Organized Session

The Septic Fringe: Developing a History of Marginalized Species

Organizer

Matthew Holmes

University of Cambridge

Chair

Joan Steigerwald

York University

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Session Abstract

The term "septic fringe" is used to refer to marginal zones for waste and refuse, which have existed on the edge of human settlements since prehistory. We generally associate the animal and microbial inhabitants of the septic fringe, including bacteria, fungi, insects, birds and rodents, with fear or disgust across human history. Yet new animal and environmental histories have given us fresh insights into human interaction with "pests" and "vermin," including how our relationship with them is reflective of wider social and cultural contexts. Histories of biotechnology and biological control have also described how former inhabitants of the septic fringe were rehabilitated into a series of scientific and industrial enterprises. By the early years of the twentieth century, moulds and fungi were instrumental for fermentation based industries, while insects and birds were harnessed by the new science of economic biology to protect agriculture. New industrial farms and microbiological institutes investigated brewing, sterilisation and insect control, with the septic fringe becoming a site of innovation, inspiration and industry.

Presenter 1

Putrid Feavers, Morbid Ferments: Fermentation and Putrefaction in Early Modern Iatrochemistry

Carmen Schmechel

Freie Universität Berlin, Philosophical Institute

Abstract

For the philosophers of the Early modern age in the Western world, fermentation and putrefaction were difficult to tell apart. Both in practice and in theory, in a pre-industrialized era these processes were straddling the fine line between nourishing and rotten, life-giving and disease-inducing.
Because the precise natural causes of these phenomena were unknown, they invited reflections that were laced with religious overtones, leading to a response that combined wonder, reverence and horror. This was the case, for instance, with insects and vermin believed to have arisen from putrefying matter (the theory of spontaneous generation) or with the 'fermentation theory of disease,' an etiological framework upheld for centuries.
My paper argues that the rise of iatrochemistry - a new school of medicine based on chymical principles - contributed to a massive shift in the perceived importance of fermentation and putrefaction. Because these phenomena gained in relevance, they also came to shape social relations as they related to disease or contagion. Theories of fermentation and putrefaction in iatrochemistry also consolidated existing Ancient ideas about the inferiority of female biology - another eminent example of the impact of fermentation theories on social dynamics.
By analyzing cultural attitudes towards fermentations and putrefactions, as well as Early modern medical theories (like the ones put forth by Athanasius Kircher or Thomas Willis) concerning these phenomena, my paper will attempt to partly reconstruct a network of ideas linking fermentation, putrefaction, vermin, contagion, and disease.
This anthropological framing will highlight the broader relevance of fermentation theories for our understanding both of the natural world and of our relationship with it within Western culture.

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Presenter 2

Spectacular Experiments and Yeasts of Harm: Modernizing Fermentation in French Indochina

Aro Velmet

University of Southern California

Abstract

In the 1890s, Albert Calmette of the French Pasteur Institute advised two companies seeking to win control over rice alcohol and opium production in French Indochina. While the colonial state sought to bring these profitable industries under French control, the state faced resistance from Vietnamese and French businesses, who did not want to lose their license or subject themselves to state regulation. Nor were metropolitan Republican politicians particularly happy about interventions in free trade. In order to justify monopolization, Calmette claimed that he could replace Vietnamese and Chinese fermentation methods with modern, hygienic, and pure fermentation methods, powered by Pastorian science. But telling the difference between a „pure yeast" and a „harmful yeast" proved difficult - particularly when Pastorian „pure yeasts" and efficient production methods were quite literally stolen from Vietnamese and Chinese distilleries.
This paper shows how revaluing a yeast initially considered useless depended on successful spectacular performances of its usefulness and purity to very specific audiences: French officials and capitalowners, but also Vietnamese critics. Assembling a wealth of scientific and material infrastructure - from French patents to giant, well-ordered and meticulously maintained factories - could convince critics that French yeasts were indeed „pure", even if they alcohol they produced did not taste good; a poor performance of purity, such as a shipment of opium lost to poor fermentation, could fatally undermine the credibility of the yeast and the basis for French reform proposals.

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Presenter 3

Child of Civilization: Fighting the Cockchafer Beetle in Late Nineteenth-Century France, Britain and Ceylon

Matthew Holmes

University of Cambridge

Abstract

The Cockchafer beetle, or white worm, was a familiar and wearisome pest in nineteenth-century agriculture. Yet by the close of the century, the appearance of Cockchafer swarms had led to increasing alarm in Europe and its colonies. This paper uses the Cockchafer to advance our understanding of the nineteenth-century categorization and treatment of problematic species beyond the labels of "pest" or "vermin." Rather than simply demonize the beetle, nineteenth-century growers and entomologists acknowledged that Cockchafer infestations arose as the results of human activities, namely intensive farming and deforestation. In France, zoologist Alfred Mathieu Giard attempted to cultivate fungal diseases to cull beetle populations. Eleanor Ormerod and Cecil Warburton, consulting entomologists to the Royal Agricultural Society, praised Britain's damp climate as a barrier against large Cockchafer outbreaks. In British Ceylon, plantation owner R.C. Haldane experimented with noxious chemicals and biological enemies of the beetle such as birds and wild pigs. The case of the Cockchafer reveals a previously unexplored regime of global insect control, incorporating everything from traditional remedies and land management to the use of insecticides and parasitic fungi. This paper argues that this regime emerged in part because of a collective realization that the beetle was interdependent with civilization, in part because of wider changes in the agricultural and life sciences, including the increasing use of chemicals and exploration of biological controls.

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Presenter 4

Unwanted: Before the Honey Bee Became Desirable

Brenda Kellar

Oregon State University

Abstract

At the turn of the twenty-first century U. S. agriculturalists began to panic as honey bees (Apis mellifera) began to disappear due to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Just a hundred years previously, many agriculturalists believed honey bees harmed their crops - cutting into the skin for the sweet juice of grapes and other soft skinned fruits and robbing nectar required for full production of apples, oranges and many other crops. Agricultural scientists and beekeepers protested that this was incorrect, that honey bees were actually of importance in full pollination resulting in the greatest harvests. Ironically, the push for greater agricultural production, inherent in the ideals of the progressive era and directly tied to contemporaneous ideas about the success of the U.S. as a nation, led to heavy pesticide use at the recommendation of the same federal and state agricultural scientists who were recommending that honey bees be placed within orchards and fields. This talk explores the septic fringe occupied by honey bees and filled with science-based arguments about the value of honey bees to agriculture in the early twentieth century.

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