Online Lecture: Melanie Kiechle, ‘From Nuisance to Sensitivity: The Shifting Logics of Public Health’

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Melanie Kiechle, ‘From Nuisance to Sensitivity: The Shifting Logics of Public Health’

Wednesday 19th April 2023, 4 – 5:30pm (UK time). Online. Register here.
Co-hosted by the University of Bristol Senses and Sensations research group and Centre for Environmental Humanities.

Organized public health got its start in the United States by rooting out and regulating “nuisances,” those elements of the environment that were understood to be detrimental to health. Nuisances included such things as marshy ground, standing water, dense smoke, and foul odors—things that citizens could readily identify through their physical senses. As boards of health struggled to keep pace with citizen complaints, they began considering the “sensitiveness” of the complaining citizen. When Board members determined that the complaining citizen was overly sensitive or had coarse senses—often because of their gender, race, or class status—Boards of Health did not act on their nuisance complaints. Drawing from the writing of public health reformers and Board of Health officials, this talk will pinpoint the important role that sensitivity played in the development of public health. Beyond the details of these events, the talk argues that we need to consider the history of sensitivity as we continue to develop sensory history.

Melanie Kiechle is an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech. She is interested in environmental and bodily knowledge in periods of change. Her book, Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Urban America, 1840-1900, explores how Americans used their sense of smell to understand and react to industrial growth and urban concentration between the rise of the public health movement and the Progressive Era.