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The Doctor as Weatherman: Medical Topography in Nineteenth-Century New Jersey

Sandra Moss


Intellectually active nineteenth-century New Jersey physicians participated in a national (and international) research endeavor known as medical meteorology, medical topography, or medical climatology. Close personal observation of weather and topography was a scientific endeavor that made New Jersey practitioners, often isolated in rural or town practice, feel part of a new scientific spirit in medicine. Investigations of climate and soil conditions helped organize and explain, however imperfectly, the confusing array of fevers and epidemics that constituted much of daily practice. Physicians communicated their local weather and soil conditions to colleagues in county and state medical societies in an attempt to correlate their observations with prevailing local disease patterns. Many were disappointed to find that medical topography often failed to explain or predict local disease outbreaks. For several decades after the Civil War, medical topography resonated in complex ways with mid- and late-nineteenth-century advances in sanitation and germ theory. By the 1880s, routine meteorological observations disappeared from medical journals, eclipsed by the rising hegemony of the laboratory in explaining health and disease. 

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