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Ecological Imperialism Revisited: Entanglements of Disease, Commerce and Knowledge in a Global World

On March 4, 2013, NYAM welcomed Gregg Mitman, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin—Madison, to give a talk on the topic of “Ecological Imperialism Revisited: Entanglements of Disease, Commerce and Knowledge in a Global World.” The event was part of the lecture miniseries “A World Not Quite Fatal: New Views on the History of Environmental Health,” presented by the NYAM Section on the History of Medicine and Public Health.

Dr. Mitman’s talk examined the role of both commerce and war as conduits for the spread of disease. Specifically, he argued that American military and industrial expansion overseas depended upon and helped bring into view an ecological understanding of disease that would, in turn, become the scientific foundation upon which later narratives of ecological imperialism relied.

Dr. Mitman shared how doctors from the Harvard University Department of Tropical Medicine, which was founded in 1914, witnessed this process firsthand in the American occupation of the Philippines, on the coffee plantations of the United Fruit Company, in the trenches of the Great War, and on the rubber plantations of Firestone in Liberia. In studying epidemics including river blindness on Guatemalan coffee plantations and syphilis and yellow fever in the Yucatan during wartime, Harvard doctors including Richard Strong and George Shattuck demonstrated how expeditions altered disease on a global scale.

The lecture was an offshoot of a larger forthcoming project of Dr. Mitman, which includes a book, documentary film, and public health website.

Gregg Mitman, PhD, is the Vilas Research and William Coleman Professor of History of Science, Medical History, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. His most recent book, Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape our Lives and Landscapes (Yale University Press, 2007), was awarded the 2012 William H. Welch Medal from the American Association for the History of Medicine.

The the final lecture in this miniseries will be The Lilianna Sauter Lecture: "Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America's Children" on April 16.

For more updates related to the history of medicine, visit NYAM’s blog Books, Health, and History.

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Posted on March 5, 2013

Gina Ravosa
Director of Marketing & Communications
The New York Academy of Medicine
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New York, NY 10029
(212) 822-7285


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