- Environment, Health and History ed. by Virginia Berridge and Martin Gorsky
This volume will be of considerable interest to many historians of technology, especially those who engage public health history and urban history. Its fourteen essays cover four hundred years, from 1550 to 1950, with the greatest focus on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Geographically, the essays reflect the British origins of the volume, a 2007 conference at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The topics do extend globally, however, and considerable attention is given to the United States.
At the outset the editors stake a claim for studying public health in relation to environmental issues, and assert that transdisciplinary collaboration is needed to carry out research in that vein. While this book does demonstrate the value of studying the history of public health in an environmental context, the latter is not much in evidence: all but one of the essayists are historians, and none of the essays appears to be the result of transdisciplinary collaboration.
While that expectation may be dashed, Environment, Health and History is nonetheless rewarding. Of particular interest for historians of technology [End Page 487] are three essays that break from expected paths of research and argument. Vanessa Harding’s “Housing and Health in Early Modern London” maps the best available housing and mortality data for sixteenth- and seventeenth-century London, and reaches some tentative conclusions about the relationship of health to the density and quality of housing in the city and environs. Not surprisingly, dense housing occupancy and reduced economic status appear to be most significantly related to higher rates of disease and mortality, but the lack of access to fresh water and adequate sanitary facilities also were predictors of death by disease. London’s rapid, unplanned growth during this period created increasingly unhealthy conditions, especially for the lower classes.
Sabine Clarke’s “Rethinking the Post-War Hegemony of DDT: Insecticide Research in the British Colonial Empire” is a revisionist study. She reviews the current histories of early DDT use that assert that enthusiastic programs for the eradication of insect-borne diseases always overwhelmed more sober scientific approaches and that opposition to DDT use similarly was not based on careful study of local environments. Instead, Clarke’s well-researched essay demonstrates that in British colonial Africa there was substantial science-based resistance to DDT use, drawing both on the failures of some DDT trials and on cautions about DDT’s potentially devastating environmental effects. She provides a convincing counternarrative to the burgeoning DDT scholarship of recent years.
Christian Warren’s “The Gardener in the Machine: Biotechnological Adaptations for Life Indoors” recalls Lewis Mumford’s polemic regarding the physical and social losses of the encapsulated human in the twentieth century. Warren considers the negative aspects of modern “life indoors,” using as a case study the continuing problem of rickets in American children, and considering whether, because of ubiquitous air conditioning, “modern Americans have, in effect, developed an artificially cooled exoskeleton comprising their homes, their automobiles, and most of the other places in which they spend their days” (p. 217). This reflective essay could be compelling reading in history of technology courses.
Well-edited, and with a thorough index, Environment, Health and History deserves attention from readers of Technology and Culture. [End Page 488]
Darwin Stapleton is a professor of history and director of the M.A. Archives Track at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He has published several articles on public health in North America and Asia.