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Visualizing the Geography of Diseases in China, 1870s-1920s
Marta Hanson, Johns Hopkins University, Department of the History of Medicine
Medical mapping was never just a way of thinking but also a way to visualize certain conceptions of knowledge and legitimate specific medical practices. The earliest disease maps in Europe were statements in an argument, evidence furthering a specific case, and visualizations of possible causal relationships. On the one hand, disease incidence, and on the other hand, potential causes—the climate or weather, water and air quality, geological features such as elevation, waterways and mountains, or an unknown poison in the environment. Physicians used them for various functions in China from the 1870s, when they were first used to work out causal relationships, to the 1910s and 20s, when they were transformed for new political purposes. They were one of the most succinct ways to circulate complex syntheses of current medical knowledge. They also present a visual history of major changes in the conception of what was modern Western knowledge within China from the mid nineteenth-century peak of medical geography to the eventual victory of laboratory medicine by the early twentieth century. Over 50 maps of diseases in China were published from the 1870s to the 1920s. The earliest disease maps for China, like nineteenth-century vital statistics and petri-dishes, made causal relations newly visible. During the 1910-20s, however, new kinds of maps of diseases in China functioned more to legitimate colonial and later Chinese state-populace relationships than to elucidate causal disease-agent ones. Finally, the first disease maps in vernacular Chinese that appear in 1921 were of the distribution of bubonic plague and pneumonic plague (and later in 1928 of cholera and apoplexy) in China and the world. Published on public-health posters in the late 1920s, they attempted to convince a wary public of an entirely novel way of seeing epidemic disease, themselves, and their place in a newly globalizing world.
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