New Open Access article from Christos Lynteris published in ‘Medical History’

Dr. Christos Lynteris, PI on the Visual Plague project at CRASSH, is sharing news of a new Open Access article published in Medical History. “A ‘Suitable Soil’: Plague’s Urban Breeding Grounds at the Dawn of the Third Pandemic” is a key article for the project.

medical history cl 61 3Featured as the cover article in this latest issue of Medical History, Christos’ article covers important new intellectual ground pursuant to the goals of the project. You can find more information about Christos’ research on this blog or through the CRASSH website.

“A ‘Suitable Soil’: Plague’s Urban Breeding Grounds at the Dawn of the Third Pandemic” deals with one of the most pressing questions of the first half-decade of the third plague pandemic (1894–9)- was what was a ‘suitable soil’ for the disease? The question related to plague’s perceived ability to disappear from a given city only to reappear at some future point; a phenomenon that became central to scientific investigations of the disease.

However, rather than this simply having a metaphorical meaning, the debate around plague’s ‘suitable soil’ actually concerned the material reality of the soil itself. The prevalence of plague in the working-class neighbourhood of Taipingshan during the first major outbreak of the pandemic, in 1894 in Hong Kong, led to an extensive debate regarding the ability of the soil to harbour and even spread the disease. Involving experiments, which were seen as able to procure evidence for or against the demolition or even torching of the area, scientific and administrative concerns over the soil rendered it an unstable yet highly productive epistemic thing. The spread of plague to India further fuelled concerns over the ability of the soil to act as the medium of the disease’s so-called true recrudescence. Besides high-profile scientific debates, hands-on experiments on purifying the soil of infected houses by means of highly intrusive methods allowed scientists and administrators to act upon and further solidify plague’s supposed invisibility in the urban terrain. Rather than being a short-lived, moribund object of epidemiological concern, this paper will demonstrate that the soil played a crucial role in the development of plague as a scientifically knowable and actionable category for modern medicine.

L0022367 Staffordshire Regiment cleaning plague houses, Hong Kong.
Staffordshire Regiment cleaning plague houses, Hong Kong.  Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

This cover image has been featured in our ‘image of the month‘ segments in the past- why not take a look through the back catalogue?

This article has been made available on an open access basis,distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

The project is funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant (under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme/ERC grant agreement no 336564) and will run from October 2013 to September 2018.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the conference Plague and the City: Disease, Epidemic Control and the Urban Environment at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) of the University of Cambridge.


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