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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
Footnotes
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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).

Footnotes
References
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1. Ferrero Blanco M.D., ‘Los conflictos de febrero de 1888 en Riotinto: Distintas versiones de los hechos’, Huelva en su Historia, 2 (2011), 603623.

2. Environmental popularisation books consider this conflict to be the first environmentalist protest in Spain. See, e.g., Joaquín Fernández, El ecologismo español (Madrid: Alianza, 1999).

3. The issue of air pollutants and public health has been considered in authoritative books reprinted in recent years, e.g. Peter Brimblecombe, The Big Smoke: A History of Air Pollution in London since Medieval Times (Oxford: Routledge, 2012) and Stephen Mosley, The Chimney of the World: A History of Smoke Pollution in Victorian and Edwardian Manchester (Oxford: Routledge, 2008), as well as in more recent books, e.g. J.R. Fleming and A. Johnson (eds), Toxic Airs: Body, Place, Planet in Historical Perspective (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014). For a more specific focus on fumes from mines, see also, e.g. J.D. Wirth, Smelter Smoke in North America: The Politics of Transborder Pollution (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000).

4. Checkland S.G., The Mines of Tharsis: Roman, French and British Enterprise in Spain (Glasgow: Allen & Unwin, 1967) and Ch. E. Harvey, The Rio Tinto Company: An Economic History of a Leading International Mining Concern 1873–1954 (Penzance: Alison Hodge, 1981). See, as well, D. Avery, Not on Queen Victoria’s Birthday: The story of the Rio Tinto mines (London: Collins, 1974).

5. See, e.g., M.D. Ferrero Blanco, Capitalismo minero y resistencia rural en el suroeste andaluz: Riotinto, 1873–1900 (Huelva: Publicaciones de la Universidad de Huelva, 1999); C. Arenas Posadas, Empresas, mercados, mina y mineros: Rio Tinto (1873–1936) (Huelva: Publicaciones de la Universidad de Huelva, 1999); J.D. Pérez Cebada, Tierra devastada: Historia de la contaminación minera (Madrid: Sintesis, 2014); M. Flores Caballero, La venta de las minas de Riotinto (Huelva: Instituto de Estudios Onubenses, 1981); L. Gil Varón, Minería y migraciones: Riotinto 1873–1973 (Córdoba: Sociedad Cooperativa Industrial Tipografía Católica, 1984); J.M. Pérez López, Las calcinaciones al aire libre: Las teleras: Los conflictos sociales de febrero de 1888: Causas y consecuencias (Huelva: Fundación Riotinto, 1994).

6. Cortázar D., La mina de Rio Tinto y sus calcinaciones: Discurso pronunciado en la conferencia del 26 de enero de 1888 celebrada en el Ateneo de Madrid (Madrid: Manuel G. Hernández, 1888).

7. Juan Diego Pérez Cebada argues, for instance, that the impact of fumes on nearby orchards had given rise to increasing complaints that eventually led to the first compensation file in Spain, in 1847 (J.D. Pérez Cebada, ‘Minería del cobre y contaminación atmosférica: Estrategias empresariales en las cuencas de Swansea, Huelva y Montana’, Revista de Historia Industrial, 16 (1999), 45–66).

8. The intensification of extractive activities was progressive but conspicuous, as stated by Arenas Posadas and other authors. For instance, in 1890 the amount of copper ore extracted by the company was twice that extracted in 1880. Arenas Posadas, op. cit. (note 5), 64.

9. Checkland, op. cit. (note 4).

10. Dictamen del Consejo Supremo de Sanidad del Reino, sobre si debe o no considerarse como insalubre el procedimiento de calcinación al aire libre que emplean las empresas mineras en la Provincia de Huelva (Sevilla: A. Izquierdo y sob., 1888).

11. See, e.g., R.N. Proctor and L. Schiebinger (eds), Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008); M. Gross, Ignorance and Surprise (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010); L. McGoey, ‘Strategic Unknowns: Towards a Sociology of Ignorance’, Economy & Society, special issue, 41 (2012); M. Smithson, Ignorance and Uncertainty: Emerging Paradigms (New York: Springer, 1989). The problem of uncertainty in science has also been very relevant to the development of frameworks such as that of post-normal science: see S.O. Funtowicz and J.R. Ravetz, ‘Three types of risk assessment and the emergence of postnormal science’, in S. Krimsky and D. Golding (eds), Social Theories of Risk (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992), 251–273.

12. Sellers C. and Melling J., ‘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.

13. Dictamen del Consejo Supremo de Sanidad del Reino, op. cit. (note 10); H. Rodríguez Pinilla, Los Humos de Huelva ante la Higiene Pública (Madrid: G. Juste, 1889).

