Climate, Change, & Epidemics: An Applied History Exercise for our Modern Times

Danelle M. Brown
Mnemosyne’s Musings
13 min readApr 12


Artwork. Details below in caption.
Etching Detail: (1832) A woman extravagantly equipped to deal with the cholera epidemic of 1832; representing the abundance of dubious advice on how to combat cholera. By Moritz Gottlieb Saphir [Wellcome Collection]

While exploring the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM)’s library collection in 2022, I happened upon two standout works — one from the year 1806 and another from 1896. Both touched upon the subjects of “climate,” “change,” AND “public health.”

Only within the last several years has 19th century climate science history been brought to the forefront of the contemporary awareness. Yet, the earliest focus point tends to begin in the mid-to-late century.

Regarding histories of 19th century public health, such narratives have been had more frequently, especially during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consider how media outlets, historians, and journalists resurrected visual and textual narratives of the flu pandemic of 1918, as the world tried to make sense of 2020.

Historical photograph detail, from Library of Congress: Captured during the Flu pandemic of 1918 (Street Cart Conductor and a city trvaeller wearing a mask)
Historical photograph detail, from Library of Congress: Captured during the Flu pandemic of 1918

However, there has not been much nuanced explorations between both histories—climate science AND public health—revisited under the lens of modern deliberation, in an integrated manner.

After reading through both the 1806 and 1896 works—in between my work as a self-employed creative, sustainability consultant, TRUE advisor, and independent scholar—I began to conduct an “Applied History” exercise, which I recently presented at NYAM’s Annual History of Medicine Night: Part 1, on March 28th, 2023.

This article presents elements from that presentation, an applied history exercise entitled “Climate, Change, & Epidemics.”

For context, “mainstream history” starts in the past, providing an account of the “WHAT,” “HOWs,” and “WHYs”, for that identified point in time, whereas “applied history” starts with a current challenge or choice to initiate an historical analysis and gain perspective and insights, to better inform potential trajectories related to said current scenario.

The Start of an Applied History Exercise

For this exercise, the complicated dynamics between the climate crisis and public health is the current challenge — a starting point — from which this historical investigation begins.

Regarding “climate,” think average weather over a period of time, per the definition provided by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The unit of time in which average weather patterns are measured can range from months to years, although 30-years is the modern classical timeframe used to average variability, per the World Meteorological Organization (est. 1950).

“Climate change,” is an identifiable change in the state of the climate. In our case, caused by persistent human made changes that continue to affect the composition of Earth’s atmosphere and land.

The chart below, released on March 20, 2023, by the IPCC in the A6 Synthesis Report, observes 19th and 20th century data sets, projecting onward from 2021, glaring the change in global surface temperature, if we don’t act now!

Figure SPM.1 “C” from the IPPC’s “AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023:” Details below in caption.
Figure SPM.1 “C” from the IPPC’s “AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023:”
(c) Observed (1900–2020) and projected (2021–2100) changes in global surface temperature (relative to 1850–1900), which are linked to changes in climate conditions and impacts, illustrate how the climate has already changed and will change along the lifespan of three representative generations (born in 1950, 1980 and 2020). Future projections (2021–2100) of changes in global surface temperature are shown for very low (SSP1–1.9), low (SSP1–2.6), intermediate (SSP2–4.5), high (SSP3–7.0) and very high (SSP5–8.5) GHG emissions scenarios. Changes in annual global surface temperatures are presented as ‘climate stripes’, with future projections showing the human-caused long-term trends and continuing modulation by natural variability (represented here using observed levels of past natural variability). Colours on the generational icons correspond to the global surface temperature stripes for each year, with segments on future icons differentiating possible future experiences. {2.1, 2.1.2, Figure 2.1, Table 2.1, Figure 2.3, Cross-Section Box.2, 3.1, Figure 3.3, 4.1, 4.3} (Box SPM.1)

Where this chart begins, my applied history exercise concludes, spanning the 19th century.

Chart. Details in caption and body text immediately below.
A timeline indicating some works and events that have been consulted in this applied history exercise.

On the above timeline, I mapped some pivotal milestones that pertain to the history of climate science, represented as green circles, and the history of public health, sanitation and waste, represented as orange circles. Indicated by blue circles are the two standout works mentioned at the beginning of this piece, that I came across in NYAM’s collection, which I categorize as hybrids of both—climate science, plus public health, sanitation and/or waste.

I’ll refer to the first work as, The Climate of Great Britain (1806), by John Williams Esq., given its long title: The Climate of Great Britain: Or Remarks on the Change it Has Undergone, Particularly Within the Last Fifty Years — Accounting for the Increasing Humidity and Consequent Cloudiness and Coldness of Our Springs and Summers, with the Effects such Ungenial Seasons Have Produced Upon the Vegetable And Animal Economy.

