With global exploration, the expansion of trade routes, and the growth of colonialism, early modern and modern Europeans continuously called on the logic of climatic determinism to understand their encounters with new environments and peoples. Tropical regions were a particularly grave concern for medical and lay observers. By the 18th century, it was generally accepted that there were cold climate and hot climate races and that it remained an open question whether Europeans from the former could thrive among the latter. Newcomers to places like India and the Caribbean were considered to be acutely vulnerable to environmental conditions there, and there was talk of the need for a period of “seasoning,” understood to be time for the “tender frames” of Europeans to “acquire by habit a power of resisting noxious causes.”5 During the 18th and 19th centuries, however, doubts grew as to whether the English in India and Australia6 or the Spanish in the Philippines7 possessed constitutions capable of ever resisting the onslaught of diseases indigenous to these comparatively warmer and more humid climes.
From 1850 to 1950, a number of changes began to alter medical and popular thinking on the subject in the Western world. In medicine, the rise of microbiology and germ theory along with recognition of the role played by mosquitoes in disease transmission helped to shift the attributed responsibility for many illnesses from the climate of entire regions to specific, organic sources. In addition, the growth in international tourism transformed the climate of places such as the Caribbean into commodities marketed as healthy and relaxing vacation spots, especially for residents from the North Atlantic world.8
Nevertheless, the Hippocratic tradition of climatic determinism proved resilient enough to survive into the 20th century. French advocates of neo-Hippocratic medicine during the interwar years, for instance, were generally open to accepting germ theories of contagion. But they also held that cosmic, soil, and hygienic factors were also necessary for pathogenic microbes to thrive. The French physician Marius Piery (1873-1957), a leading voice in the neo-Hippocratic movement, even developed the idea for a new a form of field investigation he dubbed “psychoclimatology,” which focused on how meteorological laws affected the nervous system and mind.9
So, interest in the effects of climate on human health, psychological development, and interpersonal relationships is hardly an invention of environmentalists of the late-20th and early-21st centuries. Like so many other focal points in the history of disease and illness, however, treatment of the subject was shaped not only by medical thinking and professionals, but also by political, economic, and cultural values and concerns.
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Climate effects on health. http://www.cdc.gov/climateandhealth/effects. Accessed May 13, 2015.
2. Patterson CB. Herodotus. In: Gagarin M, ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. New York: Oxford University Press; 2010.
3. Hippocrates. On Airs, Waters, and Places. Adams F, trans. http://classics.mit.edu/Hippocrates/airwatpl.1.1.html. Accessed May 13, 2015.
4. Wear A. Place, health, and disease: the airs, waters, places tradition in early modern England and North America. J Mediev Early Mod Stud. 2008;38:443-465.
5. Harrison M. “The tender frame of man”: disease, climate, and racial difference in India and the West Indies, 1760-1860. Bull Hist Med. 1996;70:68-93.
6. Walker D. Climate, civilization, and character in Australia, 1880-1940. Aust Cult Hist. 1997-1998;16:77-95.
7. Reyes RA. Environmentalist thinking and the question of disease causation in late Spanish Philippines. J Hist Med Allied Sci. 2014;69:554-579.
8. Carey M. Inventing Caribbean climates: how science, medicine, and tourism changed tropical weather from deadly to healthy. Osiris. 2011;26:129-141.
9. Osborne MA, Fogarty RS. Medical climatology in France: the persistence of neo-Hippocratic ideas in the first half of the twentieth century. Bull Hist Med. 2012;86:543-563.