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Early Careerist Profile: Amanda Sciampacone October 19, 2015

Posted by emmiemiller in Uncategorized.

Amanda Sciampacone, “Atmospherics of Illness: Cholera, Weather, and the Scientific Image,” Session F32: “Health and Wealth Through Better Weather: The History of Meteorology and the Improvement of Nations,” Friday November 20th, 2015, 3:45-5:45 PM.


Abstract of the Talk:

With the emergence and repeated epidemics of cholera in Britain between 1831 and 1866, and the elusive nature of its epidemiology, British medics were compelled to investigate the cause of the disease. Various theories were posited to explain cholera, with the miasma theory dominating much of the medical discourse. Since the theory provided only partial answers, however, medics searched for other factors that may have propagated the illness. Increasingly, the climate of India, where cholera originated, as well as unusual meteorological phenomena in England, were identified in government and medical reports as the cause of cholera’s morbidity and spread. India’s tropical heat and jungle miasmas were blamed for first producing a deadly form of cholera, while odd weather was noted for spreading the malady in England. Although much of this discourse was textual, images were used to visualize and support the arguments made about cholera and the conditions in which it propagated. In these visual representations, medics mapped the disease to a certain type of “cholera weather,” giving the invisible illness substance and material presence. As my paper will demonstrate, the conflation of cholera with the Indian climate, strange weather, and a heavy atmosphere powerfully evoked visual tropes of cholera as a mysterious and malignant disease that tainted the very atmosphere of the British nation.

Where does your talk fit into the panel on which you’re presenting?

I will be the third presenter in a panel organized by Bridget Collins on the ways in which meteorology was used in nineteenth-century American, British, and French discourses on the physical, moral, and economic health of the nation state. My talk will follow Zeke Baker’s paper, which will examine three case studies of climate knowledge and how they informed American state-making, and Bridget Collin’s paper on the important role that medical geography played in the settlement of the Midwest. My paper will shift the discussion from the American context to nineteenth-century Britain and introduce issues raised by imperial expansion into new climates. It will be followed by Joseph Horan’s talk on the use and failure of the new science of meteorology in the development of France’s empire and its cotton industry. I think the connections between the papers in the panel will raise interesting questions and generate discussion on the historical importance of meteorology, and I look forward to it.

How did you come across this topic?

During the research for my PhD, I was going through all of the nineteenth-century material on cholera in the Wellcome Library and in an appendix by the meteorologist James Glaisher for the General Board of Health’s report on the third epidemic there was a set of diagrams that juxtaposed the mortality rates of cholera with different weather phenomena. I thought these images were really interesting, as they contained so much detail. There were precise measurements for barometric pressure, rainfall, wind direction, temperature, and the amount of mist in the sky for every day of the epidemic. I thought Glaisher’s belief in some kind of correlation between cholera and the weather was intriguing, despite the fact that it was completely wrong, and it led me to the work of other medics, statisticians, and sanitarians who were all grappling with this issue. Finding Glaisher’s diagrams opened up a whole new path of research on Victorian medical topography that I had not considered when I initially began my PhD and it has become the foundation for my postdoctoral project.

What was the most interesting source that you encountered in your research? Or what has proven most challenging in your research?

I think the most interesting source that I have encountered so far has been a map of the cholera outbreak that struck London between 1848 and 1849. The map was commissioned by the General Board of Health, and used blue tinting to identify the areas of London affected by cholera and the degree of cholera’s morbidity in those areas. I do not want to give too much away, as you will get to see the map during my presentation, but the use of this deep blue to mark out cholera’s presence in the city is visually striking. It not only distilled the empirical data about the disease’s death rates, it also evoked the troubling meanings that cholera acquired in medical accounts, newspaper articles, and images about race and contamination.

What did you have to cut out from your talk that you wish you could have kept in?

As with any conference paper, points have been simplified and a lot of research has been removed. I wish I could have included more images of cholera, though. I have tried to keep as many of the diagrams on cholera and the weather in the talk as possible, but I do wish I could have included more medical images of cholera, maps of the disease’s spread, and satirical illustrations of the environments associated with cholera, because seeing this collection of imagery together brings to the fore how Victorians created an iconography for the disease. Before the cholera vibrio was discovered by Robert Koch in 1884, these images were visualizing something that was seemingly invisible, elusive, and deadly. Moreover, these images were in dialogue with each other. Popular images were informing scientific images of cholera and vice versa, so the diagrams of cholera and meteorological phenomena that I will show in my talk were not only based on scientific information, they were also drawing on sensational and popular images of cholera as a monstrous and polluting threat.

What are you most looking forward to at HSS in San Francisco?

This will be my first History of Science Society annual meeting. I am very much looking forward to HSS in San Francisco, as I have spent much of my time attending conferences in the United Kingdom that have centred mainly on Art History and Victorian Studies. I think HSS will provide a wonderful opportunity to meet with international colleagues working on the History of Science. I am approaching my research from an art historian’s perspective, so I am particularly keen to learn from scholars who are interrogating the field from a different position, and to have an open discussion about interdisciplinary research and collaborative methods.

Biography: Amanda Sciampacone received her BA in History (Honours) and Art History, and her MA in Art History from the University of British Columbia. She was awarded her PhD in the History of Art from Birkbeck, University of London in 2014. Her dissertation, which was funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellowship, examined the visual culture of the cholera epidemics that struck Britain in the nineteenth century. She has just begun a three-year Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship in the Department of History of Art at the University of Warwick. Her postdoctoral research project, titled “Epidemic Atmospheres: Disease, Climate, and the Unstable Boundaries of Empire,” will investigate the ways in which eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medical and scientific imagery implicated epidemic diseases and environmental dangers as agents of globalization. Her research interests include British art and visual culture, the history of science and medicine, disease, climate, and the British Empire, and material and print culture.


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