Details from NYAM’s copy of The Climate of Great Britain (1806), by John Williams Esq.

Regarding the author, Williams’ background is not clear. I have gathered he was a lawyer/scholar, affiliated with Merton College, focused on trade and commercial law. Yet, The Climate of Great Britain is rooted in science — experiments, observations, histories, and hypotheses, differing from his law-based works.

It’s evident he was well read. Yet, it appears Williams was an amateur meteorologist, before it was established as a profession.

“…in the course of this humble attempt to draw the attention of Physiologists to the study of Meteorology, that the changes effected on the surface of the Earth by the improvements in Agriculture, have hitherto produced only an accidental influence on the weather…”

John Williams, Esq., (1806). The Climate of Britain…, p. 358

In third person, the humble author prefaced: “His Aim is Truth…his only Wish the furtherance of Science…” The author continued, “he covets no Praise…fears no Blame…if, after a fair and mature investigation, it appears not to be substantially founded, in the view of candid and scientific men…”

A fore-page is included in the work, “To Sir John Sinclair Bart, President of the Board of Agriculture.” continuing, whose “high and distinguished rank amongst Men of Science,” especially “those who have dedicated their Science to the Benefit of their Country.”

Whether Williams knew Sir Sinclair, or if this work is an early example of public activism of sorts, is unclear. Sir Sinclair’s name only appears on the one page.

Throughout the 358-pages, readers occasionally are met with some of Williams’ climate-based hypotheses like:

“The quantity of free thermometrical heat given out in the processes of combustion and animal respiration…may have some influence on the atmosphere and cause an increase of temperature in winter.”

John Williams, Esq., (1806). The Climate of Britain…, p. 3

He also noted that around 1770 or 1775, roughly 30-years prior his publication, other weather observers became aware of a change.

Recall, the first industrial revolution — the dawn of the fossil fuel and modern iron age era — began around 1760 in Great Britain, overlapping with such held observations.

The Cast Iron Bridge near Coalbrookdale, by William Williams, 1781. This painting portrays the first large scale use of cast iron for structural purposes.

Though Williams’ book, emphasizes meteorology, and the “Vegetable and Animal Economy,” narratives on physiology, and subjects of disease and epidemics, appear throughout, in the context of animals, plants, and humans. Williams aimed to show how such “Arts and Sciences” are “intimately connected with the prevention of Disease, and the preservation of Life.”

Never formally trained as a student of medicine, he displays familiarity with some ancient medical texts and figures. Although he does not name many, Willams singled-out and gave particular reverence to Hygeia/ Hygieia— goddess of health, cleanliness, and sanitation — from whom the word “hygiene” is derived.

Two artworks. Details below in caption.
(1) Hygieia stands before a pyramid engraved with the names of famous figures in the history of medicine.
Etching by B. Hübner, 1777 [Wellcome Collection]; (2) Hygieia, goddess of health, in a scientific cabinet. Coloured pen and ink drawing by O. Cramer, 1837 [Wellcome Collection]

“Never having studied medicine as a science, I will not presume to think I can offer the votaries of Hygeia any thing new; but only recapitulate the observations of more able physiologists, with regard to the effects of heat and cold, dryness and moisture, on the human body…”

John Williams, Esq., (1806). The Climate of Britain…, p. 169

Leaving the early 1800s, on this applied history exercise and entering into the 1830s, seen is growing awareness that good hygiene and sanitation are crucial to combat epidemics and infectious diseases. However, infrastructure and programs were not yet established to address such dynamics.

(1) A woman extravagantly equipped to deal with the cholera epidemic of 1832; representing the abundance of dubious advice on how to combat cholera. By Moritz Gottlieb Saphir, 1832 [Wellcome Collection]; (2) King’s Cross, London: the Great Dust-Heap, next to Battle Bridge and the Smallpox Hospital. Watercolour painting
by E. H. Dixon, 1837 [Wellcome Collection]

By 1838, lawyer turned social reformer, Edwin Chadwick saw that change was needed, especially for the laboring poor. So, he led a team of commissioners and in 1842, published the “Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain.”

Details from “Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain,” (1842)

Meanwhile, in 1847, a group of physicians gathered in New York City to advance the art and science of medicine, and promote public health and medical education. And so, NYAM was established. Its foundation eventually led to the first sanitation and public health departments in the United States.

Supporting timeline graphics for the paragraph below

A year later, back on the other side of the pond, Chadwick’s efforts paid off. The Public Health Act was passed, in effect till 1894, establishing local boards of health in towns and popular places in England and Wales, to improve sanitary conditions, excluding London. Following, at the midcentury point, The Epidemiological Society of London was established, in response to a cholera epidemic of 1849.

