The Making of Modern Anthrax

Date: 21 November 2013
Time: 4:30 - 5:30pm
Venue: 758, 7/F, Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus, The University of Hong Kong

The Making of Modern Anthrax by Dr. James F. Stark (Arts Engaged Fellow, University of Leeds)

seminar posterAbstract:
During the mid-nineteenth century a number of apparently new and distinct diseases emerged across the world. In Bradford – an industrial town in the north of England and the hub of the global wool trade – workers suddenly began to suffer a mysterious and rapidly-fatal condition: ‘woolsorters’ disease’. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, livestock in rural New South Wales around Sydney were struck down in droves by an illness which was called ‘Cumberland disease’. Both of these carried very different sets of local assumptions about causation, prevention and treatment, and were effectively separate diseases.

By 1920, however, woolsorters’ disease, Cumberland disease and a whole raft of other illnesses – including dallack, splenic fever, malignant pustule and Siberian plague – were known in Britain by a single name: ‘anthrax’. This disease was a product of modernity, influenced by global capitalism and industrialization.

This paper shows how international networks of communication and exchange led to the assimilation of numerous disparate disease identities under the banner of a single condition, with a unified cause and biology. Anthrax was effectively now a hybrid of many diseases from around the world, carrying forward myriad cultural ideas about disease risk, prevention and treatment. For historians, this case study demonstrates that our understandings of disease were governed as much by social groups and cultural factors – among them in this case the global wool trade, woolsorters, compensation, employers, families, ambitious physicians, newspapers, anxieties, sheep – as by underlying biological causes and specialist medical knowledge.

About the Speaker:
James F. Stark is a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, specialising in the history of science and medicine. He has published widely on the history of infectious disease, including a recent monograph: ‘The Making of Modern Anthrax, 1875-1920’ (2013). His current research examines the development of medical therapies for rejuvenation, the relationship between medical technology and patenting, and the history of water supply in late Victorian Leeds. As well as his research, his work on the flagship Arts Engaged project based at Leeds involves developing a culture of collaborative research between academics across the Faculty of Arts and museums, galleries and heritage organisations.

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This event is co-organized with the History Departmental Research Seminar Series.