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January 19 2013

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The historical essays in this volume are interested in how contagion,
infection, contamination, colonisation, reproduction and pollution were
precisely, and differently, understood in the past and the corollaries of
these technical meanings in terms of policy and practice. Conceptualisations
of both the processes and agents of contagion have been highly contested
and are historically specific. It is only through careful research that the
real complexity of contagion and hygiene may be unpacked. We open the
book with Margaret Pelling’s chapter which historicises ‘contagion’ with
great care and detail. She alerts us to the changing meanings of contagion
in the west, meanings constituted in, and in part shaping, larger shifts
in thinking about bodies, illness, disease aetiologies and philosophical
systems of knowledge and reasoning. Beginning with pre-modern and early
modern ideas, Pelling works carefully through the crucial changes over
the nineteenth century, a very complicated field, still well served by her
early Cholera, Fever and English Medicine.3 She reflects on the renditions of
‘contagionist’, ‘anti-contagionist’ and ‘germ’ theories which have been
created within medical historiography, and the effects of these delineations
in masking as well as clarifying more complicated histories. As an intellectual
history, her essay shows also how ‘contagion’ worked through social,
symbolic, moral and technical meanings which were often inseparable,
even at the level of the strictest aetiological theory.
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January 18 2013

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