Monday, 29 September 2014

Cows, contagion and sanitation and Victorian Dublin by Juliana Adelman

We are back after the summer break! In this month's post, Dr Juliana Adelman writes about her research on the history of animals and public health in nineteenth-century Dublin.

When I began working on the history of animals I was not sure where I would end up.  I was initially interested from the perspective of a historian of science with a focus on the history of natural history. However, it quickly became clear that I was much more interested in  animal-human interactions outside of the laboratory and museum.  Looking at how animals affected and were affected by changes to ideas about health and disease has allowed me to reconnect with my undergraduate experience in a microbiology lab from a totally different angle. 

Medical progress?

Looking at medicine and disease through animals really highlights how social and contingent that knowledge is.  When we look at the history of disease in humans and how society has sought to address it, we can find it difficult to get away from the idea that things are moving forward.  There is no question that human life expectancy is longer, for example, than it was in the past.  We rarely protest against the idea that states have some obligation to the health of their citizens.  Most of us go to a doctor when we feel really sick and expect that they will help us.  While the social history of medicine has made it clear that the system of medicine we have now was in no way inevitable, most of us have fully absorbed the social attitudes that it represents.  

Disease and animal-human relationships

Cattle Market, Dublin (view from North Circular Road towards Prussia St)
Image courtesy of National Library of Ireland: Lawrence Photograph Collection
When we look at disease from the perspective of animal-human relationships, however, we are forced to face the ways that our feelings and attitudes about animals have affected and been affected by the course of medicine.  For example, in our age of swine flu and avian flu and BSE we can hardly conceive of not believing diseases to pass between humans and other animals.  Yet, as Anne Hardy has pointed out and Abigail Woods's current project seeks to address, there has been no successful attempt to unite human and animal medicine as a single discipline.  There have been few attempts to address animal disease with practices other than containment by slaughter.  We have pushed animals to the margins of developed society, far away from cities and centres of population, but the ways that we depend on them continue to be highlighted in one food contamination story after another.  

The erasure of animals

So I guess what interests me is how did we get here?  To this place where urban residents depend for subsistence on animals, fear infections spread from animals, yet see themselves as completely separate from the animal world.  You need only look around Dublin to see how thoroughly we have erased their former presence: the site of the former cattle market and city abattoir now contain social housing, the North Circular Road never sees cattle blocking traffic, the Great Western railway terminus (where cattle from the country once arrived in droves) is a bus terminus.  I do not advocate the return of cows to urban Dublin, just a bit more consciousness of their role in our history.


Podcast of a lecture 'Cows, contagion and sanitation in Victorian Dublin' by Dr. Juliana Adelman, given at the Centre for the History of  Medicine in Ireland (CHOMI, UCD) Seminar Series, 26 September 2013.

Juliana Adelman is lecturer in History at St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra. To listen to a podcast of a recent paper given by Juliana at the CHOMI Seminar Series, click here and for details of the forthcoming 'Science in the City' event she is organising, click here. Juliana may be contacted at juliana "dot" adelman "at" spd "dot" dcu "dot" ie.