University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Cabinet of Natural History > 'The motion of the blood is in fact a sort of living barometer': altitude sickness, poisonous plants and instrumentalised bodies in the Himalaya, 1800–1850

'The motion of the blood is in fact a sort of living barometer': altitude sickness, poisonous plants and instrumentalised bodies in the Himalaya, 1800–1850

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Motivated by both science and empire, European explorers increasingly ventured into the high Himalaya after 1800, where they encountered the insidious yet little understood effects of altitude sickness. They did not, however, do so alone. Tensions arising from the highly unpredictable distribution of symptoms were exacerbated by the way explorers were dependent on pre-existing networks of expertise and labour, which forced them to measure their minds and bodies against those of their Asian guides and porters. In this talk, I examine altitude physiology in the early nineteenth century, largely overlooked by scholars in favour of the systematic and often institutionally-sponsored scientific studies of the later period. I consider the way travellers presented their bodily debility in relation to their guides in published accounts, their examination of the indigenous explanation for altitude sickness (resulting from the Bis or poisonous miasmas from plants), and their experimental approaches around quantification and the instrumentalisation of bodies. I use these to examine expedition sociability and agency, and bring into focus the practical, everyday aspects of intermediary relationships. Throughout, I situate this story within the context of the constitution of the Himalaya as the northern borderlands of British India. I also show that grappling with the problem of altitude was an intrinsically comparative process for the European actors, drawing on perceived and actual differences with the Alps and the Andes, and argue that this allows us to examine the formulation of what was an inherently global science.

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

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