Gregg Mitman.Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes

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  • Gregg Mitman. Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes .Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes by Gregg MitmanReview by: Reviewed by StephenBockingIsis, Vol. 99, No. 2 (June 2008), pp. 381-382Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science SocietyStable URL: .Accessed: 18/06/2014 00:11

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  • China, emphasizing the works of Robert For-tune, Robert Swinhoe, Ernest Henry Wilson,and George Forrest. Chapter 5 describes Rus-sian naturalists work, especially their explora-tions of northeastern and northwestern China.The work of N. M. Przewalski, an officer andnaturalist active in China in the late nineteenthcentury, is also highlighted. Chapter 6 is allo-cated to the French, especially their work insouthwestern China. Chapter 7 describes thecollecting tours sponsored by various Americaninstitutions such as the Department of Agricul-ture, the geographical societies, and major nat-ural history museums. Chapter 8, which is rel-atively short, is on the research work done byGerman, Austrian, and Swedish naturalists.Chapter 9 gives a succinct account of researchdone in Europe and North America on the ma-terials collected from China. Chapter 10 dis-cusses efforts to acclimatize Chinese plants toEuropean climates and the Chinese influence onEuropean gardening.

    The book is full of details and occasionallycontains some intriguing anecdotes, such asRobert Fortunes search for a formula for mak-ing a mosquito-repelling incense (p. 91). An-other merit is that it sometimes cites Chineseliteratures descriptions of the plants and ani-mals collected by Western naturalists. In allother respects, the book retains the major char-acteristics of this type of official chronicle. It isvery broad in scope but short on analysis. Mostof the book is written in a plain and somewhatformulaic style. Each chapter consists mainly ofa description of the research done by Europeannaturalists in China. There are brief accounts ofthe routes they took, the places they visited, theplants and animals they collected or observed,and their descriptions of the environment. Alarge portion of the book reads like a digest ofthe primary sources. There are also quite a fewlong lists of the specimens collected by variousnaturalists and institutions. A list of the Chineseplants collected by the Royal Botanic Gardens atKew and the East India Company in the earlynineteenth century takes up nearly four pages(pp. 6770). Although such inventories providesome useful information, their sheer lengthmakes for less than engaging reading.

    The book rightly argues that European studiesof Chinese flora and fauna were often motivatedby commercial and imperialist interests. Regret-tably, there is neither enough analysis nor ade-quate contextualization to sustain this argument.The indiscriminate use of Marxist-Leninist con-cepts, moreover, occasionally leads to serioushistorical distortion. For example, when describ-ing Russian naturalists aggressive research

    style, Luo refers to nineteenth-century tsaristRussia as a great capitalist country with ex-pansionist ambitions (p. 27). The book is irritat-ingly ill-documented and improperly footnoted.The author seldom indicates his sources clearly.The primary materials cited consist of a fewpublished books and articles. There is hardlyany reference to recent scholarship on naturalhistory in general or on Western science inChina in particular. Fa-ti Fans work, for exam-ple, is not cited. There are also some editorialproblems, such as typographical errors and awk-wardly constructed sentences. The title of RoyLancasters Travels in China (Antique Collec-tors Club, 1989) is consistently misprinted.Owing to these flaws, the scholarly value of thebook is greatly diminished. After reading thebook, however, it is difficult not to be impressedby the extent of the exploration and collectingactivities conducted by Western naturalists inChina during the nineteenth and early twentiethcenturies. With its wide scope, this book is atimely reminder of how much historical researchstill needs to be done on this subject.


    Gregg Mitman. Breathing Space: How Aller-gies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes. xv 312 pp., figs., index. New Haven, Conn.: YaleUniversity Press, 2007. $30 (cloth).

    Americans relations with nature have beenmarked not just by exploitation and contempla-tion, but by the struggle to breathe. In BreathingSpace, Gregg Mitman tells the story of allergiesand the pursuit of reliefin distant landscapes,indoors, or within ones own bodypresentingan account situated at the intersection of medicaland environmental history.

    A century ago, respite from allergies was amatter of place. Wealthy Americans afflictedwith hay fever escaped the city, traveling toresorts in New Hampshires White Mountainsand elsewhere, imbuing their experience of dis-ease with all the conspicuous consumption ofthe Gilded Age. Unlike the locals, these touristspreferred a landscape of leisure to one of work,and so the mountains became a cultivated wil-derness, its social relations, land uses, and sym-bolic space transformeda demonstration ofhow disease itself became a force in environ-mental history. But the many who had neithertime nor money for such escapes could only relyon nostrums.

