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Medical Experts and Agnotology in the Fumes Controversy of the Huelva Copper Mines (1888–1890)

Abstract

Huelva’s copper mines (Spain) have been active for centuries but in the second half of the nineteenth century extractive activities in Riotinto, Tharsis, and other mines in the region were intensified in order to reach world leadership. The method used in these mines for copper extraction from low grade ores generated continuous emissions of fumes that were extremely controversial. The inhabitants had complained about the fumes for decades but as activity intensified so did complaints. The killing of anti-fumes demonstrators in 1888 led to the passing of a Royal Decree banning the open-air roasting of ore and to the drafting of numerous reports on the hazards of the fumes. Major state and provincial medical institutions, as well as renowned hygienists and engineers, took part in the assessment, contributing to a scientific controversy especially rich in content. In my paper I will analyse the production and circulation of knowledge and ignorance about the impact of fumes on public health, as well as the role of medical experts and expertise in the controversy. The analysis will focus on the reports drafted between the 1888 ban and its 1890 repeal, and will show the changing nature of the expert assessment and the numerous paths followed by experts in producing ignorance. The paper will conclude by considering other stakeholders, who may shed some light on the reasons behind the performance of the medical experts.

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* Email address for correspondence: ximo.guillem@uv.es
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This paper is the result of investigations funded by the research project ‘La sanidad internacional y la transferencia de conocimiento científico en Europa 1900–1975’ (Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación – HAR2011-23233) directed by Professor Josep Lluís Barona. I presented drafts of this text at meetings held in Bergen, Aix-en-Provence, Munich and Ciudad Real and benefited from the comments raised by the participants. In its early stages, the paper also benefited from a research stay at the University of Exeter and the comments raised by Professor Joseph Melling. I am also grateful for the help I received from Ignacio Díaz-Delgado (Real Academia Nacional de Medicina), Carolin Schmitz (Ingenio – CSIC/UPV) and Juan Manuel Pérez López (Archivo historico minero de Riotinto).

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

C. Sellers and J. Melling , ‘Towards a Transnational Industrial-Hazard History: Charting the Circulation of Workplace Dangers, Debates and Expertise’, British Journal for the History of Science, 45 (2012), 401424.

E. Newell and S. Watts , ‘The Environmental Impact of Industrialization in South Wales in the Nineteenth Century: “Copper Smoke” and the Llanelli Copper Company’, Environment and History, 2 (1996), 309336.

H. Collins and R. Evans , Rethinking Expertise (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2007).

M. Bloor , ‘The South Wales Miners Federation, Miners’ Lung and the Instrumental Use of Expertise, 1900–1950’, Social Studies of Science, 30 (2000), 125140.

E. Newell , ‘Atmospheric Pollution and the British Copper Industry, 1690–1920’, Technology and Culture, 38 (1997), 655689.

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Medical History
  • ISSN: 0025-7273
  • EISSN: 2048-8343
  • URL: /core/journals/medical-history
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