As an AMS postdoctoral fellow studying the material culture of public health, my goal was to use artefacts to understand the emergence and development of this important aspect of Canadian health history. The project took place at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health (DLSPH) at the University of Toronto. Founded in 2008, the DLSPH united (or, in some cases, reunited) a number of ongoing research projects that had originated during the early period of public health research and teaching in Canada. The new school was established with an inclusive mandate to engage with, and to learn, from communities within Canada and globally.
The notion of defining a public health artefact presents a basic challenge: Public health is a profoundly diverse area of study that draws on a range of professions, from nursing, to epidemiology, to urban design, to data gathering and analysis, to social justice. A vast quantity of artefacts can be plausibly attached to such a broad theme. What could a collection of public health objects look like?
Collections are probably most coherent when they focus on a particular setting. A public health collection could focus on a single institutional context with the purpose of protecting material from the past and by actively collecting objects related to current research. A collection that documents ongoing research can be considered a “living” collection. The process of creating such a collection can be a community-building exercise. I suspect that such a process is particularly important in the context of a school of public health, which brings together such a variety of disciplines. There are hopeful signs that a collections project might come to pass at the DLSPH, though no commitment has been made at this point.
Over the course of this postdoctoral project, I learned about several interesting aspects of local material culture related to public health. I was especially interested to work with a collection related to the history of occupational health. This collection dates to the very early 20th century, when the Gage Institute was established on College Street in Toronto as a centre for the research and treatment of tuberculosis. In the 1970s, with tuberculosis in decline, the Gage shifted its mandate towards other respiratory illnesses, particularly those within the domain of occupational health. It was later combined with a longstanding group within the Faculty of Medicine that was also working in this area.
The collection of air sampling instruments that survives in the Gage Building is a material archive of the progress with the field of occupational health from its earliest stages as an organized discipline in Canada—a fascinating material connection between the cultures of work and university research. The University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection, which I curate, has catalogued a part of this collection. This collection forms the basis for my current research and will be the subject of my next paper. I am very grateful to AMS for the postdoctoral opportunity that led me to this topic.
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