14. [Sobre las calcinaciones de la compañía minera de Riotinto], 1889–1890, Biblioteca de la Real Academia Nacional de la Medicina.

15. Pulido Fernández A., Las calcinaciones de Huelva (Problema de salubridad) (Madrid: Enrique Teodoro, 1890); A. Pulido Fernández, Más sobre las calcinaciones de Huelva (Problema de salubridad) (Madrid: EnriqueTeodoro, 1890); V. Martín de Argenta and J. Martínez Pacheco, Los minerales de cobre y Riotinto (Madrid: Escuela Tipográfica del Hospicio, 1890).

16. G. Coto et al., Los humos de Rio-Tinto y su influencia en la salud pública y la vegetación (Madrid: El Resumen, 1890) and Exposición a s.m la reina regente de la liga contra las calcinaciones de Huelva: Asociación de 30 pueblos perjudicados de esta provincia y uno de la de Sevilla (Madrid: Fernando Cao y Domingo de Val, 1890).

17. Farmers and other inhabitants of the region played an active role in the controversy through the Liga Antihumista. This association was headed by rich and influential local landowners and lobbied against the fumes caused by the extraction of copper and its serious impact on local agriculture. The group was led by José María Ordóñez Rincón, an important landowner from Higuera de la Sierra and a provincial representative in Parliament. It also had great support from highly influential people such as José Lorenzo Serrano, who was Ordóñez Rincón’s father-in-law and known as the ‘Great Overlord of Zalamea’ (Ferrero Blanco, op. cit. (note 5)); Zalamea being the main municipality in the region where the mines of Riotinto were located.

18. Granjel L.S., Historia de la Real Academia Nacional de Medicina (Madrid: RANM (Real Academia Nacional de Medicina), 2006).

19. de la Puerta G., Informe Sección de Higiene de 28 de Noviembre de 1889 [Sobre las calcinaciones de la compañia minera de Riotinto], Biblioteca Real Academia Nacional de Medicina.

20. Iglesias M., Carretero M. and Pulido A., Informe de la Comisión referente a las minas de Riotinto del 17 de Enero de 1890 [Sobre las calcinaciones de la compañia minera de Riotinto], Biblioteca Real Academia Nacional de Medicina.

21. Fernández Pulido, Las calcinaciones de Huelva, op. cit. (note 15).

22. Cebada Pérez, op. cit. (note 5).

23. Faget D., ‘Stratégies de communication et émergence de nouvelles expertises: les pollutions industrielles de l’usine marseillaise Rio Tinto à l’Estaque (1882–1914)’, in Centemeri L. and Daumalin X. (eds), Pollutions industrielles et espaces méditerranéens (XVIIIe–XXIe siècle) (Aix-en-Provence: Karthala-MMSH, 2015).

24. Sincholle B., Protestation contre l’établissement Saint-Denis d’une usine pour la production du cuivre et de l’acide sulfurique (Paris: Chaix, 1883) and Pérez Cebada, op. cit. (note 5).

25. Arenas Posadas, op. cit. (note 5).

26. Historians such as Edmund Newell have been most prolific in dealing with the environmental impact of copper metallurgy in South Wales.

27. Newell E. and Watts S., ‘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.

28. Arenas Posadas (op. cit. (note 5)) refers to two special agents from the Rio Tinto Co. who were mainly involved in locating and hiring specialists from Wales, Cornwall and Devon: Thomas Angove (working from 1875 to 1884) and Moses Bawden (working from 1884 to 1906).

29. Fernández-Caro A., Informe acerca de las calcinaciones de minerales de cobre de Junio de 1890 [Sobre las calcinaciones de la compañía minera de Riotinto], Biblioteca Real Academia Nacional de Medicina.

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

31. In his study of smelting technologies in Montana, Fredric Quivik identified the existence of interdisciplinary committees dealing with smoke-related issues. These committees option to solve the problem of of the existence of such committees in Riotinto for the period considered in this paper. See Fredric L. Quivik, ‘Smoke and Tailings: An Environmental History of Copper Smelting Technologies in Montana, 1880–1930’ (unpublished PhD dissertation: University of Pennsylvania, 1998).

32. Cortázar, op. cit. (note 6).

33. de Argenta Martín and Pacheco Martínez, op. cit. (note 15); Rodríguez Pinilla, op. cit. (note 13).

34. Exposición a s.m la reina regente, op. cit. (note 16).

35. Exposiciones al Gobierno de S. M. sobre los daños que ocasionan a la salud pública y a la Agricultura los humos de las calcinaciones de los minerales cobrizos (Huelva: Mendoza, 1878).

