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​​Inequality and expendability in early public health, with Elise A. Mitchell and Mathieu Corteel 

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This seminar will examine two early public health interventions and their impact on the morals and ethics of the field: Elise A Mitchell will discuss the quarantining of slave ships, and Mathieu Corteel the assumptions surrounding 19th century health statistics. Details of the talks below.

​​Morbid Geographies: Quarantines and the Caribbean Slave Trade in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries  

​Historians have long recognized that the slave trade was a vector for disease transmission. Contagious diseases, notably smallpox and dysentery, frequently plagued slave ships as they crossed the Atlantic. Focusing on the pre-Jennerian cowpox vaccine era, this paper examines seventeenth and eighteenth-century quarantine practices and policies that applied to slave ships in the Caribbean. As early as the 1620s, Spanish municipalities in the Caribbean crafted and enforced quarantine policies that explicitly targeted slave ships carrying enslaved people infected with smallpox. By the turn of the eighteenth century, French, British, and Portuguese port officials had similar directives. These directives ranged from local ordinances and governors' instructions to royal decrees and slave trading contract clauses. Nevertheless, their impact on enslaved people's voyages was ultimately quite similar. Enslaved people often endured voyages that colonial officials rerouted along rugged Caribbean coasts, to barrier islands, and to arbitrary numbers of leagues out to sea in order to observe quarantines when smallpox outbreaks occurred (or were suspected to have occurred) on board.   

​This paper examines the histories of these policies and what they can tell us about how the slave trade, slavery, colonialism, and their attendant social orders shaped emerging public health ethics in the early modern Atlantic World. I argue that these policies reasserted recently-arrived enslaved Africans' apolitical status and rendered them expendable in order to preserve the health of those considered part of the colonial commonwealth.  

​The issue of inequality in French Public Hygiene (1820-1832)  

​In 1821, Louis-René Villermé (1782-1863) was commissioned to analyze the statistics of the city of Paris: he discovered that inequalities in wealth were correlated with inequalities in health. This social issue of public hygiene became a moral concern in France. A fear emerged of the risks of contagion and death generated by poverty. The distrust of the elites towards poverty was confronted with the distrust of the poor towards the bourgeoisie, and in 1832, la peur bleue generated a climate of revolt in Paris. The government gradually organized control of this feared moral decay by increasing taxes on alcoholic beverages, targeting promiscuity in poor neighborhoods and regulating street sanitation.   

​At the heart of this historical turning point, Villermé's statistical law on poverty confirmed the mores of the time: addiction, perversion and insalubrity were seen as the daily life of the working class. The positivity of the statistics highlighted the danger of underprivileged neighborhoods and the need to regulate them. This paper proposes to question the normativity of public hygiene statistics on poverty before and during the 1832 cholera epidemic in Paris. Understanding this turning point will allow us to question the moralistic emergence of public hygiene values through the lens of inequality.  


​​​Elise A. Mitchell, Princeton University

​​​Elise A. Mitchell is currently a Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of History at Princeton University. She is currently completing her first monograph tentatively titled, Morbid Geographies: Enslavement, Epidemics, and Embodiment and a companion digital history project, Smallpox and Slavery in the Early Modern Atlantic World: A Digital History.  

Mathieu Corteel, Sciences Po Paris, Harvard College

​Mathieu Corteel is Postdoctoral Researcher at Sciences Po Paris, Arthur Sachs Fellow at Harvard and Teaching Fellow at Harvard College. He has recently published his first book based on his doctoral thesis, Le Hasard et le Pathologique, which traces the history of statistics and probability in medicine from the seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth century. ​ 

Elise Mitchell and ​Mathieu Corteel






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