Of Mycobacterium and Men

Marble quarry at Mile 39, Hudson Bay railroad, MB, 1930. Quarrying exposed workers to large quantities of airborne dust and put them at risk for silicosis. Canada. Dept. of Mines and Technical Surveys / Library and Archives Canada / PA-020392

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I am in the midst of teaching a new senior seminar at the University of Alberta on Health and Environments in Canadian History. Turning my research on the intersection of health and environments in northern Canada into a course in Canadian history, and now well into the semester, I am struck by the important perspective on environmental history enabled by the study of illness and health.

I enjoyed developing the syllabus for this course (and I acknowledge its idiosyncrasies and omissions) given the wealth of materials available—a marked departure from the situation I faced, almost a decade ago now, when I developed my first senior seminar in Canadian Environmental History at York. Most of the best books on health and environmental history – with the exception of Parr’s Sensing Changes – are not Canadian, but rather American (Nash, Mitman, Langston), or from other national and international contexts (Walker, Webb, McNeill, Anderson). There are, nevertheless, rich histories of health, medicine, and health geography, and an ample article literature in Canadian health and environmental history, to provide the foundation for weekly discussions about Canada’s past.

I found myself identifying materials that have been overlooked in Canadian environmental history, in spite of the familiarity of the authors. Jennifer Read, for instance, whose article on Pollution Probe is well-known, has a valuable analysis published in Scientia Canadensis of epidemic typhoid and the implications in the transnational environment of the early-twentieth-century Great Lakes. Neil Forkey’s 1998 article on dam building in Upper Canada is a significant contribution to our understanding of malaria. Even Hackett’s A Very Remarkable Sickness, which can hardly be characterized as a lesser-known work, is nevertheless far from a staple of Canadian environmental history. That these works lie outside of the canon of Canadian environmental history (and to the extent that such a “canon” exists outside of my own head) says something important about the preoccupations of the field to date.

Environmental historians focus on the non-human (bunnies, trees, and rocks) in their efforts to bring the rest of nature into our understanding of the human past. Pathogens occupy an ambiguous place in nature and by extension in environmental history. Pathogens do have their own histories; the viruses and bacteria we know today have not been transmitted unchanged through the centuries. The 1918-19 influenza virus, for instance, was a significant mutation, hence the vulnerability of so many millions of people across the globe. But I would argue it is more of a challenge to tell compelling histories from a viral point of view than it is, say, from that of a fish. To the extent that our own familiarity with other animals or environments facilitates the stories we tell about them, a virus is at once more alien than a fish (and even a very alien-looking one, like a sturgeon or a hammerhead shark), while the environment in which many viruses thrive, the human body, is far more familiar than a forest. (We all know at least one body intimately, even if we don’t have an equivalent grasp of any single tree).

“Dread Smallpox Still Spreading,” Toronto Daily Star, Monday, March 18, 1901. Front page.
“Dread Smallpox Still Spreading,” Toronto Daily Star, Monday, March 18, 1901. Front page.

This is a problem I faced in my research. I found myself wishing to understand the non-human aspects of disease, but always having to come to terms with human bodies. It feels like a riddle: if the environment of disease is the human body, then does that make the environmental history of health a social history? For the course, I embraced this ambiguity. It enabled me to draw on the rich historiographies of the social history of health and Aboriginal health histories, in particular works by Maureen Lux and Mary-Ellen Kelm. We have explored the different approaches to thinking about the intersection of health and environment in the past as these works address matters of importance to the environmental historian (sanitation, nutrition, the physical places where health or illness thrived). Finally, this ambiguity doesn’t always hold. With diseases that involve non-human vectors or reservoirs, such as malaria or bovine tuberculosis, there’s plenty of non-human nature to engage with.

In our seminar discussions, I am struck by the different tone that arises in addressing the history of health and environment. When considering the unintended consequences so prominent in Canadian environmental history, the possibilities for irony have to be tempered by reconciling oneself with the fact that the consequences under examination led to the painful death of someone or many people in the past. I was thankful, likewise, that I read Walker’s Toxic Archipelago and Langston’s Toxic Bodies, while on maternity leave and not when I was pregnant – I would have had a breakdown otherwise. Similarly, I think it is valuable to explore an area of environmental history where declentionist narratives can be sidelined. Gregg Mitman made this point at the ASEH conference in Portland a couple of years ago. Mitman pointed out that for health historians, the twentieth century had brought not devastation but celebration, with improvements in health, life-span and infant mortality across much of the globe. Unless one wishes to resurrect Malthus or the Ehrlichs’, such improvements to the human experience do not fuel the kinds of pessimistic readings of the past century that are common to environmental historiography.

What do my students have to say about all this? Rather than re-envisioning history from the perspective of the Mycobacterium tuberculosis or mosquitoes, they are most interested in learning about the role of environment and environmental changes in recent decades in contributing to the forms of ill-health with which we are especially familiar (cancers and allergies in particular). Many infectious diseases feel passé, while the health consequences of intensified industrialization, particularly for us living here in the midst of the mountains and oil fields of Alberta, take on a more pressing character.


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