Chair of Modern History | ERC Consolidator Grant | 2023-2028
Fever. Global Histories of (a) Disease, 1750–1840
Fever is one of the most basic and pervasive of human experiences. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic took this to new extremes, fever and the attendant sensations – of ‘burning up’ or having one’s temperature taken – had long been familiar to men, women and, indeed, children. While fever is a universal feature of humans’ material existence, however, its relevance and meaning differed from one historical context to another.
This ERC project studies fever globally, particularly in societies within or tied to the Atlantic world, in the century spanning from the 1750s to the 1840s – a time when fever was not only considered the most common ailment that afflicted mankind, but also its most fatal one; ‘more persons died of fever than of all other ailments combined’, as contemporaries saw it. Given that fever was a threatening, ubiquitous presence for men and women around 1800, we know surprisingly little about it; as one medical historian recently put it, ‘fever has been the invisible elephant in the china shop of the medical past’.
Premised upon archival research in countries across the world, the four subprojects expose and explain the unusual prevalence of fever in the period’s medical record; its persistent association with particular, ‘insalubrious’ environments rather than contagion; the unceasing relevance of vernacular, ‘folk’ and indigenous fever remedies in many Atlantic societies; and fever’s resonance and relation with similar disease concepts in other, non-European empires. The project also breaks new ground methodologically in its global, ‘new materialist’ and interdisciplinary approach – its dialogue with the medical sciences, history and philosophy of science, and environmental studies. It poses questions fundamental to our understanding of both the past and the present: about the rise and fall of diseases, the credibility of medical knowledge, and how cultural and historical contexts affect suffering and physiology, and vice versa.
The 5-year project is led by Professor Stefanie Gänger and will kick off in October 2023.