Spring 2020 Colloquium

January 31 - Enslaved Histories: Value, Risk, and the Imagination of the Quantifiable Body in the Early Modern Iberian Atlantic

figures of men

Pablo Gomez

Medical History and Bioethics

University of Wisconsin

January 31, 2020

Tate Hall 101, 3:35 PM

This talk will explore the emergence in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Iberian Atlantic slaving societies of novel concepts about the quantifiable nature of human bodies. These developments, I argue, gave rise to a new epistemology that conceived of fungible and universal bodies that were measurable and comparable, as were the diseases that affected them, in quantifiable and reproducible ways in a temporal framework. Scholars have traditionally identified these ideas as related to the rise of the New Science and political and medical arithmetics in late seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century English, French and northern European learned circles. My research explores how early Iberian-centered slave trade enterprises of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries generated, in an unprecedented manner, a gargantuan amount of data related to the mathematical measurement of human corporeality and the risks of slave bodies (and their labor) in financial terms. This history has remained mostly unexamined, especially in relation to accounts about the emergence of modern medicine, epidemiology, and demography. By focusing on the violent early history of bodily quantification in the Atlantic, my work re-locates narratives about critical events related to the value-creating nature of exchange practices as they refer to the human body and their role in the modeling of fundamental ideas for the nascent disciplines of political economy and public health in ensuing centuries.

February 7 - The Age of Nitrogen: the Colonial Green Revolution and Postcolonial Fertilizer


Hiromi Mizuno

Department of History

University of Minnesota

February 7, 2020

Tate Hall 101, 3:35 PM

How can we make nitrogen visible? Can we historicize the Nitrogen Cycle? This talk, from my current book project, tells a story of agricultural modernization in Asia that challenges the familiar US-centered Green Revolution story. Imperial Japan was the world's largest producer and consumer of nitrogen, the most important nutrient for plant growth, and postwar Japan continued to be the major provider of fertilizer to Asia. Using GIS technologies and archival sources, I follow the flow of nitrogen in order to critically explore the political ecology of nitrogenous fertilizer in the twentieth century and terrestrial concerns for the future.

February 14 - The People's War against Earthquakes: Science, Disasters, and Politics in Communist China

fa ti fan

Fa-ti Fan

Department of History

Binghampton University 

February 14, 2020

Tate Hall 101, 3:35 PM

By a strange coincidence, China experienced a series of powerful earthquakes during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Natural disasters and socio-political upheavals dominated the tumultuous years. In response, China waged “The People’s War against Earthquakes.” The “earthquake workers” as well as the masses developed and mobilized a wide range of approaches to earthquake monitoring, prediction, and defense.

This paper discusses the ideas, practices, and institutions of earthquake monitoring and prediction in Cultural Revolution China. The focus is on the culture and politics of the senses, sensory experience, and distributed sensor-networks in the People’s War against Earthquakes. The paper demonstrates the fundamental importance of sensory politics to disaster governance in communist China.

February 21 - Jim Crow in the Asylum: Psychiatry and Civil Rights in the American South

view of hospital yard and buildings

Kylie Smith

School of Nursing

Emory University 

February 21, 2020

Tate Hall 101, 3:35 PM

Much has been written about the history of psychiatry and the history of Civil Rights, yet rarely are they studied together. In this lecture, Dr Kylie Smith will present research from her new project which explores the impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on large state psychiatric hospitals in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. These hospitals had been segregated for decades, with devastating effects, and resistance to integration was often fierce. Yet a series of court cases bought by committed activists and lawyers sought to end racist practices in Southern psychiatry. Despite some successes, racist ideas about the nature of the Black psyche continued to underpin approaches to mental health in the South, creating continued disparities into today. In this exploration, Dr Smith reveals narratives of oppression, abuse and neglect as well as startling bravery and survival, as psychiatric hospitals become a lens through which to view many of the South’s enduring tensions. Dr Smith will discuss the ways that her project sits at the intersection of medical, legal and disability history, and will also explain the process of creating a digital humanities, Open Access project.

CANCELLED: March 20 - ‘So few see the importance of antepartum care’: Early efforts to encourage low income women to engage with prenatal care


Janet Greenlees

Glasgow Caledonian University

March 20, 2020

This event has been cancelled.

For over one hundred years, the cities of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Glasgow, UK have struggled with some of their countries highest rates of poverty and maternal and infant mortality. While national and local efforts to address these mortality rates have varied over time, many initiatives focused on mothers and care before, during and after childbirth. Nevertheless, women living in poverty have been consistently less likely to engage with prenatal care than their wealthier counterparts. Focusing on the first half of the twentieth century, when prenatal care was ‘invented’ and gradually became a recognized part of regular maternity care, this paper challenges historical debates which explain women’s increasing engagement with prenatal care as forming part of the shift from social childbirth and reactive obstetrics to the mid-twentieth century medical model or ideal of childbirth. The cities of Philadelphia and Glasgow provide case studies for demonstrating cross-national similarities of low-income women’s agency in choosing to engage or not to engage and on what terms with what became known as preventive medicine. Low-income women’s experiences of pregnancy differed from those of their wealthier counterparts and this paper reveals a common importance of not simply the type of prenatal provision, but also practitioners’ perceptions of their poor patients and maternal feelings. Both providers and prospective patients required resilience to manage the challenges of poverty and pregnancy.

CANCELLED: April 3 - Holy Modern: Cold War Fascism and the Technoaesthetics of Imperial Imagination

nun and ceiling

Maria Gonzalez Pendas

Art History and Archaeology

Columbia University 

This event has been cancelled.

