Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 July 2019
During the first half of the twentieth century, the mining industry in Britain was subject to recurrent disputes about the risk to miners’ lungs from coal dust, moderated by governmental, industrial, medical and mining bodies. In this environment, precise measurements offered a way to present uncontested objective knowledge. By accessing primary source material from the National Archives, the South Wales Miners Library and the University of Bristol's Special Collections, I demonstrate the importance that the British Medical Research Council (MRC) attached to standardized instrumental measures as proof of objectivity, and explore the conflict between objective and subjective measures of health. Examination of the MRC's use of spirometry in their investigation of pneumoconiosis (miner's lung) from 1936 to 1945 will shed light on this conflict and illuminate the politics inherent in attempts to quantify disability and categorize standards of health.
This work was supported by the Wellcome Trust (grant no 103339) as part of the Life of Breath project. I would like to thank the Life of Breath team for their helpful comments on the presentation of this work. I am further indebted to Havi Carel, Graeme Gooday and Richard Bellis for their vital criticism and editorial remarks on earlier drafts. Special thanks to Lundy Braun for discussing her research on historical spirometry at the University of Bristol in March 2018. I am also grateful to Marie Thebaud-Sorger, Stephen Mawdsley, Sally Horrocks, Charlotte Sleigh and the two anonymous referees for their assistance with this work.
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