The history department began a new theme this term on medicine and the environment. One major focus of the field examines the dynamic relationship between physical environments, human bodies, cultural, political, and social trends.
“Since World War II, 70,000 different synthetic chemicals have been introduced into the ambient environment of the United States and it continues to occur every single year,” said Professor George Vrtis.
The science of how these chemicals harm humans “doesn’t stand alone,” stressed Vrtis, “the reason those chemicals were released in the first place, the way they go through approval processes with the FDA, these are cultural and political processes, the kinds of processes historians pay a lot of attention to.”
The history department began the theme because of professor and student interest in the environment and health. Many professors study and research the topic and many students want to think about it as well.
“There’s a lot of interest on campus about health and a lot of students have approached us about it,” said Professor Amna Khalid.
In addition, several professors at Carleton engage in interesting research on the topic specifically with regards to mining in the United States and health in colonial India.
Vrtis is currently working on several chapters to appear in edited volumes. “Principally,” he said, “I am working on a book on Minnesota environmental history; I am co-authoring a chapter called ‘A Tale of Two Water Fronts’ that looks at environmental change in St. Paul and Minneapolis at the time of their founding.”
He also researches mining in Colorado, both for writing his recent book and for contributing to a book a chapter on how precious metals mining in Colorado “interfaced with the emergence of the conservation movement.”
Khalid focuses on colonial medicine: “I look particularly at the spread of epidemic diseases in the 19th century from pilgrimage sites in northern India.”
“One of the things I am particularly interested in is the role of subordinates in implementing public health policy in colonial contexts,” she said. She recently co-edited a book on that topic in the context of the British Empire.
The interdisciplinary nature of the new theme will appeal to a broad range of students. “I think it’s a really great opportunity for Carleton students,” said Vrtis, “and an important new development in the history department.”
Those in the sciences might feel particularly inclined to take a course on this topic, so “this is going to open a space where science students can begin to take humanities courses, see how these two very broad areas connect and understand the importance of the kinds of things that we’re exploring,” said Khalid.
In sum, the new theme should excite professors, history majors and students in general and will greatly benefit the history department.
“History is not just about the past,” said Vrtis. “History is about the present when properly understood and I think that’s what we’re trying to do in part with the new theme.”