Below is a detail from a top NYAM’s entrance, depicting on the right: Asclepius — god of medicine and said father of Hygieia, on the left, per the ancient Greek texts.

Tympanum detail
Tympanum detail at the facade entrance of NYAM’s (est. 1847) second and current building, which was built in 1926.

As the sanitary sciences gained prominence, the establishment of The Sanitary Institute of Great Britain came to be in 1876; innovations in chemistry and microbiology, such as Louis Pasture’s 1877 work on chicken cholera and anthrax effecting cattle; and as alluded to earlier, in 1881 the New York City Department of Street Cleaning — later named the Department of Sanitation in 1929—was established.

Supporting timeline graphics for the paragraph below

Of particular note, in the late 1880s early 1890s, the climate sciences had a fascinating, yet short-lived moment, serving as a conduit for an interdisciplinary science community.

Supporting timeline graphics for the paragraph above and below

This is exemplified by the monthly journal, The Climatologist, which existed from 1891 till 1892. It was devoted to the study of “Climatology, Mineral Springs, Diet, Preventive Medicine, Race, Occupation, Life Insurance, and Sanitary Science.”

Two months after its premier, Thomas George Hodgkins—not to be confused with the physician, Thomas Hodgkin, who Hodgkin’s Disease is named after—donated a large sum to the Smithsonian Institute in DC, with a directive to increase and diffuse knowledge regarding connections between the atmosphere and “welfare of man,” whether in connection with “hygiene,” “biological,” or “physical” knowledge.

Supporting graphics. See details below
(1) Thomas George Hodgkins, Esq. (1803–1892), not Thomas Hodgkin (1798–1866), as the donor of mention, to the Smithsonian Institution; (2) Page from the April 27, 1893 issue of Nature, speaking about the Hodgkins Fund.

And so, we arrive to 1896, when The Atmosphere in Relation to Human Life and Health, by Francis Albert Rollo Russell was published.

Russell was an English Meteorologist, a Vice President of the Royal Meteorological Society, Fellow of the Sanitary Institute of Great Britain, Member of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, and a writer.

(1) Title page of The Atmosphere in Relation to Human Life and Health, by Francis Albert Rollo Russell (1896); (2) Photo of Francis Albert Rollo Russell

The work was a submission to The Hodgkins Fund prize, and was awarded honorable mention and a silver medal.

“The influence of climate upon health and upon national character has never been very fully studied and is worthy of the attention of Government and of science. The effect of change of climate has already been touched upon in another part of this essay.”

Francis Albert Rollo Russell, (1896). The Atmosphere in Relation to Human Life and Health, p.86

Prior to the Fund, Russell did author other health-related works such as National Strategy Against Infection (1888) and a work on The Spread of Influenza (1891). Yet, he had no formal medical training.

Russell’s most famed work is London Fogs, a pamphlet published in 1880 that went on to inspire several aristocratic and upper middle-class groups to advocate for cleaner gas heating, as oppose to coal.

Comparatively, as can be inferred by the title, The Atmosphere in Relation to Human Life and Health dives deeper into health-based narratives, whereas London Fogs does so only subtly, leaning towards meteorology.

“The chief sources of carbonic dioxide in the air are the respiration of animals and the burning of fuel.”

Francis Albert Rollo Russell, (1896). The Atmosphere in Relation to Human Life and Health, p.11

The Atmosphere in Relation to Human Life and Health does cover such narratives as well, even containing some references to John Tyndall, whom contemporary cultural memory assumes to be the father of climate science. Although, Russell does not mention American scientist and women’s right activist, Eunice Newton Foote, whose 1856 work precedes Tyndall’s. Then again, Tyndall did not mention her either, which is a subject of debate.

Supporting graphics. See text details in description.
Considerations of relationships between the works of Eunice Newton Foote, John Tyndall, and Francis Albert Rollo Russell

The only woman Russell mentions in his 1896 work is one of two people he highlights as prominent individuals in the sanitary sciences. However, this point is not so obvious if unfamiliar with a history of nursing.

He merely regards her as, “a distinguished lady.” Yet, based upon the surrounding text, we can infer he means Florence Nightingale — mother of modern nursing, social reformer, and statistician.

Supporting artwork. See details in caption.
Detail “Diagram on the causes of mortality in the army in the East,” by Florence Nightingale published in Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency, and Hospital Administration of the British Army (1858)

It was shown many years ago by a distinguished lady and has now to some extent been long recognized by military and civil authorities in India, that a very large part of the excessive British mortality in India was owing in the first place to removable insanitary conditions, and in the second place, to faulty diet and personal habits.

