Speaker: Sheila Zurbrigg
A central role for hunger in the historical mortality burden of malaria in colonial South Asia was commonplace in the sanitary records of nineteenth-century British India. Malaria mortality declined markedly with the control of famine after 1920–a decline that predated by more than three decades the control of malaria transmission in the region with the mid-1950s DDT-based malaria eradication program.
This experience thus highlights the significance of shifts in the lethality of common endemic infections in relation to food security as a central feature of the region’s rising life expectancy from pre-modern levels–an understanding and epistemic framework that generally has been lost in modern epidemiologic, nutritional, and historiographic thought.
The question of how this understanding was lost has epistemological implications beyond South Asia. They include the importance of reclaiming conceptual distinctions between acute and chronic hunger and an epidemiological approach to hunger and subsistence precarity in health history.
Sheila Zurbrigg obtained her MD degree from the University of Western Ontario and a Master of Public Health from the University of California, Berkeley. Her interest in rural child health led her to India (1974-79), where she helped develop a primary health program in rural Tamil Nadu, working with the traditional village midwives of Ramnad district; this experience led to an analysis of child survival in contemporary India in relation to food security and conditions of women’s work. Her discovery of S.R. Christophers’s 1911 study, Malaria in the Punjab, linking malaria mortality to the price of staple foodgrains, led her to explore more deeply the historical role of hunger in malaria lethality in South Asia, funded as a private scholar by SSHRC. Between 1993 and 2013 she taught part-time at Dalhousie University in the departments of History and International Development Studies. Her most recent historical monograph investigates the epistemic shifts in modern medical and nutritional thought leading to loss of understanding of the role of acute hunger in the region’s malaria mortality history.