- The Making of Modern Anthrax, 1875–1920: Uniting Local, National, and Global Histories of Disease by James F. Stark
Historians of disease will welcome this book, which analyzes the Western cultural construction of various medical conditions that coalesced into “anthrax” in human populations by the 1920s. The author argues that not only “ambitious physicians,” but also “a whole host of social groups and cultural factors—among them, the global wool trade, woolsorters, compensation, employers, families, anxieties, [and] sheep” contributed to “the making” of this disease (p. 4). The book adds to recent scholarship highlighting the continuity of sanitarian approaches throughout the supposed “bacteriological revolution.” Focusing on the British Empire, plus some other important wool-producing areas, the book also seeks to connect the local, national, and global levels of anthrax investigation and control by following boundary-crossing entities (bacilli, ideas, practices) during the long nineteenth century. [End Page 819]
The book’s structure reflects its local-to-global argument, with the early chapters discussing the many groups of people concerned with meat-borne disease in Glasgow, woolsorter’s disease in Bradford, and worker illnesses in other animal-based British industrial locations. Bradford, a Yorkshire manufacturing town distant from the centers of British medical knowledge making, was the world’s greatest producer of worsted wool products between the 1860s and 1920s. Alarmed by the rising incidence of “woolsorter’s disease,” Bradford’s workers, newspapermen, physicians, and business elite played various roles in influencing national British policies on worker compensation and disease prevention. Bradford’s version of “capital versus labor” is compared and contrasted with other areas in Britain (the carpet makers of Kidderminster, for example), and productively linked to the campaigns of national figures (including Thomas Morison Legge, Britain’s first medical factory inspector). These efforts culminated in worker compensation legislation and the development of processes designed to “disinfect” the products (wool, hair, and hides) imported into the British Isles (especially those imported from culturally distant areas in the Middle East, Asia, and South America). Wool disinfection joined other tools developed on the Continent using bacteriological methods—the familiar stories of Koch and Pasteur (and the less-well-known work of the Italian Achille Sclavo, who developed an antianthrax serum).
To my mind, the major contribution of this book’s method emerges in the final chapter, which seeks to link the local and national with the “global.” The author discusses the circulations of knowledge and materials between Britain and the wool producers and sellers of Persia, India, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and other areas. This chapter uses rich source materials (including agricultural journals and newspapers) to demonstrate a dynamic exchange of information about, and experience with, anthrax in various places. The British “assimilation” of ideas from around the world depended on “culturally determined views of the points of origin” (p. 177). British medical investigators were quick to dismiss ideas obtained from “the savage Kurds” exporting wool from the Middle East in favor of information gathered from the “intelligent sheep-breeders” of New South Wales (p. 155). This observation and others in this book present springboards for future studies to use in tracing the cultural mediation of “scientific” knowledge through oral histories, popular journals, newspapers, art, and literature, as well as medical and scientific sources. This cultural method also draws our attention to the need for research from the point of view of non-Western people and places, which will be essential to understanding “global” circulations of knowledge, practice, and materials.
Indeed, this study brings us to some important questions that are, perhaps, at a more theoretical level than the author set out to address, but are central nonetheless (and important for historians of medicine to consider). The first lies with the designation of anthrax as a “modern” disease. Here, “diseases of modernity” are those associated with “industrialization, capitalization and globalism” (p. 3) and “technologization” (p. 175), although the author does not engage with...