4 Nov 2022 09:00 - 18:00 Online


History of medicine and science accounts have commonly portrayed cities as the vectors of knowledge innovation, political modernisation, and globalisation. In this scheme, the rural has appeared at times as ahistorical and conservative, waiting to be sanitised, modernised, and incorporated into the global world thanks to dynamics set up in metropolises such as New York, Antwerp, Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai, or Cape Town.

This picture has, however, been challenged by recent studies, ranging from historical research on the role of plantations in shaping capitalist inequalities, to sociological examinations of the intersections between rural zoonotic diseases and nation-building projects, to ethnographic descriptions of emerging infectious disease ‘hot zones’ at the border between rural zones and ‘wild’ spaces.

The workshop ‘Rural and agrarian disease knowledge: historical and ethnographic perspectives will discuss the epistemic co-constitution of the rural/agrarian and infectious diseases by asking: how have human interactions with infectious diseases impacted ways of knowing and acting on rural and agrarian spaces and environments? And, in turn, how have human interactions with rural and agrarian spaces and environments impacted ways of knowing and acting against infectious diseases? Moreover, how has the rural been configured either as a space of health or sickness over the centuries and around the globe? Which role did rural and agrarian landscapes play in the epistemic emergence of microbiology and tropical medicine, both as spaces for sanitary interventions and as places of knowledge? How did sanitary, microbiological and epidemiological dynamics taking place in rural and agrarian settings interact with and co-participate in global processes such as European imperialism, the emergence of capitalism, and post-colonial nation-building projects?

The result of a collaboration between The Global War Against the Rat and the Epistemic Emergence of ZoonosisWellcome-funded project (University of St Andrews), the ERC-funded project The Global as Artefact and the Centre for Global Knowledge Studies (gloknos, University of Cambridge), the workshop will take place in hybrid (in person and online) form, with the in-person event being based at Cambridge. For Covid-protection reasons, the event will be open to non-speakers only online.

gloknos is initially funded for 5 years by the European Research Council through a Consolidator Grant awarded to Dr Inanna Hamati-Ataya for her project ARTEFACT (2017-2022). ARTEFACT is funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (ERC grant agreement no. 724451). For information about gloknos or ARTEFACT please contact the administrator in the first instance.

University of St Andrews logoWellcome logo


09:00 - 09:15

Welcome and introduction

09:15 - 10:45

Panel 1

Gregg Mitman (Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität/University of Wisconsin-Madison)
‘From the city to the jungle: the remaking of yellow fever in West Africa’

Christos Lynteris (St Andrews)
‘The epidemiological and epistemic emergence of ‘Rural plague’ in Argentina (1920-1950)’

Karen Sayer (Leeds Trinity)
‘The view from the land, disease control through the built spaces of British Agriculture 1947-1980’

10:45 - 11:00

Coffee break

11:00 - 12:30

Panel 2

Caroline Mburu (St Andrews)
‘”Show us the Bacteria!”: Tensions and contestations of brucellosis disease control in Rural Tanzania’

Cristiana Bastos (University of Lisbon)
‘That knowledge you brought on your empty hands: domestic healing among Madeiran labourers in plantation Hawaii’

Oliver French (St Andrews)
‘Bringer of light and death: phosphorus and the crusade against rats in the Third Plague Pandemic’

12:30 - 13:30

Lunch break

13:30 - 15:00

Panel 3

Freya Jephcot (Cambridge) and Jacob Steere-Williams (Charleston)
‘Demarcating the ‘field’ of Field Epidemiology’

Jules Skotnes-Brown (St Andrews)
‘Extracting blood, flies, and ideas: David and Mary Bruce, Zulu experts, and shifting geographies of health in rural Zululand c. 1870s-1900s’

Maurits Bastiaan Meerwijk (Leiden University/Health Council of the Netherlands)
‘Yaws: medicine and propaganda in rural Java’

15:00 - 15:15

Coffee break

15:15 - 16:45

Panel 4

Lina Pinto Garcia (Universidad de los Andes/Oxford)
‘Leishmaniasis knowledge and practices in the midst of war: lessons for a peace building process in Colombia’

Juan Pablo Zabala (CONICET/UNLA)
‘Making a scientific career out of a controversial rural disease: Salvador Mazza and Chagas’s Disease at the Mission for the Study of Regional Pathologies, Argentina 1926-1946’

