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Focusing on the figure of William Gaskell, husband of Elizabeth, dissenting minister, reformist, and poet, this chapter discusses how the literature of ‘social problems’ interacted with the emerging field of sanitary science. The city of Manchester and the working-class family periodical are examples of ferments where ideas on what constitutes knowledge of questions relating to poverty and poor sanitation are channelled through an intricate relationship shared by medicine, reportage, and fiction. The poems of William Gaskell are read alongside the sanitary work of Thomas Southwood Smith. Both men contributed to the radical Howitt’s Magazine and both sought to reframe the social project in such a way that an analysis of the very means of knowing could underpin the representation of urban health problems. This was an epistemological strategy, and insight, that came about through the intersections of medicine and literature – through their shared spaces, vocabularies, and means of representation.
Chapter 7 highlights the centrality of the history of Mediterranean plague and quarantine to the birth of the public health movement in Britain. Even though bubonic plague is often considered to be a premodern problem, its diffuse and dramatic reputation thoroughly shaped conceptions of other nineteenth-century killer epidemics –– cholera in particular. The chapter reconsiders the much-discussed “contagion debate” within this wider, transnational genealogy of public health. The fight between those who believed epidemic disease was communicated by contact and proximity (“contagionists”) and those who believed that epidemics spread because of atmospheric factors, such as temperature, winds, marsh exhalations, or other putrefying matter (“anticontagionists” or “miasmatists”) has achieved a tired reputation in recent historiography, which casts it as professional posturing in the midst of broad agreement. While this may be true when it comes to cholera, by focusing on quarantine and plague, the broader significance of these medical arguments is more readily apparent. In part thanks to quarantine, public health reformers tended to present problems in explicitly national terms or within dichotomies of national versus foreign. Because of the way they undergirded this national framing, plague and quarantine are an influential part of the genesis of what has been called the “Condition of England Question.”
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