Past event

Reframing Disease Reservoirs: Histories & Ethnographies of Pathogens & Pestilence

The idea of disease reservoirs - that particular animals, people, or environments harbour or distribute disease - has profoundly shaped human relationships to nature. From plague-stricken rats and trypanosomiasis-harbouring zebra to bats as suspect reservoirs of COVID-19 or Ebola, animals have been central to epidemiology and disease management since the end of the nineteenth century. Creatures bearing the label of 'reservoir' have been cast as reviled pests to be eliminated, managed as potential risks through new forms of sanitary intervention or mapped with curiosity about the diversity of their species. Moreover, entire environments have been denounced as 'diseased' or 'unhealthy' or in need of 'cleansing' through vast sanitary campaigns. Marginalised humans, likewise, have been stigmatized as reservoirs of disease and, at times, such thinking has been deployed in justification of segregation and discrimination. With its range of meanings and uncertainties, the concept of a disease reservoir has been epistemologically fraught, taking on different meanings amongst different groups of people in different periods. What constitutes a reservoir, and which animals, plants, or environments are reservoirs of disease? How and where did this concept emerge and why? What is its intellectual lineage? Which other medical concepts intersected with the idea of the disease reservoir throughout its history?

Bringing together perspectives from the humanities and the social sciences in dialogue with the life sciences, this online conference seeks to understand the past and present of disease reservoirs. In so doing, it aims to elucidate the historical construction of the concept of a disease reservoir, its epistemological complexities and ethnographic realities, and to examine how it has shaped relationships between humans, animals, space, wilderness and the environment.

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