit in the way that archeology is practiced. While the role of women in science has improved overall, the barriers to equitably assigned intellectual value have remained strong, though often implicit.

Thus, while scientific authority has come with many benefits, it has also provided the impetus for marginalizing some with effects on the kinds of research they conduct. While I by no means am attempting to make the deterministic argument that all women in science have conducted gender-influenced research — that would be over-simplistic — I am, however, asserting that scientists’ work is profoundly impacted by the socio-scientific environment in which they practice, and the marginalization that has resulted from centralized scientific authority has had implications for some women’s work. I think this idea could be further researched and expanded to include other groups on the fringes; perhaps a comparison of the work produced by scientists occupying different positions in the institutional hierarchy would prove fruitful. In any case, as we have seen, different levels of authority from various time periods have produced distinct research agendas. For women scientists, mounting scientific authority has not always resulted in their work being taken more seriously, and it has left a distinctive mark on their research.

[1] By studied, I mean in the discipline of the history of science. These are two obvious examples, but the list goes on and on: those with disabilities, with alternative religious orientations (even as science’s power was eclipsing that of religion), homosexuals (i.e., Alan Turing), foreigners (some more threatening than others), etc.

[2] Renée Bergland, Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), xvi.

[3] Ibid, 53.

[4] Ibid, 114.

[5] Ibid, 155.

[6]Ibid, 156-157.

[7] Renée Bergland, Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science, 174.

[8] Katharine S. Milar, “An Historical View of Some Early Women Psychologists and the Psychology of Women,” Classics in the History of Psychology Special Collections, accessed November 18, 2016,

[9] Alison Wylie, “Doing Social Science as a Feminist: The Engendering of Archaeology,” in Feminism in Twentieth-Century Science, Technology and Medicine, eds. Angela Creager, Elizabeth Lunbeck, and Londa Schiebinger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 24.

[10] Ibid, 25.

Mechanism and Holism in Modernity

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.

Scientific management provides a good point of departure in a discussion about mechanically-influenced social science. Frederick Winslow Taylor’s 1911 book on the subject, The Principles of Scientific Management, elucidates his ideas on the topic; he proposes a managerial system in which the knowledge of the worker is systematized so that the manager can plan his laborers’ tasks in the most efficient way possible. By scientifically calculating the most productive a man can be, the manager can optimize his employee’s productivity and, Taylor asserts, also the worker’s satisfaction and happiness. An obsession with gathering knowledge, quantifying, and analyzing it, so characteristic of mechanical methodology, underlies Taylor’s solution to inefficient work. The workingman is objectified, made into a machine whose output can be optimized. Although Taylor stresses the individuality of each worker in the sense that every man has different working strengths, he certainly is not implying that what makes a man individual are his ideas or preferences; like any machine, every man was made for a certain kind of task.

Taylor is attempting to answer the question, how can labor be made the most efficient, the most mechanical, possible? How can humans be optimized? The humanity of the humans being reduced so as to be made efficient is not a factor in his carefully outlined methodology, just as it is not addressed in his question. Mechanical thought had no room for humanity because many parts of humanity are difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. As a result, Taylor did not ask the question, how can we improve the quality of life of workers and managers in the workplace? or how can we further individualize the workplace experience so that everyone feels equally valued and appreciated? Instead of asking questions aimed at improving the lives and experiences of human actors in a human production, Taylor’s questions focused on how to make man the machine more efficient. His resolutions also fell victim to the methods of mechanization because they were framed by the questions they were attempting to answer.

The same fundamental mistake — removing the humanity from very human endeavors in order to simplify and control them — was made in an experiment conducted by Herbert S. Terrace and his research team in the 1970s. The researchers were venturing to find an answer to the question, embedded in a much larger scientific quest to discover what exactly makes humans human, of whether or not language acquisition was possible for chimpanzees if raised in a human environment. Researchers involved in the project spent extended time with the chimpanzee, Nim, and they naturally developed relationships with the intelligent test subject. Problems arose in the research program from many different sources; certain members of the team had different ideas of how the research should be conducted, attachment to Nim and other members of the team problematized the “objectivity” of the research, and Nim’s growth and development rendered him volatile and dangerous as he reached adolescence.[1]

