Fall 2021 Colloquium - Jacob Steere-Williams
A Charles E. Culpeper Lecture in the History of Medicine and HSTM Alumni Lecture
Title: "Carbolic Colonialism: Race, Labor, and Plague in South Africa"
Abstract: This talk examines the entanglements of colonial public health through the history of a singular chemical technology; carbolic acid. Derived from coal tar production in British and German industrial factories, carbolic acid exploded in use from the 1870s after Joseph Lister advocated for aseptic and antiseptic surgeries. By the early twentieth century, carbolic acid and other chemical disinfectants were domesticated as common household tools in the fight against germs. An unexplored history of carbolic acid, however, are the practices—gendered and racialized—whereby carbolic acid became the central and everyday weapon used by colonial public health officers and indigenous laborers in fighting outbreaks of infectious disease. This talk, using the rich archival material derived from anti-plague work in British India and South Africa around 1900, shows how carbolic acid and the practices of disinfection were key sites of scientific knowledge transfer, debate, and contestation, over colonial environments, bodies, and what bodies produce.