Matheus Alves Duarte da Silva (St Andrews)
‘Plague in the backlands: rats, rural spaces, and epidemiological reasoning in Brazil (1925-1955)’

16:45 - 17:00

Coffee break

17:00 - 18:00


  • Inanna Hamati-Ataya (Cambridge)
  • Raphael Uchôa (Cambridge)
  • James Wood (Cambridge)


  • Cristiana Bastos (University of Lisbon): ‘That Knowledge You Brought on Your Empty Hands: Domestic Healing among Madeiran Laborers in Plantation Hawaii’


  • Oliver French (University of St Andrews): ‘Bringer of Light and death: Phosphorus and the Crusade Against Rats in the Third Plague Pandemic’

The colonial trade in phosphorus, historians have shown, was intimately ensnarled with the multi-species and pan-global violence of empire. Hitherto centred on the brutality underpinning this element’s suffusion through the industrial production of life and light, the parallel status of phosphorus as a safe, economic and comprehensively ‘modern’ poison, is currently absent in this scholarship. Accordingly, in this paper, we explore the ‘life’ of phosphorus-based rat poisons in the agricultural, and later, counter-epidemic, control of rodent ‘pests’. In particular, we follow the trajectory of the Canadian brand ‘Common Sense Rat Exterminator” (CRSE), from the wheat farms of Ontario to the streets, homes and fields of British India during the third plague pandemic (1894-1955). Tracking the pathways of this commodity, this paper asks how emerging pathological associations between rats and plague mobilised international transfers of knowledges, substances and strategies between agricultural and medical spaces across the British Empire and beyond. We situate this within shifts in contemporary modes of agrarian production entangled with the proliferation of global capitalism and trans-imperial trade. Significantly, the paper dwells on the virtual absence of phosphorus poisons in South Asia prior to the third plague pandemic despite their established renown and vast international circulation. This omission, we argue, speaks to the character of colonial governance in India, suggesting that the differentiation of intra-imperial agrarian spaces, in this case through the reification of a racial schematic, formed yet another avenue through which the material and conceptual fabric of the British Empire was produced.

  • Christos Lynteris (University of St Andrews): ‘The Epidemiological and Epistemic Emergence of “Rural Plague” in Argentina (1920-1950)’

Best known for its development and impact on city-ports like Buenos Aires and Rosario, the spread of the third plague pandemic in Argentina led to the establishment of foci in the Argentine hinterland leading to frequent outbreaks of the disease over the first half of the twentieth century. This talk examines how these outbreaks led to the development of a new framework of the disease in the country under the term “rural plague”. What began as a heuristic description of plague in agrarian contexts developed by the mid 1930s into a contested framework of the disease in dialogue with international framings of sylvatic plague. Determining what animals maintain “rural plague” and how the disease spread from them to humans involved much more than simply bacteriological testing, with ethnographic, zoological, ecological and cartographic methods employed to support rival hypotheses. Key to the debate was whether rats were involved in this ecology of the disease. The talk will examine the emergence, development and contestation of “rural plague” in Argentina as an epistemologically liminal notion that attempted to render intelligible and actionable an epidemiological reality, which remained at the margins of political and public health interest in the country while at the same time offering itself for the development of both national and international scientific careers.

  • Caroline Mburu (University of St Andrews): ‘“Show us the bacteria!”: Tensions and contestations of Brucellosis Disease Control in Rural Tanzania’

Brucellosis, though a priority zoonosis in Tanzania is poorly controlled within the human-livestock-wildlife interface. Challenges exist such as the lack of livestock vaccination and inadequate surveillance of the disease in both animals and humans. Inadequate resources have shifted the focus from vaccination to encouraging the uptake of safer animal handling behaviour and the consumption of pasteurised dairy products. The participation of the community in addressing this disease is therefore key especially in low resource settings where basic hygiene measures are often nonexistent. However, tensions exist between the lay people and professionals and these can affect the adaptability of these disease control measures. Based on ethnographic findings, this paper addresses potential barriers to the uptake of brucellosis prevention and control strategies by a rural agropastoralist community in Tanzania. This is elucidated within the framework of the critical medical anthropology theory. First, the contrast betwen embodied knowledge about the disease by the local people and scientific knowledge are described. Behavior risking transmission continues as a result of this personalised knowledge that no disease can arise from these practices. The framing of this lay knowledge as “beliefs” perpetuates it as something that needs to be corrected and this is strongly resisted at the community level. Secondly, a history of alienation and marginalisation of livestock keepers and its effect on risk communication actions is explained. Conservation and modernisation are the other key aspects addressed by this paper and the contestations they elicit which have broken trust between the lay people and professionals thus increasing involvement in risky behaviour and resistance to control efforts. This paper proposes that relevant disease control measures must address knowledge tensions, historical processes and political economic factors in order to be successful. Human behaviour and responses to disease control efforts need to be contexualised for different people groups and broader structural factors addressed comprehensively.

