AAHM2017: Disinfection Practices at the Turn of the 20th Century

American Association for the History of Medicine 90th Annual Meeting

May 4 – May 7, 2017 Nashville, Tennessee | Institutional Host” Vanderbilt University

Saturday, May 6th, 10:30 am – 12:00 pm

Disinfection Practices at the Turn of the 20th Century

Chair: Lukas Engelmann, University of Cambridge

Discussant: Graham Mooney, Johns Hopkins University

  1. Jacob Steere-Williams, College of Charleston: “Coolie” Control: Bodies and Labor in Late Victorian Colonial Disinfection Practices
  2. Lukas Engelmann, University of Cambridge: Disinfecting the Nation: Fumigation in Early Twentieth-Century Argentina
  3. Christos Lynteris, University of Cambridge: Clayton Machine: Experimentation, Fumigation, and Empire


Jacob Steere-Williams, College of Charleston, Charleston SC, USA | steerewilliamsj@cofc.edu

‘Coolie’ Control: Bodies and Labor in Late Victorian Colonial Disinfection Practices

In late nineteenth century British controlled India and South Africa medical officers forcibly ‘dipped’ naked indigenous Indians and Africans in carbolic acid mixtures in an effort to identify, isolate, and control the spread of typhoid fever, rinderpest, and bubonic plague. As a co-option of a veterinary public health measure on humans, this historically unexplored practice is a critical lens into the ways in which bodies—gendered, classed, and racialized— were the foci of epidemic control in the period of debates on the relative merits of field-based epidemiology and laboratory-based bacteriology. Moving beyond the rhetoric of disinfection, and past what late Victorian sanitarians said about disinfection—of things, environments, and peoples—this paper focuses on the actual practices of disinfection. Narrowing in on examples of disinfection technologies and the material and labored reality of disinfection from British cantonments in India and field hospitals in South Africa, I unpack the dually constructed identities of the “coolie” and the “kaffir” as bodily terms, not just political ones. What I demonstrate is a unique and complex irony of colonial public health; indigenous Africans and Indians were both feared for spreading epidemics, necessitating heavy-handed and full-bodily measures like dipping, and at the same time put in charge as experts in disinfecting the dangerous things that white British bodies produced, particularly their excrement. This analysis substantiates what many scholars have said about the way in epidemic disease was mapped onto colonial bodies unevenly in this period. Yet, instructively, by examining the level of practice, rather than rhetoric, this paper complicates what we know about state surveillance and state racism during the so-called “Bacteriological Revolution.”

  • To understand the ways that public health practices were shaped and shaped by contemporary racial theories.
  • To explore the complex process by which the laboratory and the field produced the practice of disinfection.
  • To uncover the material technologies and labor of public health practice in colonial locations.


Lukas Engelmann, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK | lme35@cam.ac.uk

Disinfecting the Nation: Fumigation in Early 20th-Century Argentina

After the end of the civil war in 1880, Argentina experienced a period of postcolonial revival, marked by prosperity and cosmopolitical liberalism. The country was set to become a model state of Latin America in the early 20th century and its outstanding sanitary program was supposed to demonstrate the nation’s achieved modernity. But the extensive programs, designed to secure mostly the capital’s hygienic status against the ‘barbarism’ of the rural Hinterland, also exposed the rigid and authoritative nature of hygienic policing. Since 1893, restrictive laws and strong legislative capacities gave sanitary forces an intrusive access into the fabrics of Argentine’s society. Various sanitary police corps secured the city at the turn of the century in its port, its production facilities, its graveyards and food facilities, as Buenos Aires was officially considered to be in a ‘perpetual epidemic state.’ Hygiene, cleanliness and the prevention against epidemics were, as Julia Rodriguez (2006) has show, instruments of engineering social change, which established racial divides and installed a hidden authoritative regime within the supposedly ‘golden era’ of pro-democratic liberalism. The extensive introduction and application of fumigation, my paper will argue, is grounded in the “secular hygienic catechism” (Armus 2011) of turn-of-the-century Buenos Aires. The technological solution promised prevention of yellow fever, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and bubonic plague, while the filling of private and public spaces with gaseous pesticides also pledged a novel level of supposed security. As the city invested largely in fumigation stations and mobile fumigation brigades and as neither private nor commercial spaces were spared, the technology became eventually a symbolic cornerstone of the hygienic regime of the new nation. And as a trail of Argentinian manuals, reports, records, photographs and caricatures show, fumigation acquired a meaning that exceeded the mere extermination of germs and vectors. The technology became a successful and pervasive technology within the Argentinian school of hygiene. Fumigation translated and maintained an outmoded notion of contagion into the 20th century, in which the protection against epidemics was also the authoritative and intrusive assertion of an all-encompassing cleanliness, which was supposed to protect against racial inferiority and social degeneration.

  • Identify successes and failures in the history of medical professionalism
  • Promote tolerance for ambiguity of theories, the nature of evidence, and the evaluation of appropriate patient care, research, and education
  • Recognize the dynamic interrelationship between medicine and society through history


Christos Lynteris, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK | cl537@cam.ac.uk

Clayton Machine: Experimentation, Fumigation, and Empire

Hankering back to an apparatus invented and deployed by Dr Olliphant in Louisiana, the Clayton machine was patented in the UK in 1901 and quickly became a popular if contested system of ship fumigation. Claytonization comprised in the fumigation of vessels with sulfuric acid, aimed at destroying simultaneously vermin and insects as well as bacteria in the holds of the ship. Of prime concern, given the ongoing plague pandemic across the globe, were rats and their fleas. Launching an aggressive promotion and lobbying campaign, the London-based Clayton Company promised effective disinfection and no damage to ship or cargo, allowing for fumigation to be undertaken in loaded holds. Rather than however providing the ground for a consensus on maritime epidemic control, the Clayton divided medical and sanitary opinion.

Whilst the French, led by Albert Calmette, conducted experiments leading them to adopt the apparatus not only in mainland France but also in Indochina, the British were rather less ready to accept the method, which was after all marketed under an English brand. This paper examines the “Clayton fever” of the first decade of the twentieth century, assuming the particular fumigation apparatus as a window into examining conflicting and often self-conflicting ideas about disinfection in Britain and France at the time. Key to these developments, it will be argued, was the often neglected conflict between Western European powers and the Ottoman Empire as regards the necessity of maritime quarantine. The struggle concerned the efforts of the former to restrain and revert the Sublime Porte’s maximalist approach, which decreed that all vessels arriving to Istanbul from an infected harbor needed to come under quarantine. Could the new Clayton method provide a solution to the stalemate at the internationally composed Constantinople Board of Health? Or did it in fact further complicate already acrimonious inter-imperial relations over trade and epidemic control? Investigating the entanglement between laboratory science, engineering, and medical diplomacy in the shadow of the third plague pandemic, this paper will unravel the role of the Clayton machine as a forgotten but crucial technology in the modern history of disinfection and epidemic control.

  • Appreciate the importance of international politics in the development of epidemic control technologies
  • Recognize the role of emerging technologies in experimental science
  • Expand their understandings of the development of modern medicine beyond the confines of the Western world, and the role played by non-Western actors

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