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The lungs of a ship: labour, medicine and the maritime environment, 1740–1800

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My overall project, ‘Ventilating the Empire: Environmental Machines in the British Atlantic World, 1700–1850’, investigates the pre-industrial origins of efforts to improve air quality as a measure for preventing the spread of contagious disease. The portion I will present examines the attempt to ventilate and reform the ‘close, confined, putrid air’ on Royal Navy ships during the mid-18th century. Alarmed at the high mortality rates of sailors, British experimenter and clergyman Stephen Hales (1677–1761) invented new ‘ventilators’: hand- or wind-powered bellows constructed to mimic the action of human lungs. Required on all Navy ships after 1756, these machines were unpopular with captains and many sailors, but Hales’ theories deeply influenced the work of maritime medical experts James Lind, John Pringle and Gilbert Blane, who viewed ventilation as a vital necessity to be cultivated through hygienic discipline. Management of the shipboard environment was fiercely debated in moral terms that cast the clean, well-ventilated ship as the ‘nursery’ of sailors and the dirty ship as a ‘pestilential maw’ – an appellation most frequently applied to slave ships. My work will examine how shipboard ventilation played into debates over the use and abuse of labour both in the Royal Navy and the West Indies slave trade.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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