HPS Colloquia Series for 1999-00


The Program in History and Philosophy of Science and the History Department present:


"The Health of the Country:" Body and Environment in the Making of the American West, 1800-1860


By Conevery Bolton Valencius
Department of History, Washington University in St. Louis


April 13, 2000
4:30 pm - 6 pm


History Bldg. Room 307
Stanford University



Dirt, wind, humidity, drought, decay, and growth were all experienced as important influences on human health in the eras before the emergence of modern medicine. "This is a healthy country," satisfied newcomers to American borderland regions would conclude in diaries or scientific reports, summing up the matrix of influences around them. "I think it is a sickly place," those more tremulous would confide in family letters.

This talk traces the ideas and practices which linked human well-being and locale in the borderlands of the United States, centering on the "Far West" of present-day Arkansas and Missouri. Fundamentally identical processes, I argue, were thought to operate in the natural world and in the human body. In the release of foul miasmas from soil disturbed by cultivation, antebellum Americans perceived the same cycle of imbalance and re-equilibrium that they experienced in the release of "bad humors" from their own ill bodies.

Tracing the functional identity between farming and the maintenance of health, I identify basic insights of process: anything incomplete was dangerous, anything in-between was liable to be pathological, anything ripe needed to come to fruition or could go threateningly bad. Changing "wild" land to "settled" territory, early free Americans and their slaves worked on the land what domestic medicine worked in them: they wrought a domestication of terrain that was as intimate as it was profound.


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