36. I have only found a short note on the inapplicability of British legislation on smoke to the teleras fumes. It was included in the report by Martín de Argenta and Martínez Pacheco. However, the text refers to legislation in a very unspecific way, without substantial proof and in contrast to numerous quotations from contemporary authors that stressed the illegal character of the method within British law.

37. The historian Edmund Newell, among others, has dealt with the alternative methods applied by Vivian and Sons and other British smelters since the beginning of the 19th century.

38. Cebada Pérez, op. cit. (note 5).

39. Exposición a s.m la reina regente, op. cit. (note 16), 5–6.

40. Some historians have also identified several initiatives that had been put forward by the directors of the Riotinto Company. The managers sought to evaluate the implementation of alternative methods to that of the teleras. These initiatives would have taken place in 1878, but did not prove successful. Therefore, they did not lead to any relevant change in the metallurgical works in Riotinto: see P. Garrido Camacho and J.D. Pérez Cebada ‘La primera campaña mediática sobre contaminación en España’, in P.E. Guimares and J.D. Pérez Cebada (eds), Conflitos Ambientais na Indústria Mineira e Metalúrgica: O passado e o presente (Rio de Janeiro: CETEM/MCTIC, 2016), 269–290.

41. Checkland, op. cit. (note 4).

42. Fernández Pulido, Las calcinaciones de Huelva, op. cit. (note 15); Martín de Argenta and Martínez Pacheco, op. cit. (note 15).

43. Proctor R. N., ‘Agnotology: a missing term to describe the cultural production of ignorance (and its study)’, in R.N. Proctor and L. Schiebinger (eds), Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), 1–33.

44. de la Puerta G., Informe Sección de Higiene de 28 de Noviembre de 1889 [Sobre las calcinaciones de la compañia minera de Riotinto], Biblioteca Real Academia Nacional de Medicina.

45. Iglesias M. and de la Villa S., Voto particular de los Sres. Iglesias y Villa en el expediente de las calcinaciones de Riotinto [Sobre las calcinaciones de la compañia minera de Riotinto], Biblioteca Real Academia Nacional de Medicina.

46. The approach of experts was simplified in various ways. For instance, they only focused on air quality because the request by the government was clearly centred on air. However, we must note that previous inquiries had considered both air and water pollution. Dismissing the impact on rivers could also be interpreted as constructing ignorance.

47. Fernández Pulido, Más sobre las calcinaciones de Huelva, op. cit. (note 15).

48. This additional approach to the construction of ignorance has already been tackled by other scholars in analysing environmental controversies. See, e.g., S. Frickel and M. Edwards, ‘Untangling ignorance in environmental risk assessment’, in S. Boudia and N. Jas (eds), Powerless Science? Science and Politics in a Toxic World (New York: Berghahn, 2014), 215–33.

49. See, e.g., J. Whorton, The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) and J. Parascandola, King of Poisons: The History of Arsenic (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2013).

50. Harkins W.D. and Swain R.E., ‘Papers on Smelter Smoke: [First Paper] The Determination of Arsenic and Other Solid Constituents of Smelter Smoke, with a Study of the Effects of High Stacks and Large Condensing Flues’, The Journal of the American Chemical Society, 29 (1907), 970–98; and W.D. Harkins and R.E. Swain, ‘Papers on Smelter Smoke: [Second Paper] Arsenic in Vegetation Exposed to Smelter Smoke’, The Journal of the American Chemical Society, 30 (1908), 915–46.

51. See Exposición a s.m la reina regente, op. cit. (note 16), and Coto et al., op. cit. (note 16).

52. In an acidic medium, chloride could transform into hydrochloric acid.

53. Menéndez-Navarro A. and Rodríguez-Ocaña E., ‘From “accident medicine” to “factory medicine”: Spanish occupational medicine in the twentieth century’, in A. Grieco; T. Carter and S. Iavicoli (eds), Origins of Occupational Health Associations in the World (Amsterdam: Elsevier Science, 2003); E. Rodríguez-Ocaña and A. Menéndez-Navarro, ‘Salud, trabajo y medicina en la España de la legislación social, 1900–1939’, Archivos de Prevención de Riesgos Laborales, 9 (2006), 81–88.

54. Sellers C. and Melling J., Dangerous Trade: Histories of Industrial Hazard Across a Globalizing World (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2012).

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

56. Dust and health in mining have been central issues in numerous publications by authors such as Paul-André Rosental, Catherine Mills, Joseph Melling, David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz.

