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Vanderbilt University historian named Guggenheim Fellow

Jul. 26, 2005, 3:28 PM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. –Vanderbilt University Associate Professor of History Ruth Rogaski is among 186 winners of a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship for her research on the role of the biological sciences in the formation of Asian empires.

In addition, she is the co-winner of this year‘s Berkshire Conference First Book Prize for Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China. The annual prize is for a first book in any field of history written by a woman who is normally a resident in North America.

The fellowship will enable Rogaski to complete her current book project, Cold Utopia: Nature, Science, and Empire in Manchuria: 1700-2000. This project asks how Asians studied the flora and fauna of a contested northern frontier of China – Manchuria – in order to illuminate the role that nature, science and the imagination played in the formation of non-Western regimes.

Of particular interest to Rogaski is the “wild, icy nature” of Manchuria that made it a much bleaker environment for building empires than the tropical climates colonized by the West. Even though many writers have long characterized the West as the conqueror of nature and creator of empires, Rogaski said that many of the world‘s largest empires actually were formed by Asians.

Rogaski is comparing Asian and European understandings about nature before and after the development of institutional modern science. “This project allows close scrutiny of the assumption that `East‘ and `West‘ possess distinct sensibilities about the natural environment,” Rogaski said. The Vanderbilt professor is contrasting Qing modes of understanding Manchuria‘s nature with early modern European approaches to nature.

The prominent historian of modern China said that she began developing a keen interest in the Chinese written language and culture at age 9 when she read the book You Can Read Chinese. This particular research combines her longstanding interest in Chinese history with the history of science and the use of science to illustrate politics.

Rogaski is focusing on the work of scientists and naturalists during five important times in Manchuria‘s recent history, including the Manchu-Chinese-European exploration of Manchuria under the reign of Emperor Kangxi, the establishment of natural history museums by Russian naturalists during late 1800s-early 1900s and the excavation of fossils by Chinese paleontologists in the 20th century.

Rogaski said that she has completed most of the research on the project‘s 20th century episodes: the management of epidemics by Japanese microbiologists during 1930s and ‘40s, and research conducted by Chinese biologists about alleged American use of germ warfare in Manchuria during the Korean War. In 2002 she published “Nature, Annihilation, and Modernity: China‘s Korean War Germ Warfare Experience Revisited” in the Journal of Asian Studies.
Rogaski has been researching the horrifying activities of Japan‘s wartime germ warfare organization, Unit 731, which conducted experiments on thousands of human prisoners and was responsible for dozens of biological weapons attacks against China during World War II. This case, which is politically sensitive for the governments of both China and Japan, is an important episode in the global history of the terrifying ways that humans have manipulated the natural world.

Rogaski, who came to Vanderbilt from Princeton in 2003, will use resources at Harvard and Princeton universities as well as the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., to complete her research. She also plans to travel to northeast Asia to examine natural history museums in Khabarovsk, Vladivostok and Harbin and will photograph several locales to be featured prominently in the book, for which she received a National Science Foundation fellowship in 1999.

“I envision the book and its images as a new approach to the history of science, one that integrates the beauty of the environment with the work of the scientists who explored it,” Rogaski said.

Media contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, (615) 322-NEWS