Breathing Space: On the Historical Connections of Allergies and Landscapes, with Author Gregg Mitman

Part 1 | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3

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The World's Fair is pleased to offer the following discussion about Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes (Yale University Press, 2007), with its author Gregg Mitman. Prof. Mitman is Interim Director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and William Coleman Professor of History of Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also a professor in the Department of Medical History and the Robert F. and Jean E. Holtz Center for Science & Technology Studies.

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If you were to ask how one could hold together so many different areas of work, as Mitman does--history of science; history of medicine; environmental studies; science and technology studies--the research and perspective in Breathing Space would be a good answer. Trained in history of science and actively interdisciplinary in practice, Mitman's first book was The State of Nature: Ecology, Community, and American Social Thought, 1900-1950 (1992) and his next was Reel Nature: America's Romance with Wildlife on Film (1999). Before Breathing Space, he co-edited two groundbreaking collections, Landscapes of Exposure: Knowledge and Illness in Modern Environments (2004)--this with Michelle Murphy and Christopher Sellers--and Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism (2005)--that one with Lorraine Daston. His new book achieves one of the holiest of grails for academics, which is to offer an empirically rich, theoretically informed work that is accessible and appealing to that infamous wider public audience. As testament to this, Breathing Space has been reviewed in JAMA, Science (pdf), NEJM, and Nature: Medicine, as well as newspapers (Seattle; Washington), and academic journals (all positively, I might add). Not enough for you? Then take a listen here on The Diane Rehm Show.

This is the thirteenth in our series of "Author Meets Bloggers" posts, where we talk to authors about their new work. (See them all here.) What follows is part one of a three-part conversation about Breathing Space. We encourage all questions and comments.

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THE WORLD'S FAIR: Your subtitle is "How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes." By way of intimating the argument of the book, how do they?

GREGG MITMAN: The more research I did for the book, the more I became struck how woven the history of allergy is with the history of American culture and life. From the establishment of nineteenth-century hay fever resorts in the White Mountains of New Hampshire or along the northeastern shores of Lake Michigan to the settlement of Western towns such as Denver and Tucson, allergy has been a driving force in the economic, environmental, and social history of particular regions. It has also come to shape our relationship to the indoors--from the development of air-conditioning to the marketing of cleaning products and air cleaners to growing concern over dust mites, second-hand tobacco smoke, and other indoor allergens. And it is deeply intertwined with the meteoric rise of the pharmaceutical industry after the Second World War, as allergy sufferers have increasingly resorted to drugs such as antihistamines to modify the interior environment of their bodies in order to insulate themselves from the allergic world that surround them. These are just a few examples of how allergies shape our lives and landscapes.

WF: What would you consider the book's basic contribution to the study of environmental history to be?

GM: I hope people come away with an appreciation for how disease has been an important force in the history of environmental change and in changing perceptions of the environment. I also see the book as an attempt to bring together material and cultural approaches to environmental history, which to me is one of the most exciting and challenging problems the field is wrestling with.

WF: How about to the study of the history of science and medicine?

GM: After almost two decades of scholarship in the social construction of scientific knowledge, I think we are seeing a revival of interest in political economy and materialist approaches to the history of science and medicine, which had once been part of a more Marxist tradition in the field. These are issues that have been central to questions in environmental history and historical geography. So, I wrote Breathing Space in the hopes of offering an example of how we might begin to integrate questions of historical epistemology with those of environmental and cultural change. I was very conscious about only bringing a particular allergen into the story--e.g, ragweed--once it had been brought into being through the perception and knowledge of historical actors--be they sufferers, scientists, or physicians. When I first started presenting this material, environmental historians and geographers pushed me to take a stand on what was happening at hay fever resorts in light of contemporary medical knowledge. Were sufferers, for example, finding relief because there was an absence of ragweed in these areas? As a historian of science, I refused to make that move. It is an interesting question, but one not consistent with the methods of historical epistemology. But once that allergen came into being, we could then follow its movement through space and time in ways more familiar to environmental historians. There is much to be gained by bringing the history of science more into conversation with environmental history, although it is a difficult challenge.

WF: There are a series of larger cultural contexts that shape your story that follow, roughly, in this order: a) escape, in the later 19th c., as with going to the mountains in New Hampshire, the forests of the upper Midwest, or the west and desert; b) rising medical studies of the causes of allergies in the early 20th c.; c) a post-WWII context of labor/workforce issues; and d) pharmaceutical commercialization and a consumer product context of the later 20th c. Did you come upon that structure ahead of time or find it in the process of your research? Did I read into this improperly?

GM: I think the structure you've laid out actually maps quite well onto what I intended. But I didn't envision this when I started the book. It really came out of my research. As I started writing, I began playing with a tri-partite structure for the book that loosely relates to the map you've constructed: escape, modifying the environment around us, and changing the interior spaces of the body within. Each of the chapters is also built around the history of a place--e.g, hay fever resorts, vacant city lots, Western towns, the ghetto, the home, and the body--and how illness and place have historically shaped each other in particular ways.

WF: If you had more space or time, would you have continued the story with another example or another point of emphasis?

GM: Well, one important story I didn't include in the book is the increasing molecularization of asthma, particularly in relation to genetics and immunology. So, I could have buried even further into the interior spaces of the body, but I'm not sure that it would alter the narrative arc of the book all that much.

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Part 1 | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3

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I: Michael Egan on Barry Commoner, science, and environmentalism
II: Cyrus Mody on nanotechnology, ethics, and policy
III: Saul Halfon on population , demography, and women's empowerment
IV: Kevin Marsh on wilderness, forestry policy, and environmental politics
V: David Hess on Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry
VI: Lizzie Grossman on e-trash and global environmental policy
VII: Shobita Parthasarathy on genetics and the politics of Science and Technology
VIII: Aaron Sachs on Humboldt and the explorer-origins of environmentalism
IX: Jan Golinski on British Enlightenment culture and the Weather
X: Kelly Joyce on MRI and Visual Knowledge
XI: D. Graham Burnett on whether whales are fish and who says so
XII: Michelle Murphy on Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty

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Thanks for bringing these sorts of books to your readers' attention. I came across the title of the book recently, thought it looked interesting, but then forgot about it. I look forward to reading the rest of the interview, and plan to get hold of the book.

I second that emotion! How can you get more people reading them and engaging in discussions? I think historians of science - if more of them knew about what you've been doing with the Author Meets Blogger section of this site - would be really interested in participating in these book discussions.