57. Hirt was a German physician, a specialist in occupational health, who refers, in one of his main books, to the physiological consequences of different well-defined doses. For more information, see, e.g., C. Bury, ‘ “Die Krankheiten der Arbeiter” (1871–1878) von Ludwig Hirt: Kritische Bemerkungen zur ersten Enzyklopädie der modernen Arbeitsmedizin in Deutschland’ Dynamis5 (1985), 404–416.

58. Napias H., Manuel d’Hygiène Industrielle (Paris: G. Masson, 1882).

59. Ibid., p. 108.

60. Coto et al., op. cit. (note 16).

61. Iglesias M., Carretero M. and Pulido A., Informe de la Comisión referente a las minas de Riotinto del 17 de Enero de 1890 [Sobre las calcinaciones de la compañia minera de Riotinto], Biblioteca Real Academia Nacional de Medicina.

62. Fernández-Caro A., Informe acerca de las calcinaciones de minerals de cobre de Junio de 1890 [Sobre las calcinaciones de la compañia minera de Riotinto], Biblioteca Real Academia Nacional de Medicina.

63. Collins and Evans, op. cit. (note 30).

64. Le Play F., Description des procédés métallurgiques employés dans le pays de Galles pour la fabrication du cuivre et recherches sur l’état actuel et sur l’avenir probable de la production et du commerce de ce métal (Paris: Carilian-Goeury et Dalmont, 1848).

65. Percy J., Metallurgy: The Art of Extracting Metals from the Ores, and Adapting them to Various Purposes of Manufacture (London: J. Murray, 1861).

66. Reed P., Acid Rain and the Rise of the Environmental Chemist in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Life and Works of Robert Angus Smith (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).

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

68. Arenas Posadas has also referred to this issue on several occasions, noting that ‘Riotinto era un trozo de España donde la ley, las convenciones sociales y las instituciones estaban controladas y puestas al servicio de la Compañia británica’ [Riotinto was a part of Spain in which the law, social standards and institutions were controlled by the British Company] (Arenas Posadas, op. cit. (note 5), 209).

69. Coto et al., op. cit. (note 16).

70. The mantawould appear in calm and cold days with high humidity and, although not noted in contemporary reports, probably with high atmospheric pressures.

71. On the hazards of the manta, different nuances can be found in specific reports. For instance, the special commission of the Academy stated in its report of 17 January 1890 that the risk of the mantawas more ‘illusory than real’. Nevertheless, there was general consensus among other reports on the special interest that this atmospheric phenomenon had in establishing the real impact of fumes.

72. Today we know that, under specific atmospheric conditions, the concentration of sulphur dioxide could be higher than that found at the emission point.

73. Fernández-Caro A., Informe acerca de las calcinaciones de minerals de cobre de Junio de 1890 [Sobre las calcinaciones de la compañia minera de Riotinto], Biblioteca Real Academia Nacional de Medicina.

74. Dictamen del Consejo Supremo de Sanidad del Reino, op. cit. (note 10).

75. M. Iglesias and S. de la Villa, Voto particular de los Sres. Iglesias y Villa en el expediente de las calcinaciones de Riotinto [Sobre las calcinaciones de la compañia minera de Riotinto], Biblioteca Real Academia Nacional de Medicina.

76. Sellers C., ‘Occupation, Environment and health: a history of changing perceptions and priorities’, in P.D. Blanc and B. Dolan (eds), At Work in the World: Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on the History of Occupational and Environmental Health (San Francisco, CA: University of California Medical Humanities Press, 2012).

77. López-Morell M.A., ‘Los Rothschild en Río Tinto: Propiedad y control en el gigante minero’, in A. Galán García (ed.), La presencia “inglesa” en Huelva: Entre la seducción y el abandono (Malaga: Universidad Internacional de Andalucía, 2011).

78. Ibid.

79. The arrival of the Rothschild family was also important in implementing a progressive change in the corporate culture of the Rio Tinto Company. We mentioned that the company was, from its outset, not very innovative and basically dependent on the market know-how of the head office in London. The Rothschilds had a more positive attitude towards technical innovation, which consequently reduced dependence on old techniques such as the telerasmethod. Arguably, that did not happen until the mid-1890s, when Heinrich Doetsch, the main director on site, was sacked for imposing his odd and ruinous methods.

80. Jasanoff S., ‘EPA’s Regulation of Daminozide: Unscrambling the Messages of Risk’, Science, Technology, & Human Values, 12 (1987), 116124.

81. Coto et al., op. cit. (note 16).

82. Fernández Pulido, Las calcinaciones de Huelva, op. cit. (note 15).

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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