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Visualizing the geography of diseases in China, 1870s–1920s

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From the beginning, medical mapping was not just a way of thinking but also a way to visualize certain conceptions of knowledge. Physicians used them for various functions in China from the 1870s, when they first published them to work out causal relationships, to the 1910s and 20s, when they transformed them for new political purposes. They were also one of the most succinct ways to circulate complex syntheses of then current medical knowledge. The earliest disease maps were statements in an argument, evidence furthering a specific case, and visualizations of possible causal relationships. On the one hand, disease incidence, and on the other hand, potential causes – the climate or weather, water and air quality, geological features such as elevation, waterways and mountains, or an unknown poison in the environment. Over 50 maps of diseases in China were published from the 1870s to the 1920s. They were both analytical tools intended to visualize the relationship between space and disease and political images that legitimated colonial control (Russian in Harbin, English in Hong Kong), and later, provided evidence of Chinese state power over their populations. They also present a visual history of major changes in the conception of what was modern Western knowledge within China from the mid 19th-century peak of medical geography to the eventual victory of laboratory medicine by the early 20th century. The earliest disease maps, like 19th-century vital statistics and Petri-dishes, made causal relations newly visible. During the 1910–20s, however, new kinds of maps of diseases in China functioned more to legitimate colonial and later Chinese state-populace relationships than to elucidate causal disease-agent ones. Finally, the first disease maps in vernacular Chinese were of the distribution of bubonic plague, pneumonic plague, cholera, and apoplexy in China and the world. Published on public-health posters in the late 1920s, they attempted to convince a wary public of an entirely novel way of seeing epidemic disease, themselves, and their place in a newly globalizing world.

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

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