Collaborative Dissent: Noses as Shared Instruments in the Nineteenth-Century Fight for Public Health


In the decades after the United States’ Civil War, city and state governments began to institutionalize organized public health, a process that gave physicians and chemists limited political power as officials. The emergence of boards of health as scientific-political institutions fostered but also undermined productive collaborations between chemists, physicians, and urban residents—collaborations of the sort that our contemporary citizen science hope to create, wherein experts and local lay persons shared authority. This paper interrogates the first phases of organized public health in Boston, Chicago, and New York City to reveal the forces that enabled productive collaborations between chemists and citizens, and to pinpoint how the demands of government and the law shifted the balance of power from local, embodied knowledge to quantitative measurement. For modern movements, these historic moments raise the question of how bodies can be mobilized as dissent—and of where scientists need to be physically located in urban environments and communities. Identifying and understanding the social and cultural factors that enabled collaborative dissent holds promise for contemporary urban environmental and health crises.

Author Biography

Melanie A. Kiechle, Virginia Tech
Associate Professor, History, Virginia Tech


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30 May 2022
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