'Pure, white, and uncontaminated: infectious diseases and microbiology in Antarctica'

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Vanessa Heggie (University of Birmingham)

This paper traces the microbial history of Antarctica, exploring the ‘infection’ of the Far South with humans and their microbial payload in the twentieth century, and its progression from a place of purity, to a space of experimentation, to a region at risk of external contamination. In contrast to tropical medicine, which figured local people and non-temperate environments as the source of dangerous miasmas, and then germs, the bacteria, viruses and fungi of Antarctica were often framed as imported rather than autochthonous. Experience on the continent suggested that infection rates were relatively low, that there was something to the ‘clean and cold’ reputation of the Antarctic, but both civilian and military investigations struggled to make microbes – and particularly viruses – tractable experimental objects. The expense and exoticism of Antarctic research meant that scientists often had to make explicit what they valued in this space as a field site, and they reconfigured its strangeness, remoteness, and climatic challenges as positives in order to continue their grant success, including appeals to NASA.   The reality was different: contaminated petri dishes, uncooperative huskies, and rebellious human subjects created ongoing uncertainty about the way that human diseases responded to Antarctica’s unique environment.

The seminar in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology is convened by Alex Aylward (University of Oxford), Hohee Cho (Wolfson College), Mark Harrison (Green Templeton College), Catherine Jackson (Harris Manchester College), and Sloan Mahone (University of Oxford)