  • Maurits Bastiaan Meerwijk (Leiden University/Health Council of the Netherlands): ‘Yaws: Medicine and Propaganda in Rural Java’


  • Gregg Mitman (Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität/University of Wisconsin-Madison): ‘From the City to the Jungle: The Remaking of Yellow Fever in West Africa’

In 1920, members of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Yellow Fever Commission to West Africa expressed utmost confidence that the “theatrically prompt eradication” of yellow fever “in great centers of endemicity such as Havana, Panama, and Rio de Janeiro,” made consideration of a possible animal reservoir of the disease completely unnecessary. Seven years later, scientists from a second Rockefeller Foundation commission to West Africa successfully transmitted yellow fever from the blood of an infected human to rhesus macaques, troubling scientific assumptions about yellow fever as an exclusively urban, human disease. The laboratory experiments led to the deaths of prominent researchers, transformed monkeys into an important biomedical tool in the investigation of the disease, shifted attention from the city to the jungle, and marked an important moment in what George Canguilhem described as a “complete redefinition of the alliance of living things.” Through a focus on jungle yellow fever in West Africa, this talk interrogates changes in concepts, methods, and disciplines that accompanied shifts from human-centered to multispecies accounts of yellow fever and the making of the forest, or more precisely, its unruly edge, as a hotspot of virus hunting and emerging infectious disease threats.

  • Lina Pinto Garcia (Universidad de los Andes/University of Oxford): ‘Leishmaniasis Knowledge and practices in the Midst of War: Lessons for a Peace Building Process in Colombia’

Painless skin ulcers, which grow slowly and resist healing, are the only physical manifestation of cutaneous leishmaniasis. These lesions develop after the mantablanca —a tiny sandfly— encounters a source of human blood, bites, and transmits Leishmania parasites. As this transmission cycle takes place in Colombia’s main theater of war —the jungle— members of the state army and illegal armed groups constitute the demographics most affected by leishmaniasis. However, other populations living in close connection with this forested environment are also highly affected. Such is the case of people who work cultivating and harvesting coca leaves for cocaine production, an extractive and illicit activity that uses the jungle as a hideout. Based on ethnographic research, this paper explores the knowledge and practices around leishmaniasis that have emerged because of and in the midst of war and coca. I examine how these dialogue or clash with biomedical knowledge and practices, as well as with clinical standards issued by the Ministry of Health. I argue that the ways of dealing with leishmaniasis in rural Colombia have much to teach scientists and the state about the inadequacy of the current management of the disease. By learning from them, we can rethink a rural health system that meets the needs of the countryside in a post-conflict scenario where, despite a signed peace agreement, violence persists.

  • Karen Sayer (Leeds Trinity University): ‘The View from the Land, Disease Control through the Built Spaces of British Agriculture 1947-1980’

Agricultural buildings were significant components of livestock disease management within the managed spaces of the farm after the Agriculture Act of 1947. Situated within the acres of Britain that were tasked to increase food production, their design, materials and management were aligned rhetorically by advisors, policy-makers, architects, designers and advertisers with the imagination of the British nation as modern and progressive. With agriculture harnessed to the idea of Britain as a science-led, technological world power in 1947, agricultural modernity became one facet of Britain’s post-war national identity. Within this, grants, advice, and policy focused on harmonising old, vernacular structures with new farming processes, while at the same time wildlife management, and the amenities of a countryside, came to be celebrated as the epitome of a natural ’England’. The countryside was represented as simultaneously enriching and feeding body politic. But in what ways were farmers and stockmen working with these rhetorics and material pressures while managing disease, where were their disease knowledges within this, in what ways did the animal body impact these knowledges? And how did this shape (did this shape), the buildings that resulted?

