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Dr. John McNeill Uncovers Global Environmental History

Dr. John McNeill's work investigates the impact of nature throughout history. (Photo: Roland Dimaya)


By LiAnna Davis
After receiving his Ph.D. in history, Dr. John McNeill started his career by working outside of academia, doing research for the Ecosystems Center. His work, on vegetation changes around the world in the last 500 years and their effects on carbon cycling, led to a new emphasis in his academic history research. Dr. McNeill, a professor in the Department of History, is now one of about 1,000 American scholars who are environmental historians.
“Environmental history is the study of the evolving relationship between humanity and the rest of nature,” Dr. McNeill explains. “I came to the conclusion after working with field ecologists for two years that the whole arena of history needs to be understood in a fuller context. Nature and the biosphere need to be taken seriously.”
His research includes a deep analysis into the global environmental impact and ecological repercussions of human history. Dr. McNeill’s work recognizes that ecological circumstances evolve and change, sometimes improving and sometimes deteriorating, but often because of human involvement. A prolific writer and editor with 10 books and a host of journal articles already bearing his name, Dr. McNeill is currently working on writing three books covering a wide range of topics within the umbrella of environmental history.
In his first, Epidemics and Geopolitics in the American Tropics, 1640-1920, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press, Dr. McNeill explores the differential risk in the yellow fever epidemics in the Caribbean. Differential risk is the idea that where a person was born and raised affects whether that person contracts the disease. Dr. McNeill stumbled across information about the Caribbean epidemics that affected the Spanish colonial empire’s military while doing his dissertation research in Seville, Spain, and put it away for a later date. In the book, Dr. McNeill picks this research back up, arguing that yellow fever played a “systematic, political, partisan role” in the history of the region.
“Yellow fever helped keep the Spanish empire Spanish by systematically assaulting invasion forces,” he says. “And in the Haitian Revolution, the impact of yellow fever was to destabilize the region by supporting the revolution against imperialists’ expeditionary forces.”
Dr. McNeill is just starting to research his second project, a global environmental history of the 19th century. He has previously written a similar book on the 20th century, and other colleagues have contributed the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, so he is eager to tell the story of this “neglected” century.
“I’ll be emphasizing the transition from the industrial revolution in core industrial regions of the world like England, eastern North America, and Japan, where new kinds of cities evolved with the industrialization,” Dr. McNeill says. Cities like Manchester, Pittsburgh, and Osaka are known as “shock cities” because of their rapid industrialization based on coal.
The environmental impact of industrialization in the 19th century stretches beyond the cities, however. Dr. McNeill points to the near extinction of bison in the North American plains as another effect of industrialization; the bison hide was used for leather strapping in textile mills. Examples like this epitomize what environmental historians seek to uncover: nontraditional ways of considering the ecological impact of historical events.
The final book Dr. McNeill has in the works, a geopolitical history of fossil fuels, is also in the preliminary stages. He is researching the international political ramifications of fossil fuels during three historical periods: peat in the Netherlands in the 17th century, coal in Great Britain in the 19th century, and oil in the United States in the 20th century.
Dr. McNeill’s work owes much to the connections he has established with other Georgetown faculty. Dr. McNeill, whose primary appointment is with the School of Foreign Service, turns to his Georgetown colleagues for expertise on issues related to his own research. For example, College Biology faculty Dr. Peter Armbruster’s research on mosquitoes (covered in a past issue of Research News) was invaluable for Dr. McNeill’s book on yellow fever, as Dr. Armburster’s insights into mosquito habitats enabled Dr. McNeill to understand how the disease could be transmitted. But the teaching components of his Georgetown career are particularly special.
“The most gratifying part of my work is seeing my students succeed in the world,” he says. “It’s great to see students absorb my criticisms and suggestions, then work hard to improve themselves.” It’s a lesson that has served Dr. McNeill well in his research.
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Student Profile: Vikram Tamboli
"I had an amazing opportunity to travel in the Caribbean and visit numerous archives to look for primary sources."
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Dr. McNeill is also editing two books, one about the environmental history of the Cold War and the other about the connection between environmental history and ecological economics.
Insight: Dr. John McNeill
What historical figure would you most like to meet and why?
Alexander the Great; I'd like to know why he was driven.
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