Friday, October 28, 2011

Medical Department #43 - "BONUS" - More of My Interview with Lauren LaFauci!

See here for "Medical Department #43" - my November 2011 interview with Lauren LaFauci, Ph.D., in the Civil War News, concerning her interesting research on "environmental history" (broadly defined) and the Civil War, and - specifically - her recent article:

“Taking the (Southern) Waters: Science, Slavery, and Nationalism at the Virginia Springs” (Anthropology & Medicine, April 2011, Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 7-22).

I asked Lauren several more questions than appeared in the column, and she answered them so thoughtfully, I felt compelled to share those answers in this "Bonus" blog post!

See below for more...and enjoy!

1) I asked Lauren LaFauci, Ph.D., about her research interests...she replied with interesting thoughts on the 19th century concepts of "nature" and how they relate to race, slavery, disease, and more:

Lauren: I am currently working on a book project that looks at how ideas about “nature” or “environment” evolved alongside ideas about “race,” disease, and the body in the United States, with a particular focus on the southern states. This project evolved out of a question I began formulating about mid-way through graduate school: as I saw it, the dominant issue in nineteenth-century culture and in much of its literature was slavery. At the same time, there was an almost equally strong emphasis on American nature, especially in the movement, based in New England, that we call American Romanticism or Transcendentalism—for example, in seminal works like Emerson’s Nature, in iconographic images of American landscapes generated by the Hudson River School artists, and in the popularity of botany as a field of study for ordinary citizens, especially for women and girls. So I wondered, did these two concerns—nature and slavery—ever overlap? Where and how? Did the South have the equivalent of a “Romantic” movement in literature? What does “American” literature of the nineteenth century look like when we shift our vantage point from North to South? These questions became the seed of my dissertation, and, eventually, my current book project.

2) I asked Lauren about the ancient concept of "Doctrine of Signatures" - which was generally thought of as applying to medicinal plants and herbs - and whether 19th-century Virginians might have also seen this Doctrine as applying to the Springs and whether that might account for why Northerners didn't frequent the southern springs as much.

Lauren: The Doctrine of Signatures—that certain plants resemble parts of the body and that those plants are particularly designed to treat ailments that affect those body parts—is related somewhat to what I’m getting at in the essay. Both the Doctrine of Signatures and the white southern theory of disease and curative specificity that I’m articulating rely upon matching specific places with specific cures.

Excepting promotional materials designed to encourage colonization in North America, which favorably portrayed southern climates, much of the natural history and other documentary evidence from the 1700s and beyond positions the southern environment as potentially dangerous to “unseasoned” (or unacclimated) (white) bodies. There is a rich body of historical research on this topic from scholars like Karen Kupperman, Joyce Chaplin, and Susan Scott Parrish (my fantastic dissertation advisor!). So white southerners often imagined their environment as harmful to their bodies.

However, as political rhetoric increased sectional tensions between northern and southern states, many writers began to connect the climate and the environment of the South with the “poison” of slavery. White southerners defending their region’s presumed “sickliness” argued not only against its negative portrayal but, by extension, against the infusion of outsiders not “acclimated” to their social institutions. The construction of their region as “sickly” or “poisonous” by those outsiders encouraged white southerners to develop a defensive stance that in turn evolved into a curious pride of place: white southerners recognized the distinctiveness of their regional illnesses and celebrated the acquired resistance of long-standing inhabitants.

This place-based theory of disease relates to the springs region in a crucial way: many allopathic and hydropathic physicians accordingly believed that if disease was rooted in place, you could remove disease by altering a place-based (or environmental) element, such as water or air. As southern hydropaths observed the varying conditions at the springs—such as elevation, air, micro-climate, and so on—they also claimed for individual springs unique advantages (and sometimes disadvantages) for the treatment of diseases that were associated with particular environmental qualities. White southerners suffering from (southern) disease could thus travel from (southern) spring to spring as they found a combination suited to their peculiar(ly) (southern) complaints. So, for example, certain springs garnered a reputation for their benefits to curing liver complaints, while others alleviated respiratory ailments. In these ways, southern medical experts and laypeople alike began to conceive of the Virginia springs region as a bountiful, diverse pharmacopeic resource for the healing of southern bodies in particular.

