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Sensing pollution

August 11, 2011

University of York – by Mark Jenner

I have worked on various aspects of the social and cultural history of health and medicine in England between c.1500 and c.1800. I have had a longstanding interest in the history of hygiene, health and the environment, with a particular focus on the history of sanitation and water supply in London. My work challenges the modernist assumptions of the historiography of public health, which generally treats all forms of cleansing, collective health promotion and disease prevention as no more than hors d’oeuvres served up before the reader gets on to the thoroughly modern main courses of network technology, bacteriology and social medicine. My work emphasises how concerns about public cleansing were intertwined with other forms of local social relations and systems of governance.

Chelsea water works, 1750. Wellcome Library

Chelsea water works, 1750. Wellcome Library

However, this work can also be seen as a longstanding dialogue with the writings of Mary Douglas, and I have always stressed that the histories of cleanliness and dirt are at least as much histories of perception as they are of administration. I have argued that representations of air pollution at the time of Charles II’s Restoration were shaped by the political agendas of their authors, and have traced the connections between the religious ideas of 17th- and 18th-century doctors and their hydrotherapeutic writings. In a recent work, Medicine and the Market in England and Its Colonies, c.1450–c.1850 (edited with Patrick Wallis), I have emphasised the socially embedded nature of medical commerce and suggested that campaigns about water quality in early 19th-century London were rooted in suspicions of the commercial practice and the monopoly held by the capital’s water companies. Both of these strands are addressed in my soon-to-be-completed monograph A Cleanly City: Cleanliness, dirt and public health in early modern London.

I also have a longstanding interest in and sceptical engagement with the history and historiography of the body. In surveys of the field published a decade ago, I critiqued what seemed like a tendency for the field to objectify and reify what it was studying and called for greater attention to the problems and questions of embodiment. In recent work on taste, touch and smell, ‘Tasting Lichfield, touching China: Sir John Floyer’s senses’ (Historical Journal, 2010) and ‘Follow your nose? Smell, smelling, and their histories’ (American Historical Review, 2011), I have developed this line of thinking with reference to the history of the senses. Pioneering work in this area was initiated by Bill Bynum and Roy Porter’s collection Medicine and the Five Senses, but few medical historians have built upon these foundations. I have tried to go beyond conventional cultural historical approaches to the senses, which tend to depend upon a strict dichotomy between nature and culture, and focus instead on sensing, examining medical uses of the senses as forms of practice and as ways of being-in-the-world.

Mark Jenner is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of History at the University of York, taking over as Director of the Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies in September 2011.

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