A vibrant interior built on a gridded structure of steel and glass, the pavilion was readily celebrated as the “unexpected gem” of the fair, exemplar of a refined modernism unlike much of the technological kitsch taking over the grounds of Expo 58 in Brussels. The architecture that the dictatorial regime of Francisco Franco brought to the world scene in 1958 was received as quintessentially modern—and thus at odds with the fascist regime it was called to represent. “The Spanish Pavilion makes one wonder,” as one critic put it, “is Franco now tired and allows artists unusual freedom? Or maybe this country is no longer fascist?”

Fascism was of course alive and well and architecture continued to be as crucial an instrument for its production as it had been in the interwar period. Only now the world stage was shifting under Cold War dynamics and with it the ideological and technological configurations of fascism. In this talk, I will chronicle how architects worked alongside intellectuals, cadres, and other technicians to redefine the technological and aesthetic registers of fascism towards what I call “holy modernism.” In its ability to blend modernist aesthetics, technological modernization, and reactionary ideologies—including those of Opus Dei, the Catholic organization that came of age in the wake of the Spanish Civil War—holy modernism proved crucial in sustaining the pastoral project of Spanish fascism and modernize its nationalist-imperial myth. Opus Dei member, historian, and Secretary of Censorship Florentino Pérez-Embid fittingly coined this agenda as “Westernization in the means, Hispanization in the ends.” This talk illuminates the strategies that architects, working at the intersection of technology and aesthetic, deployed to fulfill such synthesis; one that called to perform the Reconquest, technological modernization, and affective politics in the very same breadth. In so doing, it offers the methods and objects of architectural history as means by which to unpack some of the most insidious techniques of reactionary politics and some of the most overlooked aspects of the politics of technology.  

CANCELLED: April 10 - Typhoid Cultures: Disease, Medical Science, and Popular Politics in Victorian Britain

steere williams

Jacob Steere-Williams

Department of History

College of Charleston

This event has been cancelled.

Typhoid fever strikes about 20 million people each year, killing about 200,000 individuals annually, predominately in the Global South. Evolutionary biologists and historical epidemiologists tell us that the disease has long been inflicting human populations, but that typhoid was at its height during the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century. A food and water-borne bacterial infection, typhoid epitomized the pitfalls of early attempts at an urban-Industrial pipe-bound city. Before the 1840s, however, it was a disease without a name, grouped alongside a host of early modern “fevers.”  This talk is about how, epistemologically, the disease concept first named typhoid was a unique product of the Victorian period, produced by and mutually intelligible to historical actors of the nineteenth century. Typhoid was deeply understood to be part of the English environment, inexorably tied to English bodies and to British cultural identity. Drawing on material from my forthcoming book, The Filth Disease, I show that typhoid was protean in the Victorian period, flexible to popular and politicized understandings of public health, and malleable to a number of burgeoning scientific fields, including clinical medicine, pathology, veterinary medicine, epidemiology, chemistry, and bacteriology. In the years after 1900 the typhoid of the Victorians disappeared. Or, rather, it became fragmented and disjointed by laboratory science into the broader Salmonella family that we know today. This talk highlights the central features of conflicting “typhoid cultures”  during the Victorian era, when the disease emerged and before it vanished.  

CANCELLED: April 17 - Erle Stanley Gardner’s ‘Court of Last Resort’ and the Pursuit of Wrongful Conviction in Cold War America

court of last resort

Ian Burney

Center for History of Science, Technology and Medicine

University of Manchester

This event has been cancelled.

We live in an age of innocence consciousness.Since the first US case of post-conviction DNA exoneration in 1989, national advocacy organizations have championed the cause of potentially innocent prisoners, raised public awareness, and promoted policy reform. These developments have been hailed as the dawn of a new moral, legal and scientific order – an ‘innocence revolution’ – driven by a unique set of contemporary forces: principled critique criminal justice bias, media advocacy, and most importantly the declarative power of forensic genomics. In this lecture I will rethink this claim to historical singularity by exploring a prior forensic framework of innocence centered on Erle Stanley Gardner’s ‘Court of Last Resort.’ Best known today as the creator of the intrepid defense attorney Perry Mason, in 1948 Gardner founded ‘The Court of Last Resort,’ a self-appointed body of experts dedicated to investigating – and publicizing – possible cases of wrongful conviction. In many respects, Gardner’s enterprise shares essential structural features of the present innocence moment. Yet Gardner’s project was profoundly influenced by the political, legal, cultural and scientific context of Cold War America, and this determined both the forensic techniques it deployed in the pursuit of innocence, and the criteria for selecting whose claim to innocence was worth pursuing.

CANCELLED: April 24 - Connecting the Dots: A History of Systems Thinking in Chinese Agricultural Science and Politics


Sigrid Schmalzer

Department of History

University of Massachusetts - Amherst

This event has been cancelled.

Chinese agricultural scientists are prominent actors in global movements to promote agroecological engineering and preserve agricultural heritage systems. This presentation will explore the diverse historical roots of the systems paradigm, along with the scientific and political work it accomplishes. The notion that Chinese farmers have traditionally viewed agriculture as an ecological system (expressed most famously in the mulberry dyke / fish pond system of southeastern China) has inspired proponents of agroecology around the world. However, the mapping of such farming practices as systems of efficiently functioning components—along with the more general, transnational phenomenon of systems science—is a quintessentially modern way of thinking rooted in the application of scientific knowledge for the rationalization and control of nature and society. Similar language and diagrams have been used in China since the Mao era to describe agricultural, industrial, and political processes. The overarching principles of integration, efficiency, totality, and harmony emphasized in such schematics may be read as representing environmentalism or industrialism, holism or authoritarianism—or, more productively, some combination thereof. A deeper understanding of the history and current application of systems thinking in Chinese agriculture will help us more clearly identify where it inspires respect for ecological complexity and balance, and where it serves to justify and buttress state power.