  • Matheus Alves Duarte da Silva (University of St Andrews): ‘Plague in the Backlands: Rats, Rural Spaces, and Epidemiological Reasoning in Brazil (1925-1955)’

For almost 30 years, plague became endemic to a vast area of the north-east of Brazil, known as the sertões, the backlands. The progressive conquest of the backlands by plague was followed by the gradual establishment of a national anti-plague structure, whose apex was the creation of the Plague National Service [PNS] in 1941. From the first studies of plague in the backlands until the works of the PNS, doctors usually blamed the specific social, climatic, and economic conditions of the region for the endemicity of plague, which was explained under the term of rural plague. This rural plague was linked to ‘domestic’ rats and was seen as an intermediary phase between port plague, which existed on the Brazilian coast in the first decades of the 20th century, and a feared sylvatic plague, which would be maintained by wild rodents in the Amazon. In this presentation, I discuss the construction of rural plague in Brazil, arguing that this concept inherited from a political reasoning that understood the rural backlands as a geographic and temporal intermediary space between the ‘modern’ and ‘urbanized’ coast and the ‘wild’ and ‘a-historic’ jungle.

  • Jules Skotnes-Brown (University of St Andrews): ‘Extracting Blood, Flies, and Ideas: David and Mary Bruce, Zulu experts, and Shifting Geographies of Health in rural Zululand c. 1870s-1900s’

In the 1890s, one of the most important scientific investigations in the early history of tropical medicine took place atop the isolated Lebombo mountain range in rural Zululand, Colony of Natal. The region, characterised by abundant green pastures, was a paradise for cattle, but had been plagued by a livestock disease that the amaZulu called unakane (Anglicised as nagana). Its cause, Zulu farmers argued, was the presence of legally protected big-game animals straying outside of ‘unhealthy’ country and into their pastures. David Bruce, a Scottish surgeon-major who worked closely with his wife, Mary Bruce, was commissioned to investigate their controversial and unprecedented claim. From 1893-1897, the couple gathered local theories within the ‘diseased’ lowlands in Zululand and tested these in their field-laboratory at Ubombo, a ‘healthy’ hill station atop the Lebombo Mountains. Their influential series of reports would provide the bacteriological foundations for the study of African trypanosomiasis and stimulate a long-standing controversy into the “game-nagana link”– whether big-game were the source of the disease, and whether exterminating them would eradicate nagana. Through examining both Zulu aetiologies of unakane and the Bruces’s bacteriological work, this paper argues that trypanosomiasis research simultaneously divided Zululand into healthy/diseased areas, and reshaped ecologies of disease within the region. While Zulu farmers had long controlled the disease by driving game away from cattle pastures, the Bruces’s experiments unintentionally spread nagana, transforming the ‘healthy’ Ubombo hill station into an ‘unhealthy’ space, and creating an ever-greater open-air site for the study of trypanosomes. Ultimately, the story of unakane/nagana in Zululand demonstrates the importance of rural areas in the production of epidemiological knowledge for Zulu farmers and bacteriologists alike.

  • Juan Pablo Zabala (CONICET/UNLA): ‘Making a Scientific Career out of a Controversial Rural Disease: Salvador Mazza and Chagas’s Disease at the Mission for the Study of Regional Pathologies, Argentina 1926-1946’

The paper explores Salvador Mazza’s research strategies at MEPRA (Mission for the Study of Argentinean Regional Diseases), a laboratory created in 1926 by the University of Buenos Aires for the study of rural diseases, following a recommendation by Charles Nicolle, on the northern border of the country. There, Mazza carried out a research program on brucellosis, malaria, leishmaniasis, and mainly Chagas disease. Our argument is that Mazza developed different social and cognitive strategies to build a position within the local and regional scientific field, from a peripheral position both geographically and professionally. In social terms, Mazza led an intense activity to increase the interest in his work. This included frequent communications with local and foreign scientists, public conferences, as well as relationships with doctors from the provinces, with little or no scientific training, through the North Regional Pathology Society. In cognitive terms, Mazza’s strategy was the search for originality. This was particularly clear in research on Chagas disease, where he concentrated his work since the 1930s. Announced in 1909, Chagas disease was surrounded by controversy related to its clinical symptoms, its diagnostic methods, its routes of contagion and, fundamentally, its epidemiological distribution. Mazza took up these questions focusing mainly on aspects related to bacteriological research, and produced results that earned him the recognition of the scientific field. The intention of the paper is to present the study of rural diseases not only as part of the intervention on rural populations, but also as an object of dispute within the scientific field.

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