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  • Contagion: How Commerce Has Spread Disease by Mark Harrison
  • Valeska Huber
Mark Harrison. Contagion: How Commerce Has Spread Disease. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2013. xviii + 376 pp. Ill. $38.00 (978-0-300-12357-9).

Mark Harrison’s magisterial study on contagion not only firmly connects medical history and global history, but effectively integrates these fields with the history of political economy. The book combines a chronological structure with a survey of major diseases: yellow fever, cholera, and plague, but also animal and plant diseases, and the epidemics since the 1990s—BSE, SARS, H5N1 (“bird flu”), and H1N1 (“swine flu”). It goes far beyond tracing “the spread of disease along the arteries of commerce” (p. xv) but sheds light on contagion as a broader theme connecting the geographies of disease with political actors, experts and advisors, international organizations, pressure groups, and public opinion.

The book begins with the plague of the sixteenth century emphasizing popular conceptions of contagion both inside Europe and outside. Already this first example shows that the decisive factors of how to deal with disease were political. Disease control in European state-building processes and diplomacy is the topic of the next chapters, as well as processes of standardization and its limits, reinterpreting the well-known conflict between anticontagionism and liberalism and highlighting the intersection of science, politics, and commerce. [End Page 381]

We then turn to Britain and yellow fever as a global disease. The Eclair case when numerous passengers and seamen died on a ship held in quarantine on the British shores in 1845 is described particularly lively, as well as the agency of the West Indies governors and the position of experts and advisors whose reports could also be ignored if leading to politically uncomfortable outcomes. Furthermore, already in the nineteenth century, public opinion emerged as a major player. On the other side of the Atlantic, yellow fever debates during the Panama Canal construction, the Pan-American conferences, and the impact of the Rockefeller Foundation highlight the move “from quarantine to surveillance” (p. 138). Looking at cholera, often interpreted as the seminal nineteenth-century disease, particular instances such as fears connected with the Mecca pilgrimage, the International Sanitary Conference in Constantinople, the regulations of Bombay Harbor, or the role of Iran in international negotiations are moved center stage. The chapter on the Chinese plague outbreaks and the plague’s global spread situates the “sanitary machinery” (p. 203) even more clearly than earlier epidemics in the context of the political economy and also points to the emergence of new agents, such as international organizations.

From the nineteenth-century “maelstrom of disease” (p. 211) Harrison moves to the big animal diseases. If some agreement had been reached on how to deal with human diseases, regarding animal diseases there was no such consensus. This field was most clearly connected with commerce as embargoes on cattle exports could hit for instance the United States particularly hard. Sanitary controls furthermore offered a possibility to protect domestic industries. Plant diseases are thus interpreted as oscillating between “protection and protectionism.”

The chapter on globalization gives a very vivid description of BSE and once again testifies Harrison’s elegant alternation between the large picture and well-detailed case studies. Here the U.S.–South Korea conflict around the ban of American beef is taken to show the increasingly central role of public opinion. SARS equally illustrates that something much more complicated than commerce is at bay and how debates on contagion crystallize politics, ideologies, and public opinion. While SARS and bird flu point to the new rapid flows of information transcending the exchange of commodities marking the earlier part of the book, they were also marked by old-style approaches such as quarantine and culling.

Harrison does not claim to be all encompassing, but on the contrary makes very careful choices—with a slight leaning toward the Anglo-American world, which comes at times at the expense of other regions. Particularly attractive is the interweaving of a differentiated narrative and individual cases that brings the realities and conflicts of contagion in different centuries and different geographical contexts to life. The subtitle of the book is thus oversimplifying in...


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pp. 381-382
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