A guest post by Ruma Chopra
It took the English doctor Thomas Short eighteen years to publish his nearly 1000-page assessment of the relationship between climates and diseases. Published in 1749, his two-volume history, A general chronological history of the air, weather, seasons, meteors, &c. in sundry places and different times, more particularly for the space of 250 years, together with some of their most remarkable effects on animal (especially human) bodies, and vegetables (Folger 203- 254q) correlates astronomical and climatic conditions to a variety of distempers and diseases in various parts of the world by placing hundreds of scattered episodes in one chronological sequence.
Beginning with the flood that destroyed all living creatures except what was left with “Noah in the Ark” and ending in 1747, Short itemizes how the “vicissitudes and alterations” of weather and seasons took a terrible toll in Europe and elsewhere. Diseases could strike like lightning. Outside of catastrophes like earthquakes, periods of cold, rainy, “floody,” moist, foggy, warm, dry, or windy weather produced conditions with miserable symptoms such as shivering, spasms, convulsions, discolored urine, spots in the face, cough, malignant fevers, dullness, looseness. Dr. Short was determined (1) to identify the environmental catalysts for each disease; and (2) to identity the proper treatment based on the cause. He suspected that the same symptoms caused by two different “airs” required different cures; fevers in a “hot season” had to be treated differently than those occurring in the “moist season.”
Dr. Short’s exhaustive description of various diseases included their symptoms, their history, their environmental causes, and their treatment. When he detailed the conditions related to “looseness,” he begins, for example, with various kinds of liquids excreted from the body: mucus “cast out like snot,” a second watery, yellowish or ash-colored liquid that fatally dries out the body, and the bloody-flux. Epidemic looseness could include “thin, watery, pale, insipid stools” or “bloody, mixt, purulent, yellow-green stools.” If the excrement were first thin and then thick, the condition was less serious than if the stool was mixed with pieces of “Fat or Flesh.” Diseases associated with looseness, Short wrote, date back to Britain in 997 A.D. They attacked especially during harvest season but were further encouraged by a particular climate, the “wet, rainy, foggy, cloudy, southern constitution.” One treatment of one type of looseness was an emulsion of oil of sweet almonds with the yolk of an egg.
For Dr. Short, environmental history was naturally global. A 50-page table in volume 2, titled, “A General Chronological Table of Meteors, Weather, Seasons, Diseases, &c,” is dedicated to a series of cataclysmic events. We learn, for example, of an earthquake in Italy in 17 A.D., in Asia in 66 A.D., and in Bavaria in 121 A.D. A comet resulted in the outbreak of plague in Scotland in 502 A.D.; other small comets in France in 1699 did not result in any diseases. In England, meteors, thunder and lightning fell all summer in 1233. Other environmental calamities—“prodigies reducible to no certain class or kind”—occurred in 1190 when an “extraordinary brightness shined near the Zenith.” Other dates in this table recorded hurricanes, hails, tempests, and famines.
What do we make of this compendium of detailed information that correlates historical time with environments, and environments to diseases? First, Dr. Short fits squarely within the eighteenth-century age of science, someone exhaustively collecting empirical information to establish historical patterns between climate events and disease, in order to make a “tolerable guess” about future diseases. Second, his outlook was global: In one short paragraph on 1688, he documents the earthquake in Jamaica, the severe winter in Germany, and also a fever in London that spread rapidly to Ireland. Last, we see Short’s distance from our own world most obviously in his obsessive interest in correlating disease to not just natural but also astronomical events. What we would today consider superstitious—his emphasis on comets and meteors and their direct relationship to diseases—was part of an expansive eighteenth-century mindset. We could say that his environment extended across the planet whereas ours merely covers the earth.
Ruma Chopra’s current project is titled, “Before Darwin: Empire, Bodies, Climate, and Culture.” This project has received funding from the Rachel Carson Center (Munich), the John Carter Brown Library (Providence), and the Folger Shakespeare Library.