    Other places also attracted those seekinghealth. Denver and Tucson capitalized on theirdry, clean air by building reputations as health

    BOOK REVIEWSISIS, 99 : 2 (2008) 381

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  • resorts. Institutions and scientists, like theDesert Sanatorium in Tucson and Daniel Mac-Dougal of the Desert Botanical Laboratory, em-phasized the restorative qualities of the regionsecology. But this paradise proved illusory, asindustry and newly arrived allergenic plant spe-cies diminished its attractions. By the 1950sasthma sufferers like Joseph Wood Krutch feltcompelled to respond with eloquent calls to pre-serve the desert landscape; his writings hint atthe unsuspected role of allergies in encouragingcontemporary environmental awareness.

    Views of allergies, particularly as they cameto be seen as clinical problems, also became tiedto broader ideas about humans and nature. Ur-ban ragweed became a noxious weedan im-migrant menace endangering public health. Inthe 1930s it was seen, like the Dust Bowl, asevidence of ecologically unsound land use; adecade later, technological optimism redefinedit as a pest to be eradicated. Ideas about respi-ratory disease and its relation to place alsoevolved. In the 1930s the recommended treat-ment for tuberculosis shifted from a change inclimate to a stay in a sanitorium that providedrest, diet, fresh air, and surgery; geography wasrendered irrelevant. In a later era the care ofasthma patients similarly shifted, from trans-porting them to clean and dry environments totransforming their emotional state. Asthmaamong city dwellers was even seen as psycho-somaticepidemics in poorer neighborhoodswere, perhaps, a consequence of the emotionalinsecurities inherent in the black personality.

    Eventually, attention turned to the home en-vironment. Air conditioners and vacuum clean-ers showed how technology could convert thehome into a shelter from allergensa notionthat fit well with Cold War views of the home asrefuge from a dangerous world. Now a healthyenvironment was no longer a public good, butsimply a consumer choice. Yet sanitized indoorspaces also had unexpected consequences: thescourge of dust mites and the accumulation ofcontaminants within airtight buildings. A preoc-cupation with interior spaces also obscuredwider ecologies of injustice, such as living con-ditions in New Orleans and New York that weretied to epidemics of asthma. This disease hassince moved to the center of efforts to combaturban environmental, economic, and social ills.

    Most recently, a distancing of disease from itsenvironment has come through the use of drugsto treat allergies. The military helped force thischange, demanding that soldiers operate unim-paired by hay fever, seasickness, and the com-mon cold. Antihistamines were one answer,with their capacity to modify the body to be less

    sensitive to its exterior environment. Today,drugs free fifty million Americans from naturesconstraints, enabling them to perform unim-peded by pollen, rough seas, or high winds.With technology triumphant, the places thatonce shaped the experience of allergic diseaseshave receded from view, as has the essentialawareness that allergies exist not in isolation butin relation to their environment. Thus the pris-tine landscapes, now lost, that once served asrefuges seem to matter less, and the environ-mental injustices that determined vulnerabilityto disease have been rendered nearly invisible.Instead, a new ecology of disease has emerged,one in which drugs and commerce combine inthe intimacy of the doctors office and chemicalscirculate within the standardized bodies of al-lergy sufferers, tying them to the political econ-omy of capital and biotechnology. This is animportant story, and Mitman tells it brilliantly.


    David R. Montgomery. Dirt: The Erosion ofCivilizations. ix 285 pp., illus., bibl., index.Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.$24.95 (cloth).

    Dirt belongs to an increasingly popular genre ofbooks that unite natural and cultural history byfocusing on a single animal, vegetable, or min-eral substance, notably Mark Kurlanskys Cod(Walker, 1997) and Salt (Walker, 2002). Dirt isdifferent from these entities, however, because itconstitutes an environment in its own right:Soil truly is the skin of the earththe frontierbetween geology and biology (p. 23). Dirt livesand breathes. Thanks to Darwins last andleast-known book (p. 9), we know somethingabout the earthworms that quietly plow theearth. But we still know little about the spectac-ular diversity of bacteria, fungi, arthropods, andother tiny creatures found in the soil, their pro-found role in the global cycling of materials, ortheir fundamental influence on climate change.Our level of ignorance concerning the soil iscurious, considering that dirt lies at the root ofcivilized existence. David Montgomery isgravely concerned about our present propensityto treat soil as a site for industrial through-putas just dirtinstead of regarding it asone of the earths fundamental living systems.His primary goal in this book is to providehistorical insight into these human tendencies.

    This scientific popularization provides amuch-needed update to Edward Hyamss Soiland Civilization (Thames & Hudson, 1952) andDaniel Hillels Out of the Earth (Free Press,

    382 BOOK REVIEWSISIS, 99 : 2 (2008)

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