Francis Albert Rollo Russell, (1896). The Atmosphere in Relation to Human Life and Health, p.80

During the late 19th century era of gendered politics, many referred to Miss Nightingale as “The Lady.” Below is a detail from a painting that depicts her entitled, “The Lady with the Lamp,” 1891.

(Perhaps she was merely referred to as “The Lady, “ for Miss Nightingale declined several marriage proposals, maintaining her maiden last name throughout her life, a contribution to society.)

Supporting artwork. See details in caption.
(1) Detail from The Lady with the Lamp by Henrietta Rae, 1891; (2) Engineering: a steam-driven pump in use on a building site in Spring Gardens, Charing Cross. Coloured lithograph by Maclure and Macdonald, 1879 [Wellcome Collection]

The second prominent figure Russell mentions, and cites, is “Mr. Chadwick, the great sanitary reformer.”

Supporting artwork. See details in caption.
Map detail from “Report on the Sanitary Conditions for the Poor,” by Sir Edwin Chadwick (1842)

Recall, Sir Chadwick was behind the 1842 “Report on the Sanitary Conditions for the Poor,” and the Public Health Act of 1848.

Sir Chadwick and Miss Nightingale were allies, and Russell’s contemporaries. However, it does not appear Russell knew either personally, in their late age. It’s clear he had admiration for them.

In addition to the sanitary sciences, Russell also roamed in the building sciences as well. For instance, considering how bacterias and small organisms circulated in buildings and public spaces, if not well ventilated.

In Russell’s 1892, Epidemics, Plagues and fevers, we gather he was familiar with the work of Louis Pasteur, given a Pasteur quote starts the book. Russell’s independent studies on things such as germ theory and how diseases spread, further complimented his foundational knowledge in the area of meteorology. The diseases he surveyed for the Prize entry, represents only some of Russell’s studies.

Supporting artwork. See details in caption.
(1) Page detail from London Fogs (1880); (2) Table of Contents details from The Atmosphere in Relation to Human Life and Health (1896) — both by Francis Albert Rollo Russell

The Smithsonian of Washington DC’s Hodgkins Fund appears to have been an opportunity for Russell to compile various subjects he wrote upon prior — for different audiences — into a single body of work. This enabled him to illuminate for a wider audience, the interconnectivity of the various arts and sciences discussed. Such an approach was inline with the newly-formed, yet short-lived, spirit of the interdisciplinary scientific community mentioned earlier, galvanized by the climate sciences during the late 1890s.

The Atmosphere in Relation to Human Life and Health is not a mere “copy” and “paste” work. Russell created and offered nuance. It contains new elements, original subject matter, and ideas. For instance, he noted an idea for “a system of international warnings of the prevalence” of epidemics, written 50-years before the establishment of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and 52-years before the World Health Organization was established.

“ …The possibility of a system of international warnings of the prevalence of the epidemic; at any centers and of forecasts of seasons or types of weather in connection with its probable spread.”

Francis Albert Rollo Russell, (1896). The Atmosphere in Relation to Human Life and Health, p.130

Back to our “current” timeline…The 21st Century

General consensus is here. Climate change poses a great threat to human health — the public.

In response to a 2021 US Executive Order, the Climate and Health Strategic Framework was created by the CDC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Chart, “ Impact of Climate Change on Human Health,” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

However, as historical analysis begins to render — as a collective — we must not lose site of the role that sanitation, hygiene, AND waste, play upon the health of individuals/the public and Earth. We must not let such a correlation remain a blind spot.

To conclude, I invite you to continue engaging in historical reflections, as we face and move through our current complex challenge, of now and ahead.

As history’s unsung songs often remind us, some just re-sung again in this applied history exercise — from different genres — innovation, solutions, and ideas exist and can be created in various places—in and beyond silos.

A daily dose of inclusion, curiosity, and camaraderie, could do our global body good, and help ward off many things, like climate change and epidemics.

Supporting graphic. See details in caption.
(This piece is an adaptation from a presentation given at the Annual History of Medicine Night for the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) on March 28, 2003. Video of the presentation can be viewed here. However, note, I encountered audio difficulty within the first minute of the presentation. Bear through that disruption. Audio clears up at minute 24:00 YouTube)

The primary works referenced in this article can be read for free online via Hathitrust:

Russell, F. Albert Rollo. (1896). The atmosphere in relation to human life and health. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. (Hathitrust Record:

Williams, John Esq. (1806). The climate of Great Britain: or remarks on the change it has undergone, particularly within the last fifty years. Accounting for the increasing humidity and consequent cloudiness and coldness of our springs and summers, with the effects such ungenial seasons have produced upon the vegetable and animal economy. London: C. and R. Baldwin. (Hathitrust Record:



Danelle M. Brown
Mnemosyne’s Musings

Creator | Dot Connector | Historian | Problem Solver | Sustainability Consultant