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Rethinking health, disease and modernity: a view from the farm, c.1930–70

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Focusing on veterinary understandings of livestock health and disease, this paper calls for a rethinking of the history of infectious disease concepts. Most existing literature on this topic highlights the reductionism of post-germ theory concepts when compared to earlier, more ecological understandings of disease. While interest in social and environmental determinants of disease did not disappear entirely, until the 1980s it was largely confined to individuals critical of industrial modernity and its environmental impacts. Then, new and emerging diseases such as AIDS , antimicrobial resistance, environmentalism, and the backlash against intensive farming brought ecological conceptions back into mainstream medical thought.

My paper will challenge this narrative by revealing that ecological conceptions of livestock disease were actually constitutive with agricultural modernity. The mid-century shift to more intensive husbandry systems and the privileging of livestock productivity led to the emergence of new diseases, along with new ways of thinking about and managing them. Formerly viewed as a consequence of germs invading susceptible bodies, livestock disease became an ecological product of bodies interacting with their environments, a condition influenced as much by feeding, breeding, housing and stockmanship as by pathogens. At the same time, health ceased to equate to an absence of disease symptoms, and became one of several factors contributing to optimal growth and productivity. In this way, it became possible to pursue health and productivity without attending directly to pathogens or disease. The paper concludes by examining the implications of these shifts for the traditional experts in livestock disease, veterinary surgeons.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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