The issues, again, began with the type of questions asked and the methods implicit in mechanistic research programs. The very fundamental lines of inquiry in Project Nim — What is it exactly that makes humans human? Is language what distinguishes humans from other animals? Can we define humanity by the ability to verbally communicate? — assume that the mechanical experimental process can provide definitive answers to such questions. Humanity, Terrace et al. believed, could be quantifiably explained by how many vocabulary words could be memorized and placed in the context of sentences. These researchers, taking mechanistic thought to a level beyond even Taylor’s scientific management, were trying to simplify and categorize humanity itself instead of simply leaving it out of consideration. Reducing humanity’s complexity to language abilities, they failed to see the human being as a complex and multi-faceted whole. Questions outside of the mechanistic way of thinking could have been more along the lines of, how do different aspects of humanity interact with one another, and how does this create a uniquely human experience? How do the complex interactions of language, technology development, and emotional capacity affect humanity’s interaction with its surroundings? The experiment conducted by Terrace and his team would not have a purpose in this line of inquiry because the need to reduce and define humanity is absent, and in its place an emphasis on interactions of parts of wholes takes precedence.

Through the brief analyses of Taylor and Terrace’s mechanistically-informed work, we can understand how mechanical thinking manifested itself in the types of questions asked in twentieth century science, and by asking questions more informed by a holistic worldview, we can see that mechanistic thinking is far from all-encompassing or inevitable. But I want to take that point a step further and discuss how this method of research still influences the way not only science is conducted, but the way institutions are run and how this filters down into the everyday human experience. This will also support a claim I made earlier; the kinds of questions that scientists ask, informed as they are by their methodological foundations, can (and often do) have major effects on human thinking as a whole.

The modern example I am most able to grapple with — as I have been participating in it for almost the entirety of my twenty-two years — is the education system. Beginning in the twentieth century, educators and psychologists introduced standardized testing as a way to, initially, provide individuals with education most suited to their needs.[2] The testing craze quickly evolved into something far more institutionalized, however, and became the basis for creating aptitude hierarchies of students all vying for increasingly competitive places in schools and universities. Like Taylor’s ideas on scientific management, the tests have provided a way for the education system to be streamlined and made more efficient; based on ACT scores, institutions and individuals can quickly decide who is and is not worth the time and money required for a college education. Certain machines are best suited for certain tasks, after all. Resources spent on trying to make a deep fryer capable of space travel would indeed be wasted.

By treating students like cogs in the machine of efficient production, the educational system has largely removed human individuality in favor of a single, mechanistic idea of what intelligence and aptitude are. Standardized testing is a solution to the issue of, how can we homogenize intelligence? How can we quickly and efficiently decide who is and is not worth the resources of education? A different approach, one more informed by thinking of humans as dynamic and individual, might grapple with the issues of education in a different manner; what sort of educational environment (including the people involved, the goals set, the curriculum followed) is most conducive to making students excel? How can we create a more inclusive educational experience? By embracing human variety and interconnectivity, these sorts of questions might offer up very different means of addressing the question of who should or should not be given the benefit of educational privilege.

            In a die-hard quest to optimize our world, we have repeatedly employed a reductionist, mechanistic approach to understanding and shaping our surroundings. It has clearly permeated the realm of the scientific, as evidenced by the kind of work done by Frederick Winslow Taylor and Herbert S. Terrace. Equally evident in their studies is the increasing tendency of these ideas to encroach upon the more social and soft sciences closer to humans’ understandings of themselves. Finally, mechanistic worldview’s influence on institutionalized education provides a modern example of how the questions and methodologies employed have shaped human lives and individuals’ beliefs about themselves and their capabilities. In all of these instances, as I hope to have shown through posing questions from an alternate standpoint, reductionism was not inevitable, nor has it been/is it the best approach available for the more nuanced issues with which softer sciences concern themselves.

[1] Project Nim, directed by James Marsh (2011).

[2] Katherine Pandora, “Disciplining Science in the Search for the Control of Nature,” (lecture, HSCI 5533, Norman, OK, October 27, 2016).

Nuclear Energy

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

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

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.