3) Hydrotherapy consisted of (at least) two branches - drinking or bathing in healing waters; Lauren's article on "Taking the Waters" generally referred to bathing in the springs...I also wanted to know if any of the springs mentioned in her article, especially at White Sulphur or Red Sulphur - also sold their spring water as bottled medicine.

Lauren: This query opens up additional questions about how nineteenth-century scientists thought about the water’s actions upon the body. William Burke and John Moorman, both native Virginians and self-styled experts on southern hydropathic methods, agreed that the waters were “alterative,” that they caused a physical alteration in the body’s fluids, organs, or systems. But the two men parted ways from there, with Moorman insisting that the waters worked by absorption of the minerals and Burke arguing that they worked by pervasion of the gases. These perspectives had very real consequences in the nascent movement for exportation of the springs water for the mass market: if the waters “worked” because of their gas content, then bottling and shipping the waters would be a useless, or even a charlatan exercise, since most of the valuable gases would evaporate, rendering the water a mere placebo. If the waters instead operated by virtue of their mineral content, in Moorman’s formulation, then bottled water would retain its efficacy even when shipped across long distances, since the minerals would remain in solution.

While Burke’s argument seems on the surface to be the least motivated by profit, he actually had a strong incentive to entice patients to the resorts, since he owned and operated the Red Sulphur Springs at the time of his feud with Moorman. Bottling of the water would have thus taken away from his business. And Moorman did use Burke’s status as a proprietor to undercut his credibility as a scientist. As the two men engaged in this genteel literary feud whereby they criticized one another in print both overtly and underhandedly for at least ten years, the bottled water industry floundered. A few springs did market and sell their waters, but for the most part, the southern water cure remained a resort-based enterprise. The Civil War eventually silenced Burke and Moorman’s debate, but the fierceness with which it had proceeded reveals that their science may have been influenced by the possibility of economic advancement.

4) In her article on the antebellum Virginia springs, Lauren described the concept of ideology expressed in architecture, etc., which was very interesting. The article also included accounts of the place of African-Americans, free and enslaved, in the spring culture. Some of these springs continued as resorts, gold clubs, etc., into the late 19th- and 20th centuries...I wondered if they remained segregated.

Lauren: After the Civil War, the railroad expanded in the southern states, and many of the springs resorts and towns simply faded away. Many of the Virginia and West Virginia resorts, for example, exist as place names on maps but remain difficult to locate on the ground. The Greenbrier (formerly the White Sulphur Springs) and the Homestead (formerly the Hot Springs) both survive today, and I would imagine both locations have extensive histories relating to 19th- and 20th-century segregation, particularly since segregation was the law of the land in the South until the Civil Rights Movement. Unfortunately, my own area of expertise on this issue closes with the Civil War, and I regret that I do not know specific information about the surviving resorts in the post-bellum period and beyond.

5) Finally, I asked Lauren what other areas of 19th century environmental history remain to be explored.

Lauren: There are countless avenues for research in 19th-century environmental history! To circumscribe the question a bit, I would say that I am particularly interested in the intersections of environmental history and cultural studies. For example, I would like to see more work that explores the nodes of race, class, and gender with that of the environment. The goal of much of my own work is to show how some of the problems we think of as very contemporary—such as the ravaging of the black communities of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast during the (un-)natural disaster of Katrina—have their roots in historical structures and material realities. Why did white folks force black folks to lower-lying areas in New Orleans and elsewhere? There are many answers, but one that I posit in the book manuscript explains how a constellation of early U.S. ideas—and, often, specifically white southern ideas—about climate, topography, disease, and racial bodies worked together to make low-lying landscapes “black” landscapes. I am energized by the amazing work done by scholars such as Megan Kate Nelson, Mart A. Stewart, Judith Carney, Sharla Fett, and many many others—and I hope that we continue to see cultural and environmental historians working together to historicize some of the environmental justice